Goodbye Venus, hello Mars – but so far, Europe’s only being tough with the weak

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

Goodbye Venus, hello Mars. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and her team have spent the last 100 days struggling to shed the EU’s image as a geopolitical dwarf.

So far, however, it’s meant being tough with the weak.

The Commission chief’s handling of Europe’s latest refugee ‘crisis’ has been hailed as a sign of a stronger, tougher EU, ready to protect ‘the European way of life’, if necessary, with patrol boats, barbed wire fences, tear gas and rubber bullets – and allegedly, even more.

Scenes of violence between desperate refugees and Greek security forces send a clear message: no more insulting references to a soft and powerless ‘vegetarian Europe’. This is Europe on steroids, not just using the language of power but actually exercising it. Never mind that it’s against some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Greece … is rightly demanding ‘solidarity’ from its EU partners in dealing with the new refugee influx

That’s unfair criticism, of course. Very unfair. It’s not Europe’s fault.  Refugees have become pawns in a nasty geopolitical power game between Europe and the manipulative wannabe Tarzans running Turkey, Russia and Syria.

Greece, its resources and patience stretched to the limit (not least because of the austerity programmes it’s lived under for so long), is rightly demanding ‘solidarity’ from its EU partners in dealing with the new refugee influx.

And certainly, borders have to be protected. The EU cannot and should not throw open its gates to all of the world’s war-stricken, tired and poor. Or even to those whose talents and skills we need. Refugee and migration flows have to be carefully managed. Integration and inclusion must be given similar cool-headed attention.

But that’s not happening. Instead, it’s panic time once again. So here are some unsolicited tips on alternative approaches to exercising power:

Values aren’t just for the good times

European rule-makers shouldn’t become rule-breakers. The EU has built up a formidable reputation as a committed defender of the rules-based order and played an important role in crafting some of the world’s most significant international conventions, including those on the protection of human rights and refugees.

The EU response to the situation on the Greek-Turkish border, however, “threatens to upend the entire system of protection that Europe has painstakingly built up over many decades,” says Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovic.

Humanitarian organisations have warned that “extreme action” against refugees by security forces and the climate of panic promoted by the authorities “seriously affects not only refugees but also our society and the rule of law.”

Values aren’t just for the good times. The EU was built on values – and has given itself the noble task of promoting and defending democratic, progressive and pluralistic values worldwide. Those norms and standards are now being violated within the EU with almost-impunity by several illiberal governments, including in response to refugees and migrants.

Language matters. This is not the time for ‘war talk’.

Outside Europe, the outsourcing of refugee ‘management’ to Turkey and Libyan coast guards hardly shows Europe at its best. “EU governments have entered into a string of cooperation agreements with Libyan authorities responsible for grave human rights violations,” says Amnesty International in its report “Libya’s dark web of collusion”.

If it is to be taken seriously as a defender of human rights, the EU must practice what it preaches.

Language matters. This is not the time for ‘war talk’. During her much-publicised trip to the Greek-Turkish border to show ‘solidarity’ with Athens, von der Leyen waxed lyrical about Greece’s role as a “shield” against the refugees, adding for emphasis, “We will hold the line and our unity will prevail.”

The trip has been preserved for history in a short, slick video: while music plays, a smiling Commission chief and her European Council and European Parliament ‘co-presidents’ peer out of helicopter windows at the empty expanse of land below. No refugee in sight, but plenty of tanks and saluting guards in uniform.

The EU hasn’t lived up to all aspects of its side of the 2016 bargain either

As a former defence minister, von der Leyen’s instinct may be to use war metaphors. In times of peace, however, references to battles, fights, enemies and shields should be avoided. The rhetoric may seem Clint Eastwood cool. But it encourages bigotry and xenophobia.

Stop the blame game and start thinking of the future. Yes, it’s a tough world and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is engaging in unacceptable geopolitical ‘blackmail’. Using the EU’s ‘refugee-phobia’ to his advantage and – in the unforgettable words of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte – Erdogan has a penchant to talk to Europe with a “knife at its throat”.

But single narratives are misleading. The EU hasn’t lived up to all aspects of its side of the 2016 bargain either. In addition, with refugee numbers down over the last few years, too much time has been wasted in crafting a proper EU refugee and migrant management plan.

Sensibly, Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, has urged better ties with Turkey and Russia, echoing his predecessor Federica Mogherini’s calls for ‘selective engagement’ with the two countries. The Turkish President’s visit to Brussels this week could be a start.

Despite the tough EU talk, a new deal with Turkey will have to be negotiated

Since it’s going to take a while to stop the war in Syria, improve relations with Moscow and Ankara, and craft a new and responsible EU migrant and refugee policy, let’s start moving quickly on temporary, palliative measures.

As suggested by German Social Democrat premiers, these could include a ‘humanity pact’ of relief measures, including creating urgent humanitarian corridors, with priority given to unaccompanied minors, families with children and the most vulnerable. Asylum applications must be processed urgently, not suspended as Greece has done. Despite the tough EU talk, a new deal with Turkey will have to be negotiated.

Finally, if the whole premise behind the official EU narrative’s slide into dangerous populist territory is to make the bloc more popular – especially with those voting for the Far Right – here’s a warning: it won’t work.

Assuming that all European voters are anti-refugee is simplistic

Pro-populist voters are likely to vote for the real thing, not an imitation. Like Hungarian leader Viktor Orban who is already crying victory, they are also likely to demand more and more.

Also, assuming that all European voters are anti-refugee is simplistic. Presenting migrants as invaders and framing EU policies as defence of a continent under siege is leading to increased public hostility. Greeks initially welcomed the refugees – and pro-refugee marches in the country last week are a testament to their persistent goodwill – but years of EU neglect have, unsurprisingly, turned the mood sour.

Europe is at a crossroads. The EU’s Green Deal, plans for a Conference on the Future of Europe, setting AI global standards and more efforts to mainstream gender equality showcase Europe’s international ambitions. These and other worthy initiatives will be eclipsed if the EU fails to craft a lucid, forward-looking policy to manage migration and refugee flows.

Track title


Stop playback
Video title


Africa initiative logo