The answer to Europe’s refugee crisis lies abroad

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Closing the doors and turning away desperate people is not the answer to this crisis. [Freedom House/Flickr]

European nations will only be able to tackle the refugee crisis by working together and addressing the roots of the problem, writes Nicholas Rutherford.

Nicholas Rutherford is Event Director for AidEx, the leading forum for the international aid and development community to discuss how to improve the efficiency of aid delivery, taking place at Brussels Expo on 18 and 19 November. EURACTIV is a Media Partner of AidEx Brussels

When the international aid and development community looks back on 2015, one crisis is sure to dominate above all else. In the midst of the first European Year for Development, as the world looks towards its 17 brand new Sustainable Development Goals, we are facing the largest refugee crisis since World War II.

Europe is feeling the strain of the estimated 750,000 refugees that have arrived so far this year. To help manage the situation, the European Commission has already adopted two emergency schemes to relocate 160,000 people in clear need of international protection, while expanding the amount of budget allocated to dealing with this crisis: more than €4 billion both in the EU and in the countries where refugees are coming from. This budget was being concluded even as the tragic events in Paris unfolded last Friday evening (13 November) – events which once again shone a light on society’s fluctuating perceptions around refugees.

The specific allocation of budget to dealing with events in the refugees’ countries of origin is crucial. Tackling the root causes which force whole communities to leave their homes is the foundation we need to get right – not building more fences, or turning away boats full of desperate people.

The EU has made previous efforts in this regard. The German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) notes that, following the Arab Spring, the EU pledged to support the reinvigoration of the region with a combination of monetary support, market access and increased mobility, through a reinvigorated European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). But delivering on this promise has not been easy, and many would agree with the SWP’s conclusion that in some instances, the EU has been reduced to simply dealing with regional crises on a reactive basis, rather than having a major positive influence on development and prosperity.

However, it’s important to recognise that Europe is increasingly aware of the need to act upon its own priorities beyond its borders, in order to fully achieve them. As Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, put it upon taking up her position: “There is not one single internal priority of the European Union that is not linked to an external dimension.”

Enter the European External Action Service (EEAS), the closest thing Europe has to a foreign ministry and diplomatic corps. In this role, the EEAS often finds itself needing to balance aligning national positions on these issues and speaking to the wider world with one voice, without impinging on national foreign policy competencies.

The EEAS has only existed since 2009, but has managed to chalk up some significant diplomatic and political successes already. The previous High Representative, Catherine Ashton, and her team, were widely lauded for their role in long-term nuclear talks with Iran, as well as for negotiating an agreement to normalise relations between Serbia and Kosovo. The EU is also stepping up to the plate by proactively facing the refugee crisis head on, by spearheading Operation Sophia; an emphatic effort to intercept boats suspected of being used for people smuggling.

But for such efforts to deliver results, there must be unity. Europe’s strength lies in its diversity, but this can also give rise to tensions. Germany made headlines several months ago with scenes of joyful welcome at the country’s train stations and football stadiums. On the other hand, some Eastern European and Balkan countries have responded by closing their borders.

Different viewpoints must be accommodated, but all EU member states need to play a greater role in relief efforts at home and stabilisation efforts abroad.  New concrete measures for achieving this have been proposed. For example, UN Under-Secretary-General Philippe Douste-Blazy, has suggested a tax on financial transactions to raise funds for dealing with the crisis, with 50% of funds allocated to developing countries to help them alleviate the extreme poverty which drives so many migrants to flee.

It is of course in Europe’s interest to reduce the incentives for refugees to leave their home countries. But this is not done by shutting the doors to them upon arrival. People do not leave their houses, homes and communities on a whim – they leave because it is not safe to stay. Europe could and should play a major stabilising role in changing this state of affairs, but only by overcoming fear and prejudice to work towards a common end goal. 

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