BRUSSELS – The 2015 migration crisis, when millions of migrants and asylum seekers poured across Europe’s borders, almost tore the European Union apart. Many members offered asylum to the refugees; others, like Poland and Hungary, refused to participate.
Six years later, the current stalemate on the border between Poland and Belarus is a reminder of that crisis, but this time European officials insist that Member States are united in defending Europe’s borders and that uncontrolled immigration be ended.
Otherwise, say Europeans, this crisis was entirely invented by the Belarusian dictator Aleksandr G. Lukashenko in response to sanctions Europeans imposed on his country in the face of a stolen election and vicious repression against domestic dissent.
“This area between the borders of Poland and Belarus is not a migration issue, but part of Lukashenko’s aggression against Poland, Lithuania and Latvia with the aim of destabilizing the EU,” said EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson in an interview about the summer.
The crisis began in late August when growing groups of migrants, mainly from the Middle East, gathered on the borders of Poland, Latvia and Lithuania and were guarded there by Belarus. That movement has now grown much larger, with at least 4,000 or more men, women and children trapped in the freezing cold with no adequate shelter or toilets between Belarus and its neighbors.
Both Poland and Lithuania declared a state of emergency and fortified their borders, while Belarusian forces helped migrants break through in some cases. The border regions were closed to journalists and aid workers, but disturbing videos and pictures of migrants confronted with barbed wire were circulated, often by Belarus itself.
Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called Lukashenko’s tactics a “cynical power game” on Wednesday and said that blackmail should not succeed. In Washington, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, met President Biden and said that what happened on the Belarusian border was “a hybrid attack, not a migration crisis”.
Support for Poland is particularly striking while the European Union is embroiled in a major confrontation with the right-wing Polish government over the supremacy of European law over Polish law and over restrictions on the independence of the judiciary. In this confrontation, Brussels is reserving billions of dollars in funds to support Warsaw’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
As a sign of how seriously Brussels takes the current stalemate with Belarus, Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, visited Warsaw on Wednesday to meet with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to offer solidarity – and maybe even some border funds.
“Poland, facing a serious crisis, should enjoy the solidarity and unity of the entire European Union,” said Michel. “It’s a hybrid attack, a brutal attack, a violent attack and a shameful attack,” he added. “And after such action, the only response is to be determined to act together and in accordance with our core values.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel called Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and asked him to urge Belarus to stop its “inhuman and unacceptable” actions on the Polish border, her spokesman said.
Moscow supports Mr. Lukashenko with money and personnel. Unsurprisingly, the Kremlin said, Mr Putin had told Mrs Merkel that there was nothing he could do and that the European Union should negotiate directly with Mr Lukashenko. That is exactly what Brussels refuses to do.
But Brussels’s position is delicate and presents the European Union with a three-pronged problem. It must show solidarity for the protection of the bloc’s borders, sympathy for the developing humanitarian crisis and determination to defend the supremacy of European law.
Europeans can hardly ignore the sight of innocent children, women and men, however manipulated they may be, in icy conditions between Polish border guards and troops and barbed wire and Belarusian troops. The soldiers will not only forbid them to return to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, where many arrive before going to the border, but will also actively help them break through the Polish border.
At least 10 people have already died; other estimates are higher, but Poland has excluded journalists and non-governmental organizations from the border area.
In response, Brussels is considering a fifth round of sanctions, possibly targeting Belarusian officials and airlines flying migrants from the Middle East to Minsk as early as Monday. But few believe that new sanctions will move Mr Lukashenko more than previous ones, especially since his efforts are a response to the sanctions that are already in place.
“This is a very serious crisis for the European Union, not just for Poland,” said Piotr Buras, a Warsaw-based scholar of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It is a security crisis that could worsen if Polish and Belarusian guards start shooting, and it is a very serious humanitarian crisis because Europe cannot accept people starving and freezing to death at the border.”
Given the nature of the crisis, Buras said, Brussels should separate it from the rule of law confrontation: “Whatever we think of the Polish rule of law crisis, the EU must act in its own best interests.”
But the Polish government, which no longer has a clear majority in parliament, is itself politically stuck, said Buras. “The problem is not that the EU does not want to help Poland because of the rule of law,” he added. “Conversely, it is very difficult for this Polish government to accept help from EU institutions that are fighting it on another front. And the government wants to present itself as the only savior and defender of the Polish people. “
The European Union has offered Poland help with its own border guard called Frontex, which has expanded significantly since the 2015 crisis and is stationed in Warsaw, said Camino Mortera-Martinez, a Brussels-based scholarship holder from the Center for European Reform. There are also asylum support staff in Brussels who can help migrants assess their asylum qualifications.
But Poland has refused both offers and insists on the border area being cordoned off. One reason is their struggle with Brussels and their unwillingness to accept help. Warsaw also doesn’t want the oversight of its actions, which Frontex could provide, said Luigi Scazzieri, a research fellow in London who also works at the Center for European Reforms.
Warsaw or Brussels also do not want a screening process that, as a “pull factor”, gives Mr. Lukashenko and other migrants the hope of reaching Europe this way.
“The government’s concern, and that’s why they are so firm, is that if there is any process of letting people in, it will create a narrative that this is a place where people from Iraq are and Syria can be processed. “to Europe, and it will not be 4,000 as it is now, but 30,000,” said Michal Baranowski, director of the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund.
So political decision-makers are in a real mystery at the moment, said Mr Scazzieri. In the longer term, he suggested that sanctions against the airlines would reduce the number of migrants, and if the borders were closed and further strengthened, the travel would be less risky.
And at some point, he said, “Lukashenko will understand that too many migrants in Belarus will create internal problems”.
Monika Pronczuk Reporting from Brussels contributed, and Anton Troianovski from Moscow.