Fortress EU is beating Belarus, with refugees as pawns in cruel game

There was chaos at the border. Thousands of Middle Eastern refugees and migrants had massed at the crossing point to the European Union, hoping for a better life. Many had been taken to the barbed-wire fence on state-funded buses, after the authoritarian leader made good on years-long threats “to open the gates to Europe”. But when people arrived, the hope of a better life collided with police teargas and stun grenades.

This was not a scene from the Polish-Belarus border this week, but Greece’s land border with Turkey less than two years ago.

Belarus’s authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko has realised – as Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan knew before him – that desperate people fleeing war and violence can be used as pawns in a cruel political game. The game can be played because the EU wants to keep out irregular migrants at any price, even if it means outsourcing border security to repressive regimes.

“Lukashenko is using the only language he understands – force – to try to reopen dialogue with the EU,” Maxim Samorukov of the Carnegie Moscow Center has written. But the plan has come unstuck. Poland, which has banned media, NGOs and even EU officials from its border with Belarus, has refused to allow migrants to enter. Migrants found shivering in thin blankets in no man’s land have told of being figuratively kicked around like a football, neither allowed to enter Poland, nor return to Belarus. Farther north, Lithuania is reported to be adopting similar tactics along its 420-mile border with Belarus.

If Lukashenko was counting on Poland and Lithuania coming under heavy criticism for their treatment of people – and reopening divisive splits within the EU – he was wrong.

Six years after the migration crisis, when a million asylum seekers crossed into the European Union, the EU’s gates are tightly shut. While Germany’s outgoing chancellor, Angela Merkel, was widely praised for her humanitarian gesture of welcoming Syrian asylum seekers in 2015, most EU officials drew a different lesson: she was wrong. The combination of “wir schaffen das (we can do this) without any consultation … and [mandatory] quotas” to redistribute refugees around the bloc was an error, one former senior EU official told the Guardian.

The second lesson the EU drew from 2015 is that it needed a stronger external border. In 2021, the talk in Brussels is about walls, not wir schaffen das. “We really are in a different place to five years ago. We have to realise that in some parts of the world physical barriers are a necessity,” said a senior diplomat, from the large group of EU member states arguing for common funding of external walls and fences.

If anything, in the short-term, the crisis has bolstered EU unity at a time when Poland’s nationalist government was under intense scrutiny for undermining the rule of law. On a recent visit to Warsaw, which could have been dominated by the ongoing assault on Poland’s independent judiciary, the European Council president, Charles Michel, said that Poland was facing a major crisis at its border: “It is a crisis which we are taking seriously, and which calls for both solidarity and unity across the entire European Union.”

The tone was similar when the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, flew to the Greek-Turkish border in March 2020, praising Greece as Europe’s “shield”. A decade earlier the EU was bargaining with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who played on the EU’s fears, demanding billions to stop people sailing across the Mediterranean in small boats. Since 2017, the EU has funded Libya’s coastguard, paying it to intercept people in the Mediterranean, despite knowledge of widespread human rights violations and unexplained disappearances of the returnees.

But there are some important differences between Turkey, Libya and Belarus. Turkey has been housing more than 4 million refugees, securing an EU promise to spend €6bn on aid. Libya was for many years a departure gate for people from across Africa looking to get to Europe. More than those states, Belarus has manufactured the crisis, with reports of state-backed travel agencies offering visa-hotel package deals with mendacious promises of a short walk to the EU border from Minsk. (The distance is about 200 miles).

Lukashenko, however, looks unlikely to gain anything. Instead of an opening with the EU, he has triggered a further round of sanctions against his regime, with a promise of tougher measures to come.

While diplomatic wrangling goes on, thousands are trapped in no man’s land on the EU’s eastern frontier, as winter temperatures plummet.

Diplomats say they want to help organise repatriation flights, but only from Belarus, not from the EU. As the humanitarian crisis escalates, there will be no chink in Fortress Europe.

General