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Putin’s Refugees Will Make or Break Europe

Putin’s Refugees Will Make or Break Europe

Sunday, 27 February, 2022 - 06:00

Just on Day One of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to the European Commission, about 120,000 people fled their homes — becoming “internally displaced,” in the bureaucratic jargon. Roads and highways out of Kyiv and other cities were clogged. Again, that was just the first day.


How many Ukrainians will try to escape their country in the coming weeks and months depends on how brutally Russian President Vladimir Putin will subjugate it. And brutal it'll be, by the looks of it. Between one million and five million civilians could flee westward and into the European Union. The refugee crisis of 2022 is likely to make its 2015 antecedent look orderly, and rival that of 1945.


The Ukrainians’ first destinations will be the four EU countries that are direct neighbors: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Of these, the first three belong to the Schengen area, which will allow Ukrainians to enter and stay for up to 90 days without a visa. Unlike the million or so Syrians, Afghans and others who came in 2015-16, this year’s tired, poor and huddled masses will be able to walk, drive or ride across the borders legally.


Right now, they’re likely to be embraced with compassion and hospitality — the first refugee trains arriving in Munich in 2015 were met by Germans holding bottled water and teddy bears. Poland and the other countries, supported by the European Union, are preparing special medical trains and logistics to temporarily house multitudes.


But how will the EU’s societies react in the medium and longer term? In 2015, an anti-migrant backlash formed even in liberal countries from Sweden to Germany. The eastern member states formerly behind the Iron Curtain closed their doors to migrants almost completely. Poland and Hungary, both led by populist far-right governments then as now, became the leaders of an anti-refugee EU resistance often laced with xenophobia.


In that obstructionist spirit, Warsaw and Budapest have since knee-capped all attempts by the EU to reform its migration regime. Called the Dublin system, it requires migrants to ask for asylum only in the member state they physically enter first. In 2015, this left the countries along the migration routes from Syria — above all Greece — exposed. Overwhelmed, they ignored Dublin and waved the refugees onwards to Austria, Germany and beyond.


Germany and others suggested a new regime, with joint policing around Europe’s external borders and a mechanism to resettle asylum seekers internally in proportion to member states’ size and wealth. But Poland, Hungary and others balked at all entreaties to show solidarity.


It didn’t help that both Warsaw and Budapest have simultaneously waged a rhetorical and bureaucratic guerrilla war against Brussels and the EU. They’ve undermined the rule of law, press and other freedoms. The EU has disciplinary proceedings underway against both. There’s even been talk of finding a way to kick them out of the club.


This time, though, everything could be different. Poland and Hungary will be on the front line, not the periphery. The refugees, who were mostly Muslims in 2015, are Slavic kin, at least for Poles and Slovakians. Poland is already home to about 2 million Ukrainians. And the cause of the migrants’ despair will not be the distant Syrian villain Bashar al-Assad but Europe’s — and especially Poland’s — arch-bogeyman. That’s the one in the Kremlin.


Until recently, an inability to manage migration looked like one way the EU could fail as an entity and idea. That’s what its enemies — like Putin and his bestie, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko — try to exploit, by herding refugees toward the bloc whenever they can.


But in 2022, the penny may finally drop in all 27 member states. The EU, an idealistic peace project based on soft power and democratic values, must realize that it has real, nuclear-armed enemies, which it must stare down as one. That may mean finally forming a European Army, and syncing it with NATO. But most immediately, it means burying internal hatchets, and reforming migration.


Poland and Hungary should immediately drop all their other sniping against Brussels and ask for its help in accommodating the Ukrainian refugees. The EU should give that help graciously and then find new systems to deal with refugees and other problems.


Putin just launched a vicious assault on Ukraine, the post-Cold War order, and indeed truth itself. If anything good is ever to come from this disaster, let it be that he accidentally unites Europe.


Bloomberg


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