At Europe’s Heart
For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Dario Mazzola, from the University of Bergen, in Norway. Bonjour, Dario!
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In the year since the Russian aggression of Ukraine, many Ukrainians have found refuge in European countries. Dario, you have written your PhD about the border crisis of 2015, before analysing, as a post-doc researcher in the PROTECT project, contemporary crises in the provision of refuge.
When I started my postdoc in 2020, many researchers thought that refuge and migration would no longer be high on the agenda, not least because of the COVID crisis. I argued for the opposite, for a number of long-term reasons, and unfortunately, Ukraine proved I was right.
Seen from the humanitarian prospect of displacement, Ukraine is among the largest crises of all times, and its geographical proximity and political implication with the European Union make it particularly salient for us. We speak of 8 million refugees and asylum seekers, mostly women and children, but actual figures could be higher.
If I had to single out one feature of my research, I would say it consists in putting migration and refuge in context. Even with the exceptionality of the situation of Ukraine, there is a clear pattern: the background of the critically inadequate response by the European Union and other countries to previous waves of refugees, and the systemic degradation of the international community, from economic crises to COVID to the breakdown of international relations in a system of block confrontation reminiscent of the Cold War.
So how does Ukraine stand out when compared to previous crises?
There are both continuities and differences. The sudden peak in inflow is not dissimilar from the Syrian refugee crisis. We can also notice that some of the conflicting actors are the same.
And yet the reaction has been very different. Both between and within European countries, controversies over solidarity with refugees from Ukraine have been low or non-existent: unprecedented mechanisms such as the Temporary Protection Directive have been swiftly activated. If we were to look for analogues, we should perhaps look at Kosovo in the 1990s, but comparison has its limits.
What are the major differences between the two situations?
To start with, Ukraine is 20 times more populous than Kosovo. And times have changed since then!
At the moment of the Kosovo crisis, European countries were undergoing a period of economic growth and greater historical optimism, both in terms of the European integration process and of the pacification of global relations. Today, economic resources have been strained between the economic crisis of 2008 and the COVID pandemic. Even more important, neither Kosovo nor Syria involved a relevant military effort with an uncertain outcome, contrary to what we have in Ukraine. Finally, I would stress once again that Syria is further away, and Kosovo is much smaller: we should not think about politics and humanitarianism in the abstract, but in concrete numerical and geographical terms.
And how do these differences impact the response to refugees?
The implications of these differences are that while we see a commitment to solidarity that reminds us of Kosovo, the magnitude of the crisis recalls Syria. I hope European politicians are doing their math in planning responses for the short and, potentially, for the long term.
You sound like you fear this is not the case.
In 2015, the Italian researcher Giandomenico Majone denounced the collapse of the EU’s culture of ‘total optimism’, and his Swiss colleague Sandra Lavenex has aptly applied this concept to the failure that has been the response to the 2015 border crisis.
Wishful thinking is devastating in politics. When we plan and execute solidarity with refugees from Ukraine, which is our duty, we should have all scenarios in mind: a Ukrainian victory, a Russian victory, a stalemate. Refugees may return or may not. Between humanitarian and military support and the cost of sanctions, EU countries are sacrificing 1, 2% of their GDP, or more. Also, solidarity may be tested if fatigue is perceived in the public. When we pledge to support refugees, we do so amidst all these factors.
Europe needs to work on systematizing its Union-level response to refugees, and on developing a united and consistent foreign and global policy stance, with a strategic vision and not merely in response to crises. The EU can no longer afford to be self-centred or short-sighted: it has to articulate a doctrine and adhere to it consistently. But perhaps here I’m trespassing my programmatic realism into utopian thinking.