US President Donald Trump’s eyebrow-raising visit to Europe has confirmed Europeans’ worst fears: if another “Crimea-like” take-over by Russia occurs somewhere on the continent, they will likely be on their own.
Trump had made it abundantly clear that European leaders can no longer rely on the US for its protection. He was not only harshly criticised by his own party for being too conciliatory with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their Helsinki summit, he also lashed out at US allies once more, going so far as to call the European Union a “foe”.
The US may have more than 60,000 troops stationed in Europe, but a recent report stating the Pentagon is assessing the impact of a possible reduction of troop numbers, coupled with Trump’s unpredictability, has made America’s traditional allies nervous.
Indeed, by initiating trade wars and continuously attacking his closest allies, Trump has weakened the entire West.
Another war in Europe remains possible
Despite his reassurances last week that the US still values NATO, Trump’s divisive visit to Europe may embolden Putin in his assessment that occupying more European land may not be met with much military resistance.
Poland is so concerned, it has recently offered to pay the US up to US$2bn to permanently deploy an armoured division on its soil.
The on-going conflict in Ukraine, coupled with Putin’s increased emphasis in recent years on Russia’s “right” and “obligation” to “protect” ethnic Russians and Russian speakers beyond its borders, contribute further to the unease between Moscow in the West. This is particularly being felt in the Baltic states, two of which (Estonia and Latvia) have sizeable Russian minorities.
It certainly doesn’t help when Russia conducts military drills or dispatches warplanes on the borders with the Baltics, giving a real sense that military escalation in this part of Europe is entirely plausible.
Tensions are building in Eastern Europe
The focus of any possible Russian military incursion could be a thin stretch of land between Poland and Lithuania known as the Suwalki Gap (named after the nearby Polish town of Suwałki), which would allow Russia to reinforce its only access to the Baltic Sea through its Kaliningrad exclave and cut the Baltics off from the rest of Europe.
The Suwalki Gap also links Kaliningrad with Belarus, a staunch Russian ally. Moscow regularly organises joint strategic military exercises with Minsk, the most recent being the Zapad (meaning “West” in Russian) war games last September.
Reflecting their concerns about a possible invasion, NATO members held military exercises last June that focused for the first time on defending this 104km strip of land from a possible Russian attack. Then, last month, NATO held the Trojan Footprint 18 joint military exercise in Poland and the Baltics, which was one of its biggest-ever war games in the region.
These military build-ups on NATO’s eastern flank are reminiscent of the Cold War and feed both Russia’s “deep-seated sense of vulnerability vis-à-vis the West” and Europe’s own feelings of insecurity.
Going it alone
But should Russia decide to invade the Suwalki Gap, would Europe go to war over it?
It may not be able to. European military options remain limited as NATO does not have the military means to go to war against Russia without the US. Acutely aware of this, European leaders launched a new regional defence fund last year to develop the continent’s military capabilities outside of NATO.
While a direct Russian invasion of a NATO member would be the worst-case scenario, it’s more likely that Putin would seek to further destabilise the bloc’s eastern flank through a hybrid war involving cyber-attacks, divisive propaganda campaigns and the use of armed proxies like the “little green men” that appeared during the Ukraine conflict.
Even here, though, it’s clear that Europe cannot provide a unified front to counter potential Russian actions. Some countries like Hungary and Italy seek a closer relationship with Russia, while others like the UK are already embroiled in diplomatic conflicts with it.
France and Germany have already announced plans to increase defence spending not because of commitments made to Trump during the latest NATO summit, but out of real concerns that another confrontation with Russia is becoming a real threat.
Trump has weakened the Western alliance at a time when Europe is not ready to step up and ensure its own security. He may have united Europeans around shared fears and their collective response, but he’s also made them more vulnerable.
After a tumultuous 2017 election and six months of political uncertainty, Germany finally has a government. The so-called “grand coalition” made up of the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU), its right-wing sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), will govern Germany for the next four years.
The agreement explains “a new direction for Europe, a new dynamic for Germany, a new cohesion for our country”. It notes two changes in German leadership: a change in the power dynamics among the ruling parties, and a strong emphasis on using the European Union (EU) to achieve German political objectives.
With a weakened CDU under Chancellor Angela Merkel ceding considerable control to the anti-immigration CSU and the socialist SPD, the centre of German political power has shifted. This shift will have a profound impact on German and EU refugee policies.
The issue of refugees is discussed deeply in German society. Since the height of the refugee crisis in 2016, when 722,370 people applied for asylum in Germany, the number of asylum applicants has decreased significantly.
At first, Merkel gained praise for her humanitarian, liberal refugee policy focused on refugee reception and integration. However, growing anti-immigrant sentiment, evident in the rise of groups like Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA), the electoral success of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the difficulties in integrating a large number of refugees all resulted in increasingly protectionist sentiment.
Merkel had pushed for refugee responsibility-sharing across the EU. However, no pan-EU approach drawing on the German example eventuated. Many EU member states refused to honour the major instrument for delegating responsibility for refugees, the Dublin Regulation, or participate in the EU-wide refugee redistribution scheme.
Given Merkel’s weakened position in the coalition, it is not clear that Germany will continue her humanitarian approach.
The government faces two leadership challenges in refugee policy. Firstly, it needs to provide Germany with a feasible refugee policy that is manageable and does not split the coalition. Secondly, it is attempting to lead a different type of coalition – namely, the EU’s 28 member states.
Leadership in Germany: Can Merkel still say ‘wir schaffen das’?
In domestic refugee policy, Germany is fractured. Of the three coalition partners, the anti-immigration CSU is the primary winner in migration and refugee policy. CSU leader and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer is leading dramatic restrictions in refugee policy. Although the SPD negotiated a modest victory with 1,000 family reunification visas per month for refugees, government parties are refusing to do more than this.
Creating a cap on refugee visas was a major point of controversy between the CDU and CSU. The CSU prevailed, with the coalition agreement calling for an annual cap of 180,000-220,000 refugees. However, that cap may not take effect as only 198,317 first-time asylum applications were filed in Germany in 2017. Yet this threshold creates distraction from Merkel’s humanitarian approach as it prioritises immigration control over humanitarian obligation.
This, coupled with the limitations on movement of refugees imposed by centralised processing centres and repatriation centres for failed asylum seekers, demonstrates new constraints in refugee policy. This in turn demonstrates the CDU’s diminishing power and the fracturing of the centre of policy leadership.
Yet there is some good news for refugee integration. The grand coalition still maintains a focus on refugee integration, especially through language acquisition and participation in the labour market.
As Germany struggles with its fractured leadership and seeks consolidation and centralisation of refugee processing procedures, the German approach is becoming increasingly binary: if you are not a refugee, you must leave; if you are a refugee, you must integrate.
Leadership in Europe?
When it comes to the EU, the grand coalition government has four objectives: halt secondary movement of refugees; toughen the EU’s external borders; tackle external push factors; and create a robust mechanism for responsibility-sharing.
The Common European Asylum System aims for common application procedures for refugees and accommodation standards to prevent asylum-shopping across countries. The German government is also renewing calls for a quota-based refugee redistribution and resettlement scheme among EU states.
In calling for increased policing of the EU’s external borders and a common approach to push factors, these mechanisms paint refugee protection as a security issue rather than a humanitarian one.
During the Eurozone crisis, Germany showed strong leadership in EU policy. However, it has failed to persuade other member states to follow its leadership on refugees. Its leadership may further weaken as other states refuse to follow.
Will Germany step up to lead in Europe?
The EU is deeply divided on refugee policy and distracted by other concerns. The United Kingdom is consumed by Brexit negotiations, while many eastern and central European states refuse to participate in EU-level refugee resettlement schemes.
The anti-refugee populist parties have increased influence across Europe. Merkel has few natural allies, if any, in the grand coalition or within the EU on this issue.
Yet Germany regards leadership of the EU as the key to achieving its interests. Merkel is emphatic that “Germany will only do well if Europe is doing well”.
However, Germany is falling in line with more restrictive policies, rather than leading the EU towards a more comprehensive and humanitarian solution to the refugee crisis.
If Germany leads EU policy change, we may well see increased blocking of access to the EU for refugees and policies that emphasise control and expediency over humanitarian values.
Kelly Soderstrom, PhD Candidate in International Relations, University of Melbourne and Philomena Murray, Professor, School of Social and Political Sciences and EU Centre on Shared Complex Challenges, University of Melbourne
Australia’s harsh asylum policies have been touted as a possible solution to Europe’s so-called refugee crisis. Politicians in the UK, France, Holland, Denmark, Austria and Belgium have advocated for an Australian-style approach aimed at blocking asylum seekers from accessing Europe. But there are a few reasons Europe should be wary of following this lead.
Australia’s practice of turning back boats and offshore processing have attracted the most interest. When Australia can’t safely turn back a boat, it transfers the asylum seekers on board to a third country (Nauru and, until recently, Papua New Guinea), where their asylum claims are assessed. Refugees are warehoused at these locations with no prospect of settling in Australia.
While turn-backs and offshore processing have been described as the “Australian model”, these policies have their origins in the United States. The US government has intercepted and returned migrant boats at sea since 1981, and has used Guantanamo Bay in Cuba as an offshore processing centre for asylum seekers since 1991. Australia directly drew on the US example when developing its current border control policies. Now Europe is following Australia.
There have been many proposals in recent years for establishing offshore processing camps in countries neighbouring the EU. Suggested locations have included Albania, Ukraine, Morocco and other North African countries.
There’s also a recent push to set up camps further afield in transit countries such as Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Chad and Sudan. While none of these initiatives has been implemented, the EU-Turkey deal in force since 2016, can be viewed as a form of offshore processing.
Under the deal, Turkey accepts the return of certain asylum seekers from Greece. For every asylum seeker sent back, the EU resettles one Syrian refugee processed by UNHCR in Turkey. The plan is reminiscent of the failed Malaysian Solution under which Malaysia was to accept 800 asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat, in return for Australia resettling 4,000 UNHCR-recognised refugees from camps in Malaysia. The arrangement was struck down by the Australian High Court before it could be implemented.
To get around this ruling, there have been attempts to outsource the responsibility for stopping boats to Europe’s neighbours. This includes funding the Libyan coastguard to intercept migrant boats before they leave Libyan waters.
Risks of the ‘Australian model’
Europe should carefully consider the risks of going down the Australian path. As the decision of the European Court of Human Rights on turn-backs demonstrates, Europe has much stronger human rights protections than Australia.
The checks and balances that exist in Europe may frustrate attempts to move further towards the Australian model.
And the dark side of Australia’s border control policies is well-documented. They have inflicted devastating physical and psychological damage on asylum seekers, and created endemic social problems in the communities of Nauru and Manus Island which have hosted Australia’s offshore camps.
Australia’s asylum policies have been repeatedly condemned by the UN as violating international law. If European countries were to follow suit, it would greatly undermine international refugee protection.
The risk is that we will see a race to the bottom, as countries compete to deter asylum seekers. This competitive approach creates a vicious cycle in which governments seek to outdo each other by implementing progressively more restrictive policies.
When devising asylum policies, governments weigh up their competitiveness in deterring unwanted immigration against the value of abiding by their obligations under international law. As more states opt for deterrence over protection, this places pressure on other states to do the same. This scenario has – and will continue to have – a devastating impact on the ability of those in danger to reach safety.
The protections set out in the Refugee Convention and other human rights treaties are only words. Their effectiveness in the real world is shaped by the actions of states. Implementing international law requires leadership – it needs states to lead by example to persuade other states to protect refugees.
This role has traditionally been carried out by wealthy liberal democracies, which have had the resources and legitimacy required for the task. The harsh policies introduced in the US and Australia mean these nations now lack the credibility to take on this leadership role. All eyes are now on European states.
If Europe goes down the same path as the US and Australia, it will be inflicting a mortal wound on the universal principle of asylum and the international refugee protection regime more broadly.
This article canvasses issues as published in Daniel’s new book, Refuge Lost: Asylum Law in an Interdependent World.
What goes on in the mind of a suicide bomber? What motivates someone to spend their last day on the planet blowing up complete strangers? Bad enough, perhaps, if the strangers in question are soldiers, police, or other representatives of the state. But holidaymakers and commuters?
It takes a special sort of alienation, radicalisation and dehumanisation to think that the people standing next to you in the check-in queue merit being randomly dismembered.
One assumes that the growing number of people who volunteer for these sorts of missions are confident that they are off to paradise. Given that they won’t live to see the results of their zealotry, the logic must be in some way transcendental, and not one available to rational scrutiny or dissuasion by the rest of us.
Either way, if paradise is going to be full of ex-jihadists I’m rather glad I’m not going.
In the meantime, back on earth, the effectiveness of this suicidal strategy is all too clear and painful, especially for those directly affected. Even for the rest of us, the net result is to add yet another level of depressing tedium to our day-to-day existence, as security is increased to ever-higher levels.
No doubt we ought to be grateful to have the opportunity to travel around Europe or spend a long lunch enjoying a bit of intellectual chit-chat in a Parisian café, as I did today. I am – very.
This is, as they say, just about as good as it gets. And that is rather the point of the attacks on the symbolic heartland of Europe as a civilisation and – in today’s case – as an institution.
The freedom of association, expression and thought that is such a distinctive feature of European intellectual and social life is clearly resented by an alarmingly large group of people. Such hitherto taken for granted freedoms are directly threatened by the randomness of terrorism. Last week, for example, I had to queue to have my passport checked on re-entering France – despite arriving from another Schengen area country.
Yes, I realise this is an especially privileged sort of problem and one that evokes little sympathy. But it is another very real manifestation of Europe’s steadily shrinking public space. One doesn’t need to be a starry-eyed cosmopolitan to recognise that passport-free travel is one of Europe’s greatest practical and symbolic achievements.
It takes a particular sort of confidence in one’s neighbours to make such an idea feasible. The Schengen agreement was unlikely to survive the migration crisis; terrorist outrages may seal its fate.
What this suggests is that noble ideas, admirable principles and feelings of human solidarity may only be possible under particular, possibly unique and historically unrepeatable circumstances.
The European project emerged from the greatest trauma that continent has ever known. It ought to be remembered that today’s problems pale into insignificance beside them. Europeans have made remarkable progress over the last 50 years or so – in every sense of the term. It is no wonder so many people want to live there.
And yet it is also painfully apparent that such achievements are being steadily eroded and undermined. EU President Donald Tusk’s suggestion that European solidarity will be a vital part of the response to these events looks like well-intentioned wishful thinking.
The reality seems to be that there are sufficiently large numbers of people in Europe who are prepared to die and slaughter others in an effort to undermine Europe’s greatest achievements. There is, it seems, very little that can be done to stop them.
Depressingly, there is also no basis for negation with zealots who think they are on a mission from God. It’s not even clear – to me, at least – quite what the suicide bombers hope their deaths will actually achieve or what the big plan is.
It’s hard not to think that some of the animus directed toward European civilisation is fuelled by a resentment of just how agreeable and successful it has been for those fortunate enough to be part of it.
No doubt some will consider such views as naïve and Eurocentric. Yes, the French did dreadful things in Algeria, and the Belgians did worse in the Congo.
But even if this is construed as some sort of post-imperial blowback, it looks a bit late, ludicrously out of proportion, and unlikely to do anything other than to make life in Europe miserable, too. But perhaps that’s ultimately the point.