Refugees are an internal manifestation of an unresolved external crisis

Nicole GNESOTTO

Professor at the CNAM and Chair of the Board at the Institut des Hautes-études de Défense Nationale (IHEDN), on the causes of the refugee crisis.

There has been a massive influx of refugees into Europe since the start of the year, most of them from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Confrontations Europe has re-examined the causes of the refugee tragedy with Nicole Gnesotto, a professor at the CNAM and Chair of the Board at the Institut des Hautes-études de Défense nationale. Behind all the human lives that have been ripped apart or lost, there are a whole range of crises that the European Union cannot continue to ignore.

Is the current migrant crisis a direct consequence of the collective indifference of the EU Member States to their neighbours, particularly those south of the Mediterranean?
Nicole Gnesotto: Yes, Europeans are paying the price for international absenteeism. But the refugees are not a threat. They are victims. We must be careful not to confuse the issues here.
All we know for certain is that the refugees are victims of conflicts that no-one seems able to resolve. We can indeed point the finger at Europe for its failure to act and its inability to reach an agreement on the violent conflicts in Libya in 2011 and Syria in August 2013; and we can wish that Europe would tackle the problem at the roots. I think things are starting to go that way now, as awareness grows of what is now widely referred to as the continuum between internal and external security.
Europe is facing a terrorist threat inside its borders and is dealing with a refugee problem, both of which are internal manifestations of unresolved external crises. So if we want to forge a cohesive response to public safety needs, we will have to try and develop a global policy on external crises and come up with some long-term solutions to eliminate the causes of forced emigration.
Are Europeans, because of their inaction and their divisions, responsible in a way for the refugee crisis?
Nicole Gnesotto : The Americans are largely to blame, having played a key role in the demolition of the Middle East. Were it not for the war in Iraq, the Middle East would not be in a state of civil war today. The war in Iraq upset the balance in the region, destroyed societies and encouraged the development of ethnic and religious extremism. Of course, this does not excuse Europe’s inaction. But its lack of involvement and the divisions between its Member States can be explained to some extent by America’s actions.
In 2003, Europeans were very divided over the United States’ intervention in Iraq. Then, in 2005/2006, they aligned themselves with American policy. But their decision to coordinate their actions with American policy rather than inventing their own solutions to the conflicts largely explains their failure to act now. There are also other divisions specific to the European construction process. The main point of discord concerns the legitimacy of the Union as an important diplomatic and military power, since Great Britain is opposed to Europe having any real strategic ambitions. The second point of discord concerns the use of force, which has been accentuated by specific conflicts such as the one in Libya. Some countries, including Germany, were opposed to using force in 2001 to protect the people of Benghazi.
And are we still following the American lead today, in 2015?
Nicole Gnesotto : Yes, but with one subtle difference. The United States has followed Europe’s imaginative and united lead on the difficult situation in Iran. Europe, through the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, has led the negotiations with Iran since 2003, and has achieved a positive outcome. It is the exception that proves the rule. Europe has not come up with any proposals regarding the situation in Iraq, Syria and Israel/Palestine, which is a shame. I think Europeans should very quickly propose a regional conference on the Levant (Iraq, Syria, etc.) rather than wait for Russian diplomats to steal the idea from them…
What can Europe do? Does it already have the instruments it needs to act, or does it need to create new ones?
Nicole Gnesotto : There is one organisation that is not doing what it should be, and that is the European Council. I find it very disappointing that the European Council never has time to discuss international matters. The heads of state and government deal with a lot of crises (the euro, Greece, etc.) but they never, or very rarely, take the time to think about the collapse of Europe’s southern borders and its overall implications for Europe’s future.
There are two priorities for European security today: Russia and its policy on Ukraine, and the demolition of the Greater Middle East. If the dramatic forecasts on the number of refugees likely to arrive in Europe are true, then the situation is clearly urgent. We need to develop long-term political and diplomatic solutions, and support local parties in implementing them. It will take political imagination, investment, resources and intelligence, but Europe can do it. Don’t forget that it was the 1980 European Council in Venice that came up with the two-state solution: “two states for two groups of people within secure and recognized borders.”
The problem also is that the European Union, as an institution, does not know how to handle emergencies. It can cope with long-term, peace-time situations and negotiations. But in emergencies, national interests regain the upper hand. And some States, thrown into a panic by the floods of refugees, are choosing to close their borders. In addition, the European Union has recently become very lax when it comes to defending its own values. In 2006, when Jörg Haider’s extreme right-wing party won a landslide victory in Austria, the European Union responded very firmly and suspended Austria’s participation in certain meetings. Today, the European Union has adopted an astonishingly casual attitude towards Hungary and towards the rise to power of openly xenophobic movements in several countries. The European Parliament is equally silent, which is even more surprising. Finally, the Union is poorly equipped to handle the influx of refugees: a common right of asylum must be established immediately, as a matter of urgency.
What is lacking today is political awareness of the urgency and the collective political will to respond. As far as the refugee crisis is concerned, Europe is not the problem; it is the solution. But the solution must be properly organised. Europe must establish collective tools: as part of the counter-terrorism response, it must push ahead more quickly with negotiations on creating an air transport passenger register in Europe. Secondly, it must create a European coast and boarder guard to prevent smuggling. Lastly, it must seek a regional, global, diplomatic solution to stabilise the situation in Syria and Iraq. All we are waiting for is the go-ahead from the European Council. Those in Europe who believe the solution is to build walls and re-establish borders are going to be confronted in a few years’ time with a burgeoning of extreme right-wing governments, the end of European democracy and millions of refugees dying on our doorstep.
Interview by Clotilde Warin, Editor-in-Chief of La Revue.

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