The new walls of Europe – Carnegie Europe
Just before Poland joined the European Union in May 2004, Polish officials invited a group of journalists, including myself, to visit the country and see firsthand the preparations in place for membership.
We spent several days visiting farms and talking to locals. At one point we were taken to the border with Belarus. Our Polish hosts wanted to show us how the government was protecting the EU’s external borders. The aim was to prepare Poland to join the Schengen area, which allows citizens of the bloc to travel without restrictions.
There wasn’t really much evidence of a new wall being built between the new pending EU member states and Belarus, then ruled by authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
There was the strange watchtower, new border markings, and cameras. It was much the same in Lithuania, which also shares a border with Belarus.
How much has changed since last August.
It was at this time that thousands of migrants from the Middle East, especially from Iraq, received visas to travel to Belarus, a country stranded not because of the coronavirus but because Lukashenko crushed all forms. of dissent against his regime. This did not deter the migrants, if they really knew what was going on in Belarus.
The violent crackdown began in August 2020, when Belarusians took to the streets to peacefully protest the rigged presidential election and call for Lukashenko’s resignation, and has continued since.
The two EU countries most opposed to such draconian policies are Lithuania and Poland. Both governments, especially Lithuania, have pushed the EU to impose sanctions against key people involved in the crackdown as well as directors of state-owned companies.
This is where migrants come in.
These unfortunate people were promised the prospect of reaching the EU via Belarus. They were transported by bus to the borders of Lithuania and Poland. Within weeks, Lithuania had to cope with an influx of migrants. The government quickly built some facilities. They blamed Lukashenko for having instrumentalized the migrants, to no avail.
In return, Vilnius and Warsaw fortified their borders, building fences of steel or barbed wire. They are watched by soldiers. Both governments have been criticized by human rights organizations for their treatment of migrants.
The Lithuanian government’s response is that migrants are illegal. If they want to enter Lithuania, they can apply. Meanwhile, the villagers living along the border are angry and frightened.
Until recently, Lithuania and Poland had little experience with refugees or migrants from the Middle East, unlike the southern EU Member States, notably Greece, but also Germany.
Indeed, there was no common perception of the threat shared by all EU Member States. Lukashenko’s instrumentalization of migrants is changing that. Migration is now increasingly seen as a threat, not an asset that helps address the growing labor shortage and rapidly falling birth rates across the bloc.
But instead of forging a common migration or refugee policy after German Chancellor Angela Merkel brought nearly a million people fleeing the war in Syria to safety in 2015, the EU has addressed it by exporting the problem. He paid Turkey to keep migrants and refugees in the country and strengthen its borders with the EU.
Egypt has also been “rewarded” for strengthening its border controls. In September, German technology company Siemens announced a $ 3 billion investment to build a state-of-the-art rail network in Egypt.
Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have made stability, the fight against terrorism and stopping the flow of refugees to Europe their priorities in their relations with Egypt. The dire human rights situation, which worsened under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is a secondary consideration.
Germany played a big role in ending several years of civil war in Libya. Once again, the fear of uncontrolled migration and refugees trying to find their way to Europe prompted Berlin to mediate this conflict.
Stability, however it is achieved, is the EU’s priority when it comes to the Middle East. This is now a point of view shared by almost all EU Member States because it is linked to the perception of migration.
This policy is short-sighted, as it often maintains authoritarian rulers in power. Such stability will breed its own instability if the economies of the Middle East cannot provide jobs, education, housing, decent health systems and good governance. No wonder migrants, such as those pushed by the Belarusian regime to the borders of Poland and Lithuania, pay exorbitant amounts to smugglers and travel agents to reach Europe.
Europe’s new walls are not a panacea.