The unfolding humanitarian crisis on the Poland-Belarus border reached a crescendo last week, after Polish forces deployed water cannons and tear gas against those surging the barricades. Hundreds of those that were stranded have now taken shelter in Belarus, or flights back to their country of origin, while only a small number remain.
The plight of many trying to reach Western Europe has been met with a steadily escalating military response from Poland, while it has been Belarus’ President, Alexander Lukashenko, that has been accused of orchestrating the crisis, and according to the EU, of demonstrating an “inhuman, gangster-style approach”.
Western news outlets have largely echoed this sentiment, with little questioning to nuances of the situation and the veracity of such a depiction, mainly because it stands to cast the reality of Poland’s brutal response, and the hypocrisy and belligerence of the EU commission swiftly down the memory hole.
Recent rhetoric on migration emanating from the EU, has espoused a message of inclusivity and solidarity toward asylum seekers, while promising a cohesive approach to migration policy amongst member states. “To those who cannot go back or stay home, we have to offer alternatives”, said Commission President Von der Leyen in August, adding that Europe “must offer legal and safe routes globally, organised by us, to those who need our protection”.
In proposing a new EU pact on immigration in September, she also asserted that “Europe has to move away from ad- hoc solutions and put in place a predictable and reliable migration management system”, which “reflects a fair and reasonable balance between responsibility and solidarity among Member States”.
Such quixotic pronouncements might roll off the tongue from the shelter of Brussels, yet it is the Commission’s inability to implement a Common European Asylum System, that has meant relying on states on the EU’s periphery to handle matters by their own means.
While the arrival of 3500 migrants on the EU’s borders does indeed present a challenge to domestic security and safety concerns for those seeking passage, Poland’s “violent push-backs” have been condemned by the UN high commissioner for refugees, though have far from drawn the ire of Brussels.
When deploying armed troops, water cannons and pepper spray against migrants, Poland’s Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, assured the world’s media he had the “full support of NATO and the EU”. Furthermore, Poland’s Parliament have voted in favour of building a €353m security wall on its frontier with Belarus, financed by the EU, which European Council President, Charles Michel has said is “legally possible based on current legal framework at the European level.”
Now, according to Von der Leyen, the situation is “not a migration crisis” but a “hybrid attack” on the EU’s borders, in which migrants have been “weaponised”. As such, the priorities now lie with “defending our democracy”, and standing in solidarity with Poland, and not those freezing on its doorstep.
Over and above the securitising language, the Commission has also looked to develop its own military means for the future, with EU security chief Josep Borrell renewing proposals to create a 5000 strong reaction force by 2025, stressing the EU’s need to have “rapid deployment capabilities”. True to form, Borrell also followed Morawiecki’s imputation that the crisis had “its mastermind in Moscow”, arguing that Lukashenko “is only doing what he is doing because he has the strong support of Russia”.
As the long-discredited Steele dossier and Russiagate narrative continues to further publicly unravel, it seems the absence of credible evidence is still of no concern for Europe’s bureaucrats, who revert the same tired and desperate tactics of shifting attention away from their failures.
In response, Vladimir Putin not only denied the Kremlin’s involvement in the situation but has highlighted that the economic strife and political turmoil that many of the Kurdish, Iraqi and Afghans that arrived on Poland’s border are fleeing, “were created by Western and European countries themselves”.
Notwithstanding such a reality, the EU which in 2015 absorbed over 800,000 migrants, has held 3500 akin to advancing Russian tanks, as if suddenly their displacement and suffering were not genuine, and their will to risk death trying to reach Germany, simply instilled by Lukashenko.
One thing Lukashenko may have to answer responsibility for, however, is cynically exploiting that desperation, knowing full well the likely outcome and continued suffering of many.
While his callousness should be rightly condemned, before leaping to characterisations of ‘gangsterism’, more information should be sought on exactly what the messaging to migrants was, and what degree of state complicity was involved in getting migrants to the Polish border.
Amid a continued string of accusations against Belarus, it is worth remembering that the EU sanctions placed on Belarussian officials in October 2020 for alleged unfair elections and a brutal crackdown on civil-society, came at a time when EU member states were themselves violently oppressing anti-lockdown protests, censoring the press, and revoking the most basic of civil liberties.
In what is absolutely plausible retaliation for such measures, Lukashenko’s shrewd and unfeeling realpolitik has also proven to be somewhat of a two-pronged attack on the EU.
The recent ruling of Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, which rejected of the primacy of EU law over Polish law, has of late stoked tensions between the EU Commission and Warsaw, creating a ‘de facto risk’ of their exit from the union.
In subjecting Poland to the brunt of the EU’s border crisis, Lukashenko is arguably exacerbating these divisions, which would also go some way to potentially explaining Brussels’ submissiveness to Poland’s heavy-handed and militaristic methods.
As well as stoking internal tensions, his role as either calculated orchestrator or passive facilitator in the situation, has evoked a response that demonstrates the EU cannot be held to their words and commitments on migration, essentially holding a mirror up to Brussels for the world to see.
Conversely, it could also be said that Belarus has offered visas and some degree of shelter to migrants where the EU hasn’t, arguably embodying the values the Commission espouse yet now refuse to adhere to.
Though irrespective of the level of accommodation Belarus were to offer, the EU’s neo-liberal fiscal policies that have created the economic disparities between Eastern and Western Europe, are now and in the future certain to motivate migrants westwards. As such, the situation witnessed on Poland’s border is one now endemic to Europe, and not an isolated incident for which Belarus bear sole responsibility.
While the stances of Poland and Belarus have caused strain over the past weeks, there have in the crowd been voices of mediation, ironically those of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Referencing a 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey, in which financial assistance was provided to take back those that had crossed illegally into Greece, he suggested similar arrangements might be sought between the EU and Belarus.
Interestingly, the arrival of approximately 600 migrants on Italy’s shores 2 weeks ago witnessed a wholly different response, with aid agencies on hand to meet those that had made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. Yet on Poland’s border, a Stubborn EU is willing to risk the safety of women and children in a vain attempt not to lose face in its diplomatic spat with Minsk.
Having already abandoned diplomacy, the EU has offered the familiar justifications of ‘defending democracy’ that served as the pretext for military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and measures of sanctions that have ravaged the economies of Syria and Lebanon, as responses to the very humanitarian crisis the same rhetoric and measures have served to create.
Pledging strength in unity when on the offensive with denouncements and sanctions, the EU has exhibited division and panic when under pressure, yet still refuses to learn that throwing around economic and military weight comes with consequences, and hollow rhetoric will likely see your bluff called.