A Time for European Diplomacy to Come of Age: Responding to the Refugee Crisis

By Susi Dennison

“People will always want to migrate for a better life: this is a constant reality.” But the harrowing images on the news that the general public are confronted with of men, women and children arriving en masse on European shores are of refugees – not migrants – escaping from war and conflict in countries where the situation is getting worse, not better. In this article Susi Dennison discusses the worsening refugee crisis, and how the challenges it presents the EU can be tackled by its foreign policy.

By mid-September this year, it was hard to open any European newspaper without being confronted with detail on the latest developments in the refugee crisis that surged inside Europe’s borders in 2015. Yet, just weeks on, on 1st October, the Washington Post reported that Google search data indicated a strong drop off in online public interest in the crisis, and indeed coverage in the press in general appears to confirm this.

Few things are certain about the refugee crisis except that it looks set to continue, and will consume a considerable proportion of policymakers’ time for the foreseeable future. Germany alone now estimates that it will have received 1.8 million applications for asylum in 2015 by year-end. The crises in the Middle East that are contributing to the flows are not abating. Though many conflicting figures are flying around regarding the origins of current arrivals in the EU, according to Eurostat Syrians and Kosovans constituted 40% of applications in the first four months of 2015, and the proportion of Syrian arrivals has grown dramatically over the summer months, particularly as a proportion of arrivals via the Western Balkans. Though there may be some lessening off of the numbers arriving in Europe over the winter months, this is far from guaranteed, since many Syrian, Iraqi and North African refugees are now taking land routes to the EU which – unlike the sea routes – will remain passable throughout the winter. And now that Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict has rendered the situation still more complex, it seems likely that the eight million internally displaced Syrians will face conditions that worsen before they improve, perhaps making the last resort option of travelling elsewhere (likely Europe) the only one they are left with. Against this backdrop European leaders cannot afford anything but a holistic approach in their response to the refugee crisis which deals not only with the immediate issue of the stock of refugees in Europe, but also with the long term challenge of the flows that are still likely to come unless the status quo alters.

Challenges for dealing with the stock: political turmoil within Europe

Few things are certain about the refugee crisis except that it looks set to continue, and will consume a considerable proportion of policymakers’ time for the foreseeable future.

In the run up to the crisis summit on 23rd September, European leaders’ attention was focussed on whether and how to share responsibility between member states for those who had already arrived in Europe.  Now, in the aftermath of the political row that ensued from that crisis summit, there is a strong imperative to secure and control Europe’s external borders. This was in clear evidence in EU leaders’ calls on Turkish premier Erdogan to help stem flows from Turkey to Europe, during his visit to Brussels in the first week of October. Those member states, spearheaded by Angela Merkel of Germany, who are pushing for Europe to live up to its treaty-based values of solidarity and humanitarian protection for those fleeing war, know that it is only by showing progress on securing Europe’s external borders that they will be able to command the co-operation on burden sharing within the EU of the central and eastern European states that are marching to the tune of Viktor Orban’s Hungary, and the ever growing cries of the far right that refugee inflows will destroy the fabric of the European project.

This drive to stop the flows into Europe at the border, and manage the ‘pull factor’ risk of EU states being perceived as a soft touch for migrants of all types, is clear too in the preparations for the Valetta meeting of European and African states, on 11th and 12th November.  From the European negotiating team’s perspective, the onus is on finding a way to prevent those who are already on their way to Europe in countries bordering on the EU from crossing over, and how to return migrants in Europe who are not recognised as refugees. In particular European and African diplomats are looking now at ways to return non-refugees who form part of the migrant population in the EU; to process claims for asylum outside the EU’s external borders in order that fewer migrants who do not meet European refugee criteria arrive within Europe, and to tackle the incentives for economic migrants to leave African states – possibly as part of an African Trust fund.

Simultaneously, there is – rightly – a body of work within EU interior ministries exploring changes to the structure of Europe’s asylum system. The current crisis has exposed major flaws in the so-called ‘Dublin system’, from the requirement for applications to be made on EU soil incentivising refugees to make impossibly dangerous journeys, to the uneven pressure which it places on countries that happen to fall on the EU’s external borders, to the lack of dispute resolution mechanisms for issues – such as that which flared up again at Calais between the UK and France over the summer – between member states. Essentially this summer has shown that the only real winners from the current set up are traffickers.




One of the major challenges here is that there is a great diversity of opinion among EU member states regarding which changes would be politically acceptable. A survey of policymakers that ECFR’s associated researchers conducted among the 28 member states between 10th and 16th September 2015 indicated that among the proposals for reform of the asylum system that Commission President Juncker had put on the table for EU ministers to consider, only common lists of ‘safe countries’ of origin, and commonly funded EU reception centres appeared to carry a clear majority of member states at that point. And finding unity among EU states is only the first step on structural reforms that have a clear external dimension. For example, if commonly funded EU reception centres are to be funded on non EU soil, this would require political agreement from possible host countries which – as the Valetta preparations appear to be encountering – may not be easily offered, given the regional implications for them accepting to do so.

The only way to handle the flow: the foreign policy response

But while official attention is focussed on the structural problems of the asylum system within the EU and on handling the stock of migrants currently in EU countries, the foreign policy origins of the asylum crisis are receiving far too little airtime among policymakers. People will always want to migrate for a better life: this is a constant reality. But the refugee component of the immigration pressure that Europe feels at the moment didn’t come from nowhere. For over four years the conflict in Syria has been raging and European attention has waxed and waned. Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Albania, Serbia, Somalia and Eritrea are also among the top source countries for arrivals in Europe in 2015: all situations in which Europe has historical responsibilities, and to varying degrees, influence in finding solutions. The foreign policy dimension of this refugee crisis has been ignored for too long.

The EU’s internal sclerosis of the past decade – the Greek crisis; growing anti-EUism, with the UK as its epicentre – has left political leaders responding to anti-establishment and sometimes xenophobic political groups, which has allowed the narrative of retrenchment in the face of an increasingly threatening world to dominate. This narrative has led to knee-jerk reactions – from UK and French decisions to increase the scope and scale of military operations against IS, to at a more extreme level, violent closure of Hungary’s borders and rough and criminalising treatment of refugees trying to penetrate them – to be seen to be ‘doing something’ in the face of this threat. 

But there is another choice – one of engagement, by an outward facing Europe that continues to shape the world around it. In a Europe which is preoccupied with the new – the threats and opportunities of cyber; the challenge of new global powers – the EU’s foreign policy arm should now focus on where we can make a difference, and what we do well. Since 2002, the Iran nuclear negotiations absorbed an enormous amount of European and American diplomatic time and energy – and this year they produced game changing results. Europe’s foreign policy machinery now needs to devote the same level of sustained attention to the crises, which are fuelling the unprecedented levels of refugee flows into Europe.

In particular EU leaders should engage in multilateral formats which incorporate regional actors including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to talk to Assad’s regime to move towards peace in Syria. There is no easy solution to the problem, and there may not be a palatable one, but Europeans need to contribute towards facilitating a workable deal.  Europeans need to agree between themselves on an approach towards Russia in this context, that protects the red lines set out in terms of Russia’s activities in Ukraine, and continues to link EU sanctions to the adherence Minsk agreement, but also recognises that co-operation with Russia is indispensable to achieve a deal in Syria.

There is no easy solution to the problem, and there may not be a palatable one, but Europeans need to contribute towards facilitating a workable deal.

Europe’s scope to shape events in the region clearly has limits, and lies largely in diplomatic co-operation with regional actors and focusing aid and support on a number of countries that have pivotal roles in ensuring that regional instability does not spread further. Libya is a clear case in point. Support for the Western Balkans is also crucial, whose fragile stability is under great pressure falling as they do on a major transit route to the EU. But Europeans must also re-find a commitment to conflict prevention and security – notably in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, where the UN and African Union are struggling to manage this role, and badly need more European help.


No ‘either or’ choice

responding-refugee-crisis-2The refugee challenge which Europe is faced with in 2015 is exceptional because of its multi- dimensional nature, combining as it does the immediate pressure of processing, integrating or returning the sheer numbers arriving in the EU – with all the associated domestic political challenges – with a real responsibility for tackling the root causes of the problem on the international stage. As such it represents an existential challenge for the EU, in the face of which no partial responses will suffice. Europeans cannot afford to kick the can down the road this time in failing to tackle the origins of the crisis further afield as well as the symptoms that are presenting themselves in Europe. As 2015’s haunting images at sea, at European beaches and ports, and railway stations and on borders have shown, this impending crisis has already been ignored for far too long.

About the Author

susi-dennisonSusi Dennison is a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations where she heads up the European Power Programme. Her recent commentary and analysis has focused on the Refugee Crisis, the Europan Global Strategy Review, and the impact of the UK’s referendum on the EU project. She has led the ECFR European Foreign Policy Scorecard project for three years. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.