Written by: Magnus Azevedo Stirø
Much has happened in the European Union (EU) since Angela Merkel welcomed refugees in 2015. Brexit has dominated the headlines, but a shift occurred that has left the liberal, human-rights-promoting EU with a bad image and has closed borders as it works to prevent refugees from reaching Europe.
A historic shift
The EU has, via its European External Action Service (EEAS), made deals with Turkey and one of the two Libyan governments claiming power and with several other African countries to prevent refugees from entering Europe. This is far from the origins of the EU with the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951 where the idea that trade, namely between historic rivals France and Germany, would deter countries from entering war came into practice. Since then, the EU has evolved into an organization that keeps human rights at its core, a value that was tested by the arrival of refugees. Barbed wire and fences were put up along borders that were once open and now the EU is paying others to ensure no more arrive. The idea that the EU is actively working to stop refugees who are fleeing war and conflict is in stark contrast to the idea during the time when what would become the EU, the ECSC, was born, shortly after the deadliest war ever, World War II.
Out of sight out of mind
The EU has made several deals since the 2015 refugee crisis caught it off guard. To prevent future refugee crises, it has struck deals giving countries an economic incentive to stop refugees trying to enter Europe, especially from Africa. This entire process is promoted by the EEAS and their High Representative, Federica Mogherini. It has given hundreds of millions of euros to several African countries to stop refugees and has sent personnel to train local security forces and law enforcement. Among the more substantial deals is the one with Libya, which is still very unstable because of the ongoing civil war that broke out after the 2011 NATO intervention. This deal entails that the Libyan coast guard will intercept boats with refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean and return them to Libya, where the refugees will face an unsure future in Libyan camps. The conditions in these camps have been criticized by many organizations and even the United Nations has called the EU-Libya deal inhuman. In other African countries, refugees stopped on their journey toward Europe are also held in camps. Not all countries the EU is cooperating with are fully democratic, so the EU is funding countries that suppress their own citizens. This process is highly unfortunate for an organization that claims to champion human rights. This shameful act of sweeping the problem under the rug stains the EU’s reputation.
In stopping refugees, some EU member states have sent personnel to African countries to train security forces and law enforcement on the EU’s behalf. The Lisbon Treaty is being used as justification in talks, currently quite advanced, about the EU forming its own army. Even Federica Mogherini commented in November 2017 that if such a force were formed it could be deployed to Africa to stop refugees from reaching Europe. Having European forces in Africa smacks of colonialism and that their goal would be rounding up refugees seems to violate ideals the EU cherishes.
A price to pay
The EU’s efforts to stop refugees have put the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize winner in a bad light. Among the things cited by the Norwegian Nobel Committee in awarding the prize was the EU’s human rights work. Nowadays this seems highly ironic because the EU pays other countries to lock up refugees in camps. The conditions within these camps are far from the standards the EU observes in refugee camps in Europe and for those detained the future is uncertain. That is unfortunate for a Nobel Laureate and shows the disregard the EU has for citizens other than its own. The fact that the EU condemns others for their human rights violations is ironic because it supports and funds human rights violations itself. A frequent target of EU criticism is U.S. president Donald Trump’s “build the wall” rhetoric. But with its current refugee policy, the EU is putting such rhetoric into action. The Mediterranean is Europe’s wall and by paying off some countries the EU is seemingly building a fortress.
An uncertain future
How long will this policy last? The EU has no guarantee that its economic barrier will hold. Libya is highly unstable and could see renewed conflict between rival factions, endangering the EU’s agreement with Libya’s coast guard. The situation in other countries the EU supports financially is not to be taken for granted, because several are undemocratic and could see changes that could destabilize the region. There is no clear answer, but one thing is sure. By doing these deals, the EU has diminished its reputation as one of the world’s liberal leaders. The damage done to the human rights of refugees is an atrocity committed by an organization that can’t truly champion human rights, because it pays for its troubles to disappear. Ultimately, this could be the start of something much worse if nothing is done.
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