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The EU and the root causes of Syrian migration

ESSAY Marina Díaz Escudero

Since 2015, Europe has been dealing with an unprecedented scale of migration from different parts of the world, mainly from MENA (Middle East and North Africa). People flee their countries due to war, bad living conditions or a lack of opportunities for wellbeing.

Although Europe characterises itself for its solidarity, liberty, values and respect for other countries and cultures, such a large flow of inmigration seriously tests the European project. For instance, the Schengen system of passport-free travel could collapse as fearful countries enhance their border controls, to the disadvantage of European citizens. “The Schengen system is being more and more questioned and most opinion polls highlight the correlation between the fear of inmigration and the distrust of the citizens of the member states towards European institutions.”1 The migration crisis is also considered a “threat for the European project’s constitutional stability and for its fundamental values” (Spijkerboer, 2016). 1  

Divisions between northern and southern EU countries, and between them and the Visegrad countries have clearly intensified due to this problem, specially after the approval, in 2015, of some quotas of relocation of refugees that were critisised and voted against by Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Due to this lack of consensus but also due to the delay of other EU countries in complying with the quotas, a treaty was signed between the EU and Turkey in March 2016 so that most refugees arriving to Europe through Greece would be inmediately returned to Turkey2

Understandably, EU countries are mostly concerned with the prevention of illegal inmigration and with border-control policies, as well as with the need of reaching an agreement for an egalitarian distribution of arriving migrants, most of them being asylym seekers and refugees. Nevertheless, this will probably not be enough to satisfy both the European citizens and the migrants: root causes of migration may need to be solved as soon as possible to prevent people from fleeing their homes. This gives the EU food for thought: addressing the migration problem without focusing on the prevention of migration in the countries of origin may not be a lasting, long-term solution. “The instability, insecurity, terrorism, poverty, famine and climate change besetting large parts of Africa and the Middle East are the root causes of migration, but the European Union (EU) governments have come around to this too late, engaging essentially in damage-limitation exercises at our borders.”3  

According to World Bank data, in 2017 over 8 million migrants came from “the Arab world” and from these, 6 million fleed the Syrian Arab Republic4. The war in Syria, originally between Bashar al Assad’s regime and the rebel opposition, and currently a proxy war involving various international actors, turns the country into one of the greatest sources of migrants. The fact that over a million of them live in Lebanon (currently accounting for a 30% of the population) , a country who didn’t sign the 1951 Refugee Convention and who has been trying to deport the migrants for years now, is worrying. Due to the “fuelling tensions between Lebanese host communities and the Syrian refugees” the Lebanese government has taken some more restrictive measures towards migrants, such as the banning of the construction of formal refugee camps. This for sure puts additional pressure on the EU5.

In order to comprehend the European Union’s vision and strategy on Syria, and whether the institution and its members are willing to fight the root causes of its situation, one must consider the words of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, in her discourse at the Conference of Brussels in April 2018:

“[In this conference] we had representatives of over 85 countries and international organizations, international and Syrian civil society. […] We identified common ground on at least 2 or 3 issues: one is that there is no military solution to the war in Syria and that there is a need that everyone recognizes to relaunch the political process. The second element on which I have not found any divergent view is the key role of the United Nations in leading this political process. This is extremely important for us, the European Union, because we have always consistently identified in the UN and in Staffa de Mistura the only legitimate leadership to ensure that the political process represents all Syrians in intra-Syrian talks and happens along the lines of the United Nations Security Council resolutions already adopted. The third element is the need to support Syrians inside Syria and in the neighbouring countries, with humanitarian aid, financial support but also to support hosting communities, in particular neighbouring countries”.6

The Vice-President of the European Comission basically makes three clear statements: the European institution will by no means intervene militarily in Syria, n­either will it take the initiative to start a political process or peaceful negotiation in the country (it will only support the UN-led process), but it will clearly invest economically both in the country and in its citizens to improve their conditions.

Defence of the UN-led political process

Once a solely-European military intervention has been discarded (due to a lack of consensus among countries on a common defense policy and to the already effective existence of NATO in this regard), the EU considers its role in a political solution to the Syrian conflict, which would clearly reduce migration numbers.

According to the European Council in its conclusions on Syria of April 2018, “the momentum of the current situation should be used to reinvigorate the process to find a political resolution of the Syrian conflict […] A lasting peace in Syria is the ultimate objective of the EU”.7 The Council makes clear that it will not create a new EU-led political process but that it will support the UN’s: “…any sustainable solution to the conflict requires a genuine political transition in line with UNSCR 2254 and the 2012 Geneva Communique negotiated by the Syrian parties within the UN-led Geneva process.”

The UN currently takes part in two parallel processes: inter-Syrian conversations in Geneva and the Conversations in Astaná. The first looks for a dialogue solution to the conflict and participants are the Syrian government, a delegation from the opposition and the UN Special Envoy for Syria. Until now, 9 rounds of conversations have taken place, the last focused on the elaboration of a new constitution for the country. The second process is promoted by Russia, Iran and Turkey, guarantors of the peace process in Syria. Conversations started in 2017 with the aim of consolidating the cease-fire and preparing the way for a political solution to the war. The last round of conversations took place in Sochi this past July8.

But things aren’t as easy as they seem.

UN special envoy for Syria will soon be replaced by the Norwegian Geir Pedersen making future lines of action unpredictable for us. We know, however, what the starting point will be. In the ordinary UN session celebrated on the past 20th december, de Mistura stated that they had “almost completed the job of starting a constitutional commitee to write a constituional reform, as a contribution to the political process, but still have to go one more mile.”9

Such a commiteee would be composed of 150 persons, a third of which should be appointed by the Syrian regime, another third by the opposition and the last one by  UN designated persons. This last point has been repeatedly opposed by Syria. The biggest problem at the moment is that the UN is not fully comfortable with the 50-name list proposed by Iran, Russia and Turkey9.

On the other hand, the strategy of the US, a very relevant actor in this process due to its position in the UN as a permanent member of the Security Council (with veto power on resolutions), has been unclear for a long time. US Special Envoy to Syria Joel Rayburn stated in November that the objectives of the US in Syria were three: the defeat of the Islamic State, the withdrawal of all Iranian-commanded forces and “a political settlement under the auspices of the UNSC Resolution 2254 and the political process supported by the UN in Geneva.”10   

In other words, it seemed that unless the first two objectives were covered the US wouldn’t wholeheartedly compromise for a definitive political settlement in Syria and given US relevance, the UN would have it very difficult to advance the political process anytime soon. Most recently however, there was a turn of events: in December the US declared its intention of gradually withdrawing its troops from Syria. “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency.”11

Does this mean that the US is finally willing to head its efforts towards the third objective? US diplomat Rodney Hunter said: “the US is ready to impulse the political process, to isolate more the regime diplomatic and economically, we are willing to do it.” 9

Although a positive answer would facilitate discussions for peace and thus, EU involvement, a reduction of violence in the region (and therefore a reduction of migration to Europe) is not assured for two reasons: the US now leaves Turks with free hands to attack Kurdish militants and, although ISIS has lost 95% of its territory, “2,500 Isis fighters remain […] The group retains the capacity to do even more damage, especially if let off the hook now.” 11

Soft power: humanitarian aid and investment

Given the fact that the EU can not really influence the military and political/diplomatic decisions regarding the Syrian conflict, it has been focusing, since the beginning of the war in 2011, on delivering humanitarian aid and development support to the country and its nationals. The next phrase from the European External Action Service summarises very well the EU’s aims on this respect: “Our objective is to bring an end to the conflict and enable the Syrian people to live in peace in their own country.”12

Although bilateral, regional and technical assitance cooperation between the EU and the Syrian government came to an end due to the violent situation that was emerging in the country, the international organization directly supports the Syrian population and its neighbours13.

Through the  European Neighbourhood  Policy (ENP), the EU worked hand in hand with its neighbours to the East and South (including Syria) with the aim of fostering stabilization, security and prosperity and achieving cooperation in key areas like the “promotion of democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights and social cohesion.”14 After the cease of cooperation between the EU and the regime, support to the ENP countries is given through the European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI), with a predicted budget of 15 billion dollars (2014-2020)15.

Under the financing og the ENI, the Commission approved in November a special measure “to help the Syrian population to cope with the effects of the crisis and prepare the grounds for a sustainable peace.”16 The main action has been entitled as “Preserving the prospects for peace and stability in Syria through an inclusive transition” and counts with a maximum contribution of EUR 31 million. According to the European Comission, if the Syrian situation turns into a “post-crisis state-building and reconstruction scenario,” special measures will be revised in order to suit the new needs of the population14.

The ENP is part of the EUGS or European Union Global Strategy (for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy) presented by Federica Mogherini to the EU Council in 2016, and whose main aim is to achieve an integrated approach and a “coherent perspective for EU’s external action.”15 As part of this broader strategy, the EU wishes to prevent fragile contexts from becoming serious humanitarian crises17

Within this, another particular strategy for Syria was developed in 2015, the EU Strategy for Syria. Some of its most important objectives are “saving lives by addressing the humanitarian needs of the most vulnerable Syrians across the country,” “promoting democracy, human rights and freedom of speech by strengthening Syrian civil society organisations” and “support the resilience of the Syrian population and Syrian society.”18 The European Council, in its Conclusions on Syria of 2018, agreed that the objectives of the “European Union Strategy on Syria” remain valid.

Although all these initiatives are well-intentioned and show that the EU is not only concerned about the end of the war but also with how it will be done and its aftermath, history has proved that Western political intervention in the Middle East is far from optimum for the region. In the 1916 the Sykes-Picot agreement between France and the UK drew an artificial political line on the territory that would later trigger the Arab-Israeli conflict and promote present ISIS action. Later on, the US-leaded intervention in Iraq in 2003 (one of its objectives being the “liberation” of the Iraqi people) has caused an increase of Sunni-Shiite tension, the rise of Al-Qaeda and the strenghtening of Iran in the region.

The point here is that the EU might be interested in helping Syria and its citizens in ways that improve living conditions and welfare opportunities without messing up with the country’s cultural, social and political system. Imposing the notion of democracy in these states, knowing that they have a completely different historical and cultural background, might not be a feasible solution.

Thus, other types of EU initiatives like the New Partnership Framework (NPF, June 2016), focused on the role of economic development in fighting the root causes of migration, might be more effective in the long-term. “It will address all aspects of this migration crisis, from its root causes to the daily tragedies that occur in the Mediterranean. These ambitions […] illustrate EU's willingness to address specific migratory challenges, but also the long-term drivers of migration.”19

Through the NPF, the EU explains how private investment can be a very useful tool for promoting the economic growth and development of Syria, which would in turn improve the living conditions of its citizens making it less necessary to flee their homes in search of a better place to be. “Instead of letting irregular migrants risk their lives trying to reach European labour markets, European private and public resources should be mobilised for investment in third countries of origin. If deployed intelligently, leveraged use of the limited budget resources available will generate growth and employment opportunities in source as well as transit countries and regions […] This should adress the root causes of migration directly, given the high impact of those investments in terms of employment and inequality reduction.” This is what the EU calls innovative financing mechanisms.

This project is called the External Investment Plan and is being organized in three steps. First, the mobilization of scarce public resources in an attractive way to attract private investment. Then, helping local authorities and private companies to be known in the international investor community. Finally, the EU would try to improve the general business government by putting a solution to some corruption issues as well as some market distortions. “The EU, Member States, third countries, International Financial Institutions, European bilateral development institutions, as well as the private sector, should all contribute.” The EU hopes to collect, through this External Investment Fund, a total of 62 billion euros.

Long story short, European countries believe in the expansion of this type of innovative financing “in those fragile and post-conflict countries which are often important for migration flows but where the potential for direct private or public investment is currently limited.”

An interesting factor to take into account in this matter is who will be the most involved international actor in the project. Will it be the US, allowing us to compare the current situation with the 20th century Marshall Plan? (where investments in infrastructure and the spread of domestic management techniques was also a key element). Or could it be Russia? As the President of the Russian Chamber of Commerce stated in March 2018,  “$200 billion to $500 billion will be needed for the reconstruction of the Syrian economy, and the first priority will, as President Bashar al-Assad has said, be given to Russian businesses.”20 What is clear is that investing in Syria will clearly give the investor country some important influence on the newly-recovered state.

Conclusions and forecast for the future

Since the beginning of the crisis in 2011, Syria has been one of the major sources of migration towards Europe. Although EU members currently need to discuss the prevention of illegal inmigration and the distribution of legally coming asylum seekers, some attention must also be given to the elimination of factors that activate migration in the country of origin.

While it is true that a definitive end to the war between the regime and the opposition would be the best and most inmediate solution for disproportionate fleeings from Syria, the EU doesn’t seem to be able to intervene more than it already does.

Not having an army of itself (and not seeming to want it in the near future) and being the “assistant” of the UN in the political and diplomatic resolution of the conflict, it can only apply its soft power tools and instruments to help to the country and its citizens.

Although humanitarian aid is essential and the EU is sparing no expense on it, the institution has come to realise that the real key to improving Syria’s situation and the wellbeing of its citizens may be investment and development. This investment could be “short-term”, in the sense that foreign countries directly invest in Syria and decide what the money will be used for (i.e reconstruction of buildings, construction of new infrastructure…) or “long-term”, in the sense that the main role of the EU is improving the country’s business governance to facilitate the attraction of private investors in the long-term.  

Regarding the last option it is very important that “the receptor countries establish transparent policies, broad and effective that propiciate an appropiate atmosphere for investment, with the consequent formation of human resources and the establishment of an appropiate institutional climate.”21 Taking this into account, Syria will be a difficult challenge for the EU, as in order to achieve an appropiate institutional climate, a diplomatic solution to the conflict and a peaceful political transition will be required, as well as the collaboration of the future government in promoting political transparency.

All in all, the EU is clearly aware of the root causes of migration and is developing feasible strategies to counter them. The rate of progress is still slow and it may be due to the fact that, in order to effectively apply many of this soft power strategies (except for the humanitarian aid), the receptor country must be stable and ready to collaborate. In other words, EU investment and development plans will most probably bear fruit when the war is over, a peaceful political transition is on the move and the general atmosphere is favourable for economic growth and innovation.

Political stability in Syria could be achieved through two scenarios: the success of the UN-led process and the drafting of new constitution for the country; or the victory of one of the sides (most probably the Syrian regime) and its establishment in power.  Meanwhile, the EU and its members will have three challenges: developping the forementioned long-term investment strategies in the view of a future peace (while mantaining already-functioning soft power initiatives), dealing with the refugee crisis at the European borders, and preserving the European project and unity by avoiding major disagreements on migration policy and an exacerbated fear of inmigration.

Moreover, one of the key issues that will need to be followed closely in the following months is the effect that the, maybe early, withdrawal of US troops can have on the region and on the power dynamic between the actors, together with the potential changes in US strategy with regards to the UN-led process.

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