Friday, 5 February 2016

Refugees? Or referendum?

Ten billion dollars? That's an impressive-sounding sum of money to be spent on helping Syrian refugees -- until you compare it to the $9 billion that, according to The Economist, Germans spend on chocolate every year.

Beware of big numbers. Yesterday's London donor conference on Syria made all the right noises -- they always do -- but if past experience is anything to go by, the right noises rarely translate into ready cash. Meanwhile, the Turkish government says up to 70,000 refugees are heading towards the Turkish border after renewed fighting near Aleppo, Syria's largest city.

Still, I did think it made a pleasant change to see David Cameron grappling with a real crisis, rather than wasting his time negotiating meaningless changes to the EU's rulebook for the sole purpose of keeping his backbenches quiet.

The details of the pre-referendum deal that he is trying to sell us are of no real consequence. I cannot imagine that there is a single person anywhere in the country whose decision on how to vote will be based on the precise wording of whatever document is finally presented to us. It is a gigantic waste of everyone's time, not just Mr Cameron's -- and it is the risible result of Mr Cameron's pressing tactical need three years ago to spike UKIP's guns. To misquote Aesop's fable, he has laboured mightily and brought forth a mouse.

I have no great love for the EU, but I still think Europe is a better place with it than without it, and that the UK is a better place in it than outside it. The same goes for the United Nations, which, like the EU, is far better at staring at its own navel than at the world around it, and far happier organising conferences than tackling the world's most pressing problems.

The faults of the EU and the UN are, in reality, the faults of the government leaders who make the decisions. Last year's unprecedented flow of refugees from Syria to Europe was a direct result of a catastrophic shortfall in funding for the camps in Turkey and Jordan -- and the responsibility for that shortfall lies with donor governments.

So too does responsibility for the failure to agree on a burden-sharing deal that would relieve the pressure on Greece, Italy, Germany and Sweden, which have borne the brunt of the crisis. If the EU is meant to enable Europe's leaders to come up with common solutions to common problems, well, excuse me, but what is the refugee crisis if it is not a common problem? And if it is impossible for EU governments to agree on a common solution -- which is obviously the case -- then we need to ask serious questions about some governments' commitment to the EU project.

To be specific: are the governments of, for example, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic prepared to accept the responsibilities of being members of the club at the same time as they enjoy its benefits? They like the fact that their citizens are free to seek work anywhere in the EU (and send their family allowances back home) and they like the open border trade arrangements that enable them to sell their goods in Germany and elsewhere tariff-free. But they don't like the idea of accepting their fair share of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan.

The (relatively) painless and peaceful end of Soviet domination in central and eastern Europe was one of the miracles of the post-war era. The fragile flowering of multi-party democracy in the region owes much to the blandishments offered by the EU in return for an acceptance of basic democratic norms. The people of the former Warsaw Pact countries have much to thank the EU for, as do the rest of us. But they need to be reminded that they signed a deal, and they need to stick to its terms.

There is a growing fear in European capitals that the refugee challenge is threatening to overwhelm Europe and destroy the EU. As Gideon Rachman pointed out this week in the Financial Times, if the UK leaves the EU, weakened as it is, it could even hasten its collapse. 'Given Europe’s bloody past and troubled present, helping to destroy the major vehicle for European co-operation cannot be a good idea.' EU-haters may welcome the prospect, but they would be wrong.

For one thing, the refugees will not stop coming just because the EU is in pieces. For another, Russia will be even more likely to nibble dangerously at its neighbours if they have no alternative power bloc to call on for help. Ask the governments of Latvia or Ukraine how they would feel if the EU were to collapse. And then remember why first the League of Nations and then the UN and the EU were born from the ashes of two world wars and built on the graves of millions of dead.

So the sooner this wretched referendum is out of the way the better. And if, as I hope, the UK votes to remain in the EU, perhaps Mr Cameron will then devote more of his attention to helping it come up with a more effective and more humane solution to the refugee crisis. He and Angela Merkel, who despite her falling poll ratings is still the most powerful leader in the EU, seem to have developed a decent working relationship. It is time for them to work together on something more important than how to keep Boris Johnson from snapping at the prime minister's heels. 

Ensuring that the governments represented at that donor conference on Syria make good on their pledges would be a useful start.


Nick S said...

The better off in or out of the EU is dealt with a very large brush stroke... basically you believe we are better in than out... based on what exactly? Mrs Merkel invited all the immigrants over in her assumed role as head of the EU and didn't think through the consequences... A lot of Muslims although grateful for safe haven have no intention of integrating or adopting democratic/Christian/Western values and that is going to cause huge problems for the native Germans. think these things through yes we want to help as the 5th largest Economy and our historical meddlings but we can only do this as we are a rich nation. What's to say in three years time there aren't 5 million refugees in Germany 60% of which the EU admit aren't fleeing persecution or war etcand yet inevitably they will get EU documents and be entitled to settle here. Is that really what you want? We will have no powers to stop it. How many Paris type attacks will it take for people to wake up? The Paris attack mastermind came over in a group of 90 mixed foreigners and French most of them are still at large... Really need to think a bit more seriously about this and stick with the one plan that Cameron has got right to help to get peace in Syria and spend the Aid budget on making the camps as humane as possible before they return to their homeland. That is ultimately what everyone wants. It's not perfect but by opening the doors to all with no checks we are making ourselves vulnerable and only from a position of strength can we help. Year on year financial takings are 30% down in Paris think on if something similar happened in the UK! I am pro European but won't stick my head in the stand and pretend the reality of where we are isn't true.

Anonymous said...

Nick S - You seem to conflate staying in the EU with fully open doors on immigration, and don't appear to be referring to Robin Lustig's blog at all. Given that our doors are already pretty much shut while we are members of the EU, I don't really see how leaving would change this. Given that this is a Europe-wide problem anyway, personally I believe we're better off trying to work together as best we can. I'm with Robin on this.

Nick S said...

Anonymous - It's all the same issue trying to separate it out to make it more palatable isn't right. You say our doors are pretty much shut but this only is true regarding people from outside the EU. The facts are that millions are coming to the EU and will never be deported and will therefore by default get EU papers and hey presto that's the magic pass to go to anywhere in Europe not just where they settled originally... and yes that most definitely includes the UK. It is a Europe wide problem but being tackled woefully poorly, there is no coordination the Eastern states are slamming their borders, Swedes are talking about confiscating valuables to help pay for care while they remain? Is this really the Europe you want to be part of? Merkel refusing to see sense, yes I agree it was a pure gesture of hers but ill thought through and encouraging them to make the perilous journey by seas is a massive mistake. The people smugglers are the only winners. Well we are where we are but the UK government has a fundamentally different approach to sorting the crisis out i.e. offshore with huge aid and peace efforts to make the best of a terrible situation.. The EU doesn't agree and yet their policy is encouraging the very immigration they can't cope with. So they can't cope already and yet millions more are coming, the scale of the problems we have seen is but the tip of the iceberg and people need to wake up in my opinion. We are only able to help as we are in a position of strength what you don't appreciate is following the path you call for will erode this strength and the whole effort to help make peace etc in the world will be worse off for it. It's a tragic situation lets not make it worse by persevering with policies that have failed or are failing.