The 2020 EastMed Crisis – A Failure of European Solidarity?

“We almost went to war with Turkey three times last year.” This close did the Eastern Mediterranean come to erupting into conflict during the Summer of 2020. What’s more, this grim assessment did not originate in one of the conflict-stricken states bordering Turkey’s eastern and southern borders. It came from Greek Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos.The question must therefore be addressed, how a dispute initially concerned with resource exploitation could almost escalate into an outright military confrontation. 

Realising conflict was only narrowly averted on Europe’ southern frontier may have caught some observers off-guard. Still adhering to the post-Cold War belief in Liberalist determinism, many Western policymakers have taken the ability of multilateral organisations to guarantee peace for granted. While institutions like the European Union (EU) may be suited to facilitate market integration, the bloc has with its unregulated engagement fallen woefully short in contributing to the security of its members. The close call witnessed in the EastMed should therefore serve as an urgently needed wake-up call! 

Recent Developments in the EastMed: Old Rivalries and New Alliances

The (southern) periphery of Europe is in a state of unrest not seen since the Second World War! Ideally, EU executive institutions and member states would realise that a divided foreign policy will leave them frustrated in every endeavour. Worse still, disunity offers ready-made avenues for authoritarian leaders to selectively challenge member states. In the absence of European solidarity, individual member states will be forced to rely on outside powers to guard against external threats. The risks of such a trend are manifold, not least because conflicting entanglements with third states may further fracture EU cohesion. 

Returning to the introductory quote, the case of Greece illustrates succinctly where a lack of EU cohesion leaves the bloc’s peripheral members. Not being able to rely on the bloc to protect itself from rising dangers in the region, Greece was left scrabbling for alternative ties outside its Western alliances. This development was further compounded by the US’ disengagement from the region, which precipitated the emergence of rivalling alliance systems.

Perceiving Turkey as an existential threat, Greece naturally joined a coalition that opposed Ankara’s revisionist ambitions. In pursuit of active deterrence, the Hellenic Republic has gradually built up bilateral and trilateral ties as a foundation for a fully-fledged regional alliance. The emerging coalition stretches from the Hellenic Republics of Cyprus and Greece to Israel and Egypt over the Arabian Peninsula (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain) all the way to India. 

Of all these ties, the Greek relationship with the UAE has seen the most progress. Under the de facto leadership of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), the Emirates have taken a firm stance against Turkish support of Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood. United in their opposition of Ankara’s destabilising role in the region, MBZ agreed to establish a formal defensive with Athens this past November. For Greece, this marks a major step towards renewed engagement with its eastern neighbourhood, seeing as it constitutes the first agreement of this type outside the Western alliance framework (EU-NATO).

Future prospects: Stronger European Cohesion or Further Fragmentation?

The latest effort by Greece to cement itself within a new regional stability framework was the “Philia Forum” held on the 13th and 14th of February 2021. It brought together in Athens the Foreign Ministers (FM) of Cyprus, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, with the French FM attending virtually as an observer. The conferences laid out a broad range of economic and social domains on which the attendees pledge to cooperate. However, the broader implications the summit carried were unmistakable, seeing as from cooperation on peripheral domains would invariably follow closer coordination on matters of defence. The primary target attending countries intended to deter did not fail to take note of this development. The response from Ankara was the usual polemic rhetoric: Its Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hami Aksoy accusing participating countries of harbouring “hostility against Turkey”.

On a broader scale, it must be asked where these developments on its very doorstep leave the EU. Although Greek efforts to solidify its deterrence have so far proven successful, there is no telling when tensions will once again spiral out of control. The only way to sustainably reduce tensions is for EU members to start conducting a more cohesive foreign policy. Members states should – for a start – terminate exports of military material in support of expansionist third states, especially if they threatened fellow member states. Coordinating such a transition falls to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. It is high time for her to fulfil her promise of a “geopolitical Commission” and realise a united European approach to external threats.


The Moria Catastrophe and the collective failure of the European Union

COVID-19 and the US presidential election: If you’ve turned on the news anytime in the past few weeks, you will probably have realised that these topics have been dominating the headlines incessantly. Magazines are cluttered with news about the coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the world and were littered with coverage of a particularly heated election campaign and a very unusual and rocky transfer of power in the US. 

The current situation on the Greek island of Lesbos, however, scarcely attracts coverage in the news cycle, even though hundreds of people have died and are still dying in the Mediterranean Sea on their way to Europe: More than 1,000 migrants in 2019, 554 in 2020 and already 42 migrants in a shipwreck off the coast of Libya this January. These appalling figures showcase a social crisis and call for a total rethink of both policy and attitude towards immigration. The issue is by no means confined to Greece only, but rather is the most obvious and significant symptom of an asylum policy based on fortifying borders.

Solidarity, tolerance, justice: Europe’s noble but hypocritical values

The conditions under which EU states are housing refugees on Greek islands are nothing new, the final catastrophe had already been brewing for months – if not years. The devastating fire in the Moria refugee camp in September 2020 only highlighted the political deadlock and human cost of the status quo, and laid bare the failure of EU member states. The humanitarian fallout caused fury among journalists and activists, directed sharply towards the EU. Empty words on the part of the European Commission and a tangle of bureaucracy, indifference, as well as a sheer lack of political willpower were met with widespread anger and seemed to typify the EU’s ambivalence towards the issue.

Two weeks after the Moria camp burnt down, the “Kara Tepe” camp was built and the people, who had just escaped intolerable conditions in Moria, found themselves in a refugee tent camp almost worse than the one before: Over 7,500 people are now living in a tent camp originally intended for 1000 people – among the dust and debris of a former military shooting range. Europe’s noble values – solidarity, tolerance, justice – probably sound like cynical mockery to those who are crammed into overcrowded tents and makeshift shelters with little to no access to water, food, sanitation and healthcare. 

But it’s not just Moria. The French port of Calais for example, has become a bottleneck for hundreds of migrants hoping to reach the United Kingdom – a journey now aggravated by Brexit. And since EU states like Hungary have put up border fences, the situation outside the EU has also become rather tense as migrants are looking for new routes: Many now try to enter the European Union via Bosnia. In December 2020, calls for help grew louder as thousands of migrants lost shelter after a blaze broke out at the so-called Lipa camp in Bosnia and had to live outside amid plummeting winter temperatures. Since early 2018, the EU has provided €89 million to Bosnia and continues to criticise the dire circumstances, as well as Bosnia’s dysfunctional migration management system to this day. 

And yet it is still hypocritical for the EU Commission to point a finger at Bosnia – after all, the EU member states themselves have also been unable to agree on a common asylum and migration policy. Especially now, as the EU border agency Frontex is accused of being involved in several illegal pushbacks on the part of Greek coast guards, it’s just duplicitous to call solidarity, tolerance and justice Europe’s values and at the same time tolerate that people are forcibly being prevented from seeking asylum in a country of the European Union – a right to which everyone arriving at the border of the EU is entitled. Passing the entire responsibility on to Bosnia and thinking that money alone will solve the problem will not be of any help. The EU should work with the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to find systemic and long term solutions, since the crisis in Bosnia is simply a consequence of the EU fortifying its borders.

Worse than the lacklustre response to the refugee crisis per se, however, was the EU’s continued refusal to completely overhaul its dysfunctional asylum policy. The two main flaws of the EU’s short-sighted, inhumane, and ineffective asylum policy have been known for years: asylum applications always take too long to process and some European member states simply don’t want to cooperate and still wish to seal off their country completely. 

The EU’s solution strategies: unrealistic, bureaucratic and too late

On the 23rd of September 2020, the European Commission launched the New Pact on Migration and Asylum in an attempt to streamline the EU’s policies in this area. 

Immediately after the pact was announced, it came under fire for allowing EU member states to opt out from participating in the relocation of asylum seekers by offering financial aid. Meaning that member states, which had previously flouted laws and agreements, suddenly had the legal permission to stand idly by. Critics have also expressed their concerns about the fact that border security had been prioritised over access to asylum and that the pact introduced measures that seemed to hamper the process of obtaining protection in the EU. Support, albeit half-heartedly, only came from a few countries – along with a lukewarm remark that the pact was at least a good starting point. 

Until September 2021, the EU wants to have established a new camp on Lesbos together with Greek authorities. For this, a memorandum of understanding between the EU, Greece and the European migration authorities was signed at the beginning of December last year. Once again, the solution comes far too late and is of no help whatsoever to those who are currently suffering. There’s a glaring irony to the fact that the European Union, the Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2012, continuously contradicts the values that the award represents, doesn’t manage to own up to its responsibility and doesn’t live up to the expectations it sets for others.

The EU must revert back to its values, and it must do so as quickly as possible. Because immigration is not something that will die down soon: The crisis is currently on a disastrous trajectory, because for years and years, it’s been categorically deprioritised, normalised and banalised. If the EU is not eager to deal with the grim reality in a human-centred way, this crisis will serve to further divide an already divided Europe, plunge Lesbos into even more turmoil and risk many more lives.