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11 November 2021

EU unity over the Belarus migrant crisis may not last

As temperatures drop, migrant deaths might test EU member states’ support for Poland’s approach to the crisis.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – In the wake of the unprecedented escalation of the migrant crisis at Belarus’s borders with the EU, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, sincerely or not, floated a possible solution. 

“Why, when refugees were coming from Turkey, did the EU provide financing so that they stayed in the Turkish republic? Why is it not possible to help the Belarusians in the same way?” Lavrov asked. Under the terms of a deal the EU signed with Turkey in 2016, Brussels provides funds to Ankara in return for Turkey agreeing to take back migrants who crossed illegally into Greece. 

In opening up a new route for migrants to make it to the EU, the Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko’s calculation may have been that he could force the EU to negotiate with him, possibly to the point of removing sanctions or directly paying off his government, as Lavrov suggested. 

The roots of this latest crisis go back to the Belarusian election of August 2020. Lukashenko won the rigged poll and then ordered a brutal crackdown on the protests that followed. The EU imposed sanctions, which were further strengthened in May 2021 after the regime hijacked a passenger jet over Belarusian airspace to arrest an opposition blogger, Roman Protasevich. 

But if Lukashenko thought that by orchestrating the crisis at the border, he could put pressure on the EU, that is not the way it has turned out. Instead, the EU appears to be hardening its position. The bloc is close to agreeing a new round of sanctions on Belarus, including on its flag carrier and national airline, Belavia, which would be prohibited from leasing aircraft from EU airlines. Belavia aircraft were banned from EU airspace following Protasevich’s kidnapping earlier this year. 

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The president of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has called for even harsher measures, including sanctions on non-Belarusian airlines suspected of flying migrants into Minsk.

Nor have significant internal tensions emerged, despite the well-documented differences between Poland’s government and much of the rest of the bloc on other issues, such as the rule of law. The EU and its member states have rallied around Warsaw, offering its nationalist government their backing, despite its use of harsh tactics against migrants, such as pushbacks to Belarus – illegal under international law. 

That unity is probably, in part, a reflection that the Polish tactics are working, said Joanna Hosa of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “These countries aren’t comfortable with the methods that Poland is using to repel the migrants, but criticism remains muted, because the methods are effective. And that means that those countries don’t have to deal with the political consequences of those migrants getting through,” Hosa said. 

Indeed, the most recent crisis has re-emphasised the consensus that emerged in many European countries following the 2015 migrant crisis, when a surge of about 1.3 million people, from countries such as Syria and Iraq, reached Europe. Over a million ended up in Germany. They were welcomed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who told her people: “wir schaffen das” (“we can do this”). 

Yet six years on, while Germany’s response is viewed by many observers as, on balance, a success, its legacy has been a succession of political leaders pledging that there should be no repeat. The following year, Merkel told a conference of her centre-right Christian Democrat (CDU) party that a situation like 2015 “cannot, should not and must not be repeated”, a pledge reiterated by the candidate her CDU selected to run as her successor, Armin Laschet. 

Merkel is now a lame duck chancellor, as coalition negotiations to replace her government continue. While she has refrained from much public comment on Poland’s approach to the crisis, other members of her party have had no such qualms. 

Horst Seehofer, the current CDU interior minister, has backed Poland’s approach, including its use of pushbacks, telling the tabloid Bild that: “The Poles have reacted correctly so far… we cannot criticise them for securing the EU’s external border with admissible means.”

Olaf Scholz, the presumptive successor to Merkel, has been mostly silent on the recent crisis, in part because he has yet to take office. A Social Democrat from the centre-left, he is less sceptical of migration than the CDU. Nonetheless, he has in the past emphasised that more should be done to ensure that migrants do not attempt to travel to Europe at all, a reflection of the same consensus in German politics. 

Whether EU unity over Belarus can hold remains to be seen. As temperatures drop, deaths, in full view of Belarusian TV cameras, might test EU member states’ backing of Warsaw. Some might argue for Poland to change its policies; others for greater pressure on Minsk; still more might plead for accommodation with Belarus to stop the flow. “The sad truth is that deaths can change perceptions,” Hosa said.

[See also: Dispatch: Migrants freeze as Belarus pursues its cold war with the EU]

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