“For them, the feelings of guilt over Europe’s past seemed to require inviting in the world to redeem Europe of its sins. Erdoğan is playing on this fear by referring to the Greeks as Nazis, attempting to destabilize the collective psyche of the European leadership.”
reece is again facing a surge of migrants attempting to get into Europe through Turkey’s western border. The numbers are nowhere near those Europe saw in the summer of 2015. Even so, the fact that this is happening demonstrates the situation has only been frozen since 2015. The migrant crisis, like the conflict in Syria, is nowhere near solved. It never ended, only abated, and it is once again playing a part in shaping the politics of the European continent.
We start in Syria. On Thursday, 27 February 2020, 33 Turkish troops were killed in Idlib by government forces. Turkey intervened in the Kurdish region of Afrin in January 2018 and in Syria’s Kurdish dominated north-east in October 2019. This latest clash comes as part of the final push by the Syrian regime to end the civil war. Thanks to the help of Russia and Iranian proxies, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is on the verge of reclaiming what remains of his shattered country.
As a result of the civil war, Turkey has 3.7 million Syrians within its borders. Following the crisis of 2015, Turkey’s Islamist dictator and aspirant Sultan, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan agreed to curtail the numbers of migrants from making the journey to Greece following an agreement with the European Union (EU) in March of 2016. This deal boiled down to Erdoğan agreeing to block further mass movements of people into Europe through Turkey if the EU agreed to a liberalization of visas, reopening Turkey’s route to joining the EU, and to pay his regime a Danegeld of €6bn to help deal with the migrants in Turkey.
This deal was always in Erdoğan’s favor, giving him the power of blackmail over the EU. The threat to open the borders into Europe has been made before. This has been joined by Erdoğan’s repeated calls, most recently in 2018, to Turks in Europe to remain loyal to the motherland by voting and acting in European legislatures in Turkey’s interests. This is subversion and serves as another example of how Erdoğan’s actions are seen as increasingly hostile to European interests by European leaders.
Even so, the migrants have themselves resorted to violence and aggression against the Greek border guards, leaving their image as poor helpless refugees somewhat stained, despite the best efforts of a sympathetic Western media.
This is the background to the most recent instantiation of the long-running crisis. It is unclear as to what exactly Erdoğan is after, but the lie that the borders between Turkey and Greece were open at the end of February is most likely Erdoğan’s way of venting his fury at the attack on his troops in Syria—and at Europe’s perceived lack of support to Turkey over its refugee population. As Erdoğan has said: “What did we do yesterday? We opened the doors…We will not close those doors…Why? Because the European Union should keep its promises.” In fact, many of the migrants in the current wave are not from Idlib province as the news channel TRT claims, nor are they even from Syria. Rather, they hail from places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North Africa. This is a game of geopolitics with migrants as the pieces, and Erdoğan is the one pushing them forward. Even so, the migrants have themselves resorted to violence and aggression against the Greek border guards, leaving their image as poor helpless refugees somewhat stained, despite the best efforts of a sympathetic Western media.
Erdoğan is angry that Europe has not effectively given him a blank check of money and material to continue his faltering campaign in Syria. Despite assertions to the contrary, he bears a large measure of the responsibility for the current scene at the Greek border. His slur that “There is no difference between what the Nazis did and those images from the Greek border” is bold given the murderous actions of his forces in Syria. As Aris Roussinos writes for Unherd, “Erdogan’s Turkey is the greatest destabilising factor in our near abroad.”
Europe’s southern periphery that previously faced the most derision and censure for its profligacy and economic ineptitude continues to face the fallout of mismanagement and hasty measures adopted by the center. In the latest round of migratory pressures on Europe’s border, the message from the EU is clear. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief warned “Don’t go to the border. The border is not open.” According to EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Greece is now seen as Europe’s shield. As Damir Marusic writes, “The celebrated European ‘soft power’…has boiled down to the prosperity that acts as a magnet for the wretched of the earth, and the material capacity to bribe its periphery to act as gatekeepers to keep said wretches out.”
The EU has now pledged around €704m to Greece to help cope with the rise in migrant numbers. The EU leadership now apparently stands in solidarity with the Greeks: von der Leyen stated that “This border is not only a Greek border, but it is also a European border…We have come here today to send a very clear statement of European solidarity and support to Greece.” Alongside financial aid, there is also personnel aid, as Frontex prepares a rapid border intervention team to help Greek border guards and police.
From this, we are seeing political reality set in, over the protestations of media and human rights groups whose de facto position amounts to opposition to any border enforcement. Angela Merkel’s actions in 2015, which saw over 1m migrants enter Europe were borne of a fervent desire to repudiate Germany’s past. The last thing Merkel wanted the world to see were German border guards tear-gassing migrant children. Her move to open Germany’s borders to the world was borne of a psychic condition with causes particular to Germany but shared in differing forms and degree by the rest of the governments of Western Europe. For them, the feelings of guilt over Europe’s past seemed to require inviting in the world to redeem Europe of its sins. Erdoğan is playing on this fear by referring to the Greeks as Nazis, attempting to destabilize the collective psyche of the European leadership.
Add in a pathogen like Coronavirus along with this mass migration and the most accurate description of Merkel’s past actions, “pathological altruism,” takes on a whole new meaning.
Of course, once the summer madness was over, the realization dawned on European leaders: if Germany and France, for example, had found integrating their existing immigrant populations of 50 years so difficult, how could they do so with this new influx? So, of course, the idealism grounded in a narcissistic civilizational masochism led to increased radicalization, a rise in terror and sex attacks linked to the new migrants, a rise in gang crime and 100 bomb attacks last year in Sweden alone. All this has been a shot in the arm for populist-nationalism, which has been around for decades in Europe but grew stronger and more entrenched in response to the mass immigration of 2015 onwards.
Centre-right European leaders now realize that this cannot continue. European nations simply cannot take the world’s poor and remain stable, cohesive societies subject to the minimum of dislocation needed to ensure a reasonable life for their citizens. Add in a pathogen like Coronavirus along with this mass migration and the most accurate description of Merkel’s past actions, “pathological altruism,” takes on a whole new meaning. This is the calculation of Europe’s leaders: those from the Middle East and Central Asia are one thing, but there is also the question of sub-Saharan Africa. As Stephen Smith writes in The Scramble for Europe, by 2050 there will be 450 million Europeans and 2 billion Africans. There is the distinct possibility that millions will attempt to move north. What then?
These present and future dilemmas echo those of five years ago. Europe must balance between the mercy that we would wish to show towards the truly desperate, who in the words of an Afghan refugee in Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe, “have seen everything” and justice to those who are already here. The most recent upswing in migrants at Europe’s border is another reminder of the tragic nature of life: that we live in a world of constrained choices. What is clear is that Europe’s future will be decided by Europe—not by those like Erdoğan who seek to tear its nations and societies apart.
Henry George is a freelance writer living in the U.K. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.