Poland wins support from Europe on difficult borders

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BRUSSELS – The migration crisis of 2015, when millions of migrants and asylum seekers crossed Europe’s borders, nearly tore the European Union apart. Many members have offered asylum to refugees; others, like Poland and Hungary, did not want it.

Six years later, the current stalemate on the Polish-Belarusian border echoes this crisis, but this time EU officials insist member states are united when it comes to defending the borders of Europe and that uncontrolled immigration is over.

What is different, say the Europeans, is that this crisis is entirely fabricated by the dictator of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, in response to the sanctions that the Europeans have imposed on his country in the face of a stolen election and a crackdown. vicious domestic dissent.

“This area between the borders of Poland and Belarus is not a migration problem, but is part of Lukashenko’s aggression against Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, with the aim of destabilizing the EU” EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said in a statement. an interview over the summer.

The crisis began in late August, when growing groups of migrants, mostly from the Middle East, began to congregate on the borders of Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, led by Belarus. This movement has now grown much larger, with at least 4,000 men, women and children trapped in the freezing cold, without proper shelter or toilets, between Belarus and its neighbors.

Poland and Lithuania have declared states of emergency and fortified their borders, while Belarusian forces have in some cases helped migrants take the plunge. Border regions have been closed to journalists and aid workers, but heartbreaking videos and photos of migrants facing barbed wire have been released, often by Belarus itself.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Wednesday called Lukashenko’s tactics a “cynical power game” and said the blackmail must not succeed. In Washington, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, met with President Biden and came out to say that what was happening on the Belarusian border is “a hybrid attack, not a migration crisis”.

Support for Poland is particularly striking as the European Union is locked in a major confrontation with the right-wing Polish government over the supremacy of European law over Polish law and restrictions on judicial independence. In this confrontation, Brussels is withholding billions of dollars from Warsaw in funds intended to help economic recovery after the coronavirus pandemic.

However, to show how seriously Brussels takes the current impasse with Belarus, Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, traveled to Warsaw on Wednesday to meet Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in order to offer his solidarity – and perhaps even border funds. .

“Poland, which is facing a serious crisis, should benefit from the solidarity and unity of the whole of the European Union,” said Michel. “It is a hybrid attack, a brutal attack, a violent attack and a shameful attack,” he added. “And following such measures, the only answer is to act decisively, with unity, in accordance with our core values.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, urging him to push Belarus to stop its “inhuman and unacceptable” actions on the Polish border, her spokeswoman said.

Moscow is supporting Mr Lukashenko with money and staff. Unsurprisingly, the Kremlin said, Mr Putin told Merkel that there was nothing he could do and that the European Union should deal directly with Mr Lukashenko. This is exactly what Brussels refuses to do.

But Brussels’ position is delicate, posing a three-pronged problem for the European Union. It must show solidarity to protect the borders of the bloc, sympathy for the humanitarian crisis unfolding there and firmness in defending the supremacy of European law.

Europeans can hardly ignore the sight of innocent children, women and men, however manipulated they might have been, in freezing conditions, trapped between border guards and Polish troops and barbed wire, and troops Belarusian. The soldiers not only forbid them from returning to Minsk, the Belarusian capital where many arrive before crossing the border, but also actively help them cross the Polish border.

At least 10 people have already died; other estimates are higher, but Poland has banned journalists and non-governmental organizations from entering the border area.

In response, Brussels is considering a fifth round of sanctions, possibly as early as Monday, targeting Belarusian officials and airlines that transport migrants from the Middle East to Minsk. But few believe that new sanctions will move Lukashenko more than previous ones, especially since his efforts are a response to the sanctions already in place.

“This is a very serious crisis for the European Union, not just for Poland,” said Piotr Buras, member of the European Council on Foreign Relations based in Warsaw. “It is a security crisis, which could worsen if the Polish and Belarusian guards start shooting, and it is a very serious humanitarian crisis, because Europe cannot accept that people are starving and freezing at the border.”

Given the nature of the crisis, said Mr Buras, Brussels should separate it from the rule of law confrontation: “Whatever we may think of the rule of law crisis in Poland, the EU must act in its own interest.

But the Polish government, which no longer has a clear majority in parliament, is itself politically blocked, Buras said. “The problem is not that the EU does not want to help Poland because of the rule of law,” he added. “It is the other way around – it is very difficult for this Polish government to accept help from the European institutions that it is fighting on another front. And the government wants to present itself as the sole savior and defender of the Polish people.

The European Union has offered assistance to Poland with its own border guards, known as Frontex, which have been significantly expanded since the 2015 crisis and are based in Warsaw, said Camino Mortera-Martinez, a member of the Center for European reform based in Brussels. And Brussels also has asylum support staff who can help screen migrants to judge their asylum qualifications.

But Poland rejected both offers and insisted that the border area remain closed. One of the reasons is its struggle with Brussels and its refusal to accept help. Warsaw also does not want the oversight of its actions that Frontex might provide, said Luigi Scazzieri, a researcher in London who also works at the Center for European Reform.

Warsaw or Brussels also do not want a screening procedure that will act as a “pull factor” to give Lukashenko and other migrants hope that they can enter Europe in this way.

“The concern on the government side, and that’s why they are so firm, is that if there is even a process to let people in, it will create a narrative that this is a place where people from. Iraq and Syria can be dealt with in Europe, and the numbers will not be 4,000, like now, but 30,000, ”said Michal Baranowski, director of the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund.

Policymakers are therefore in a real enigma at the moment, said Scazzieri. In the longer term, he suggested that airline sanctions would reduce the number of migrants, and if the borders remained closed and were further tightened, fewer people would risk the trip.

And at some point, he said, Lukashenko “will understand that too many migrants in Belarus will create domestic problems”.

Monika pronczuk contributed to reports from Brussels, and Anton Troianovsky From Moscow.


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