By Fabrice Balanche, associate professor and research director at the University of Lyon 2, visiting fellow at The Washington Institute
On April 5th in Brussels, participants of the “conference on the future of Syria and the region” promised 5.6 billion euros in aid in 2017. This aid intends to help the 6 million refugees fleeing Syria (5 million registered by UNHCR), the 13.5 million Syrians defined by the UN as “in need” (the resident population is 16 million), and assistance to the refugee hosting communities in neighbouring countries. The EU is the main donor, giving 1.3 billion euros. Gulf countries feign generosity during international conferences, but ultimately they do not fulfill their promises. During the Syrian aid conference held in Kuwait in February 2014, Saudi Arabia pledged $1 billion and Qatar pledged $1.5 billion, but in the end only few a million was donated. In the same year, the World Food Program exhausted its budget for Syrian refugees as early as November. Thankfully, emergency EU donations were able to save the food aid program before winter set in.
The migratory crisis of 2015, which saw hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees on the roads to Europe, was an ominous sign for Brussels. The European Commission understood that the problem had to be solved upstream: maintaining decent living conditions in Syria and hosting countries could assuage the migratory crisis in Europe. Syrians are mainly leaving due to deteriorating living conditions and shortened life expectancy in their home country. It is also misery that drives them to leave the neighbouring countries, where they initially take refuge, in an attempt to reach the EU. In that dramatic context, Frederica Mogherini proposed in January 2017 that the EU participate in the reconstruction of Syria, even if the war is not over and despite the fact that Bashar el Assad is still in power. Migratory pressure on Europe is likely to increase, especially as hundreds of thousands of Syrians in Europe are now eligible for family reunification.
The announcement of the reconstruction plans for Syria has been criticized by France, which believes that rebuilding will strengthen the regime of Bashar el Assad. After the chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun on April 4th, the opposition to the EU plan has only intensified. Admittedly, the EU claims to condition its economic aid on respect for human rights and a political transition. The EU hopes to use her billions of euros as leverage on the Bashar el Assad regime, notably to accept the return of the refugees. However, one can only be skeptical about this argument. A few billion euros will make him accept what he refused under military pressure. He knows that the EU will eventually yield before him, and it does not bother him to see the “overflow” of people leaving Syria for Europe. Quite the contrary, he risks of destabilization in Lebanon and Jordan are increasing, which will escalate the exodus towards the European Union. The latter should face a major political crisis with the rise of populist parties, the end of the Shengen agreements, and a new permanent blackmail mechanism for Turkey, which can allow migrants to cross the Aegean Sea when it wishes.
The EU appears very weak in the face of this immigration blackmail. After Erdogan, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri came to explain in Brussels that Lebanon needed 10 billion euros over the next seven years, claiming that the Syrian crisis and the 1.5 million refugees in Lebanon were the cause of all the misfortunes of his country. This is totally false: corruption, political blockades, and predation are responsible for the sinking of the Lebanese economy. The Syrian crisis simply precipitated the decline. Egyptian president Sissi joined in the blackmail game and casually hinted to Angela Merkel last March that it would be a shame if millions of Egyptians form the destabilized Nile valley managed to find their way into Germany. It is therefore necessary that the EU maintains its financial infusion to Egypt. Algeria does not participate in this blackmail, but how many years can Algeria remain stable with such low oil prices and a gridlocked politico-economic system?
The leaders of the South and East Mediterranean fully understand that the EU is not in a position to resist this blackmail of immigrants. In the Middle East, three regional powers (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran) are fighting for control of the region with the support of the United States and Russia. But the EU is absent from this political and military confrontation and its only flimsy tool is financial diplomacy. It must resolve to accept authoritarian regimes in its Mediterranean periphery, for the political stability of the region is the best protection against mass immigration. The EU is caught between the defences of European values, which limit its geopolitical weight, and the denial of these values for fear of retaliation, since it has deprived itself of the power of coercion. The rapid demographic inflation of sub-Saharan Africa and the stalemate in many Southern Mediterranean countries will force the EU to drastically change its immigration and foreign policies.
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