NATO’s recent entry into the so-called ‘migrant crisis’ comes at a particularly ominous moment in European affairs. On the one hand, Europe finds itself caught between nascent far-right parties that have stoked serious fears of fascism making an unexpected comeback on the continent, while the looming ‘Brexit’ referendum has weighed heavily on the other. Beset with political infighting, the EU has once again turned to NATO in a desperate bid bring a ‘resolution’ to the problem. NATO’s invitation is a stark reminder of the inability or unwillingness of the EU to formulate effective responses to ‘crisis’ situations since its inception – a problem that was perhaps most evident the last time a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude haunted Europe during the Balkan wars of the 1990’s.
Yet by inviting NATO into the fray, the EU is merely externalizing a problem that is largely of its own making.
Though western media outlets tend to use hyperbolic adjectives to describe the influx of refugees, the reality is that the EU as a whole has accepted only a fraction of a percentage of refugees relative to its total population, whereas other smaller and less wealthy states have accepted far more refugees by comparison.
Map by Philippe Rekacewicz of VisionsCarto
While many less prosperous countries have shouldered a heavy burden, Europe’s political leaders have frequently shrugged off their own responsibility – often saying simply (and incorrectly) that they can do no more. This is not an objective evaluation. It is an expression of political and moral failure. And its nothing new.
For the past decade the European Union has slowly been distancing itself from its legal and humanitarian obligation to give asylum to refugees. Prior to the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, each passing year had already brought with it more drownings in the Mediterranean as Europe slowly closed the door on migration. The current maelstrom in the Middle East has only magnified the attention, volume, and misery of those attempting enter ‘Fortress Europa,’ but is itself, not the cause of the ‘crisis.’
Rather than opt to provide safe passage and refuge, which it is legally obligated to do by its own treaties and laws, Europe has erected walls, built detention centers, and sent warships in an unsuccessful bid to ‘deter’ ‘illegal’ migration. Add in a combustible mixture of political incoherence, nationalism, xenophobia and islamophobia, and it becomes clear that this is not a ‘migrant crisis’ at all, but a crisis of the European Union- one that has had devastating effects on the desolate and downtrodden fleeing from economic and political violence.
We can no more expect that NATO will help facilitate a ‘solution’ to a crisis that it cannot solve, than we can expect Europe to suddenly overcome its own moral and political crisis and begin to take its humanitarian and legal obligations to protect refugees seriously.
Indeed, rather than signal a spirit of cooperation, NATO’s entry is further evidence that geopolitical rivalry still looms large over European affairs. NATO is meant to provide coordination, surveillance, and military hardware to the crisis – but notably, is also capable of patrolling territorial waters (and borders if need be) that some EU ships are unable to given long-standing disputes between Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and others. Thus NATO provides a useful go-between for European leaders unable to bridge their own differences.
Geopolitical considerations also weighed heavily in the deal struck yesterday between the EU and Turkey. As part of the deal, Turkey will accept migrants picked up at sea by NATO and the EU border agency Frontex. It will also ‘swap’ migrants currently in Greece for Syrians – essentially sending on one Syrian to be processed in the EU’s quota system for every migrant taken from Greece. In return Turkey wants to advance long-stalled discussions on EU membership, establish visa free travel between the EU and Turkey, and it wants the EU to double its current commitment to send 3 billion euro to Turkey – money that is ostensibly for housing and providing for refugees residing within Turkey’s borders – to more than 6 billion euro.
The UN has already expressed concern that the deal might contravene international law. But that hasn’t stopped NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg from praising the deal, adding legitimacy to a regime that is quickly descending into tyrannical rule.
The EU’s bribe comes just days after Turkey’s prime minister, Erdogan, took over the nation’s largest newspaper as part of a wider campaign against freedom of speech, including the imprisonment of journalists who show even the slightest disloyalty to the ruling regime. Erdogan also stands accused of stoking a civil war by cracking down on Kurdish minorities in the country’s Southeast, and of bombing Kurdish forces fighting against ISIS in Iraq.
The EU and NATO’s praise of Erdogan and dealmaking with Turkey gives this tyrant legitimacy ill-deserved. Indeed, before the deal was struck several had started arguing that Turkey no longer even met the basic requirements as listed in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Charter, and ought to be kicked out of the alliance, let alone praised as a worthy partner.
But then again, NATO has shown a willingness to make migrants into geopolitical objects before.
NATO’s top commander, General Breedlove, has already accused Russia of turning migrants into geopolitical weapons meant to, “overwhelm European structures and break European resolve.” If it weren’t for the earlier remarks of EU President Donald Tusk, who opined that migrants were weapons being sent as part of a ‘hybrid war’ campaign to destabilize the European Union, one might even have excused General Breedlove for briefly overstepping the boundaries of reason – instead, it seems clear that NATO and Europe’s political leadership have been gripped by a ‘siege’ mentality, that has treated migrants variously as ‘weapons’ ‘terrorists’ and ‘barbarians at the gates’ instead of human beings in need of aid and refuge.
It should come as no surprise to the student of history, that the ‘return of geopolitics‘ to Europe, has come precisely at the same time moment that Western ‘liberal order’ is facing a severe crisis of credibility and political ineptitude. Geopolitics itself is often nothing more than political elites advancing their own interests under the cover of pseudo-scientific reasoning. The fact that this pseudo-science was developed during the height of inter-imperialist European rivalry for the purpose of training elites in the machiavellian art of ‘statecraft,’ means that this particular form of reasoning is best suited to ‘justifying’ the neglect of Europe’s moral and legal obligations for the sake of ‘hard headed realism.’
What has become clear from this European crisis is these types of geopolitical considerations have consistently trumped human rights. Unable to resolve what is essentially a crisis of cooperation and liberalism, the EU has began externalizing its responsibility and has opened the door to shady deal-making and political trade-offs with domestic far-right parties and foreign tyrants. In the process, it has begun hemorrhaging credibility as a humanitarian and international actor and has shed its responsibility to provide even basic protection for those in desperate need.
As long as NATO and European leaders are content continuing to treat migration as a question of geopolitics, we can expect that migrants will continue to be shuffled around their ‘chess board’ from one detention center, makeshift camp, or asylum line to the other.