Crisis or Opportunity? How European Countries use Refugees for Political Gain

EPA/Orestis Panagiotou

Guest post by Professor Heaven Crawley, Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations

After no fewer than five emergency summits, a solution to Europe’s refugee crisis remains elusive. The list of failures is long and growing including the failure to deliver “hotspots”, reception centres meant to process refugees who arrive in frontline states such as Italy and Greece, and to provide humanitarian assistance for those trapped in the Balkans as a result of fences which have been hastily thrown up in an effort to stop the flow.

Our research in southern Europe has led me to conclude that the so-called “migration crisis” has rather less to do with the movement of people and rather more to do with the geopolitics of the EU – and the EU’s relations with the outside world.

The truth is that rather than engaging with the problem, the countries of the EU have used the issue of migration to consolidate their own political power and to challenge others. Fingers are being pointed precisely along the lines of decades-old geopolitical conflicts between European countries.

The process began with Germany, which stood accused of throwing open the borders of Europe with little or no regard to the consequences for the countries through which the refugees would pass.

Particular venom has been directed towards the chancellor, Angela Merkel, one of Europe’s few women leaders, who has been accused of being emotional and of trying to redeem her country from the sins of its past.

Vienna meeting on migrant situation


A Vienna meeting on ‘managing’ the crisis. EPA

Then came Greece, accused of neglecting its obligations to border control.

Greece has, of course, long been regarded as incompetent and the escalation of the migration crisis came just as the rest of Europe was working out how to solve its debt crisis. This crisis was attributed in large part to economic failures on the part of the Greek government.

By the end of 2015, a beleaguered Greek state, reeling from an economic disaster and austerity measures that left half of under 25s unemployed, had seen 850,000 people arrive on its shores from the beaches of Turkey just 10km across the Aegean Sea.

The geopolitics of the Aegean

To understand why so many people have been able to cross from Turkey to Greece, you have to know something about the tense geopolitics that dominate the relationship between the two countries. These play out on a daily basis on the waters of the Aegean Sea.

The political geography of the region is characterised by islands in the eastern part which are very close to the Turkish coast, but are in fact Greek territory. Ongoing disagreements over the sovereignty of certain Greek islands, islets and even rocks, culminated in the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in July 1974 and the subsequent Turkish occupation of the northern portion of Cyprus, which continues to this day.

This geopolitical context explains in large part why the Greek and Turkish authorities have refused to set up joint patrols in the Aegean even though this would save lives and reduce flows.

It is also the context in which the European Union has recently agreed to give Turkey €3 billion to “solve” the migration crisis. Turkey is itself keen to join the European Union and has leveraged access to visa-free travel for Turkish citizens on the back of the deal.

The recent arrival of NATO ships in the Aegean, ostensibly to monitor human trafficking rather than to send refugees and migrants back to Turkey, adds a further dimension to this already highly complex – and highly militarised – political situation.

Balkans to the rescue?

There are increasing noises from leaders that Europe may have to rely upon the Balkan States, specifically Macedonia, to save Europe from the incompetence of Greece and the failure of Turkey to stop the flows into Europe.

Closing the Greek-Macedonia border would effectively turn Greece into a refugee camp. This would be very bad news for Greece but rather better news for Macedonia, which is keen to accelerate EU accession and has been in conflict with Greece since 1991, when it declared its independence from Yugoslavia. Since that time, Macedonia’s “name issue” has been used by Athens to block Macedonian membership of NATO and the EU.

Refugees continue to pass through Macedonia on their way to the European Union


Macedonia’s welcome committee. EPA/Georgi Licovski

This is just one aspect of the Balkan context shaping the way in which individual countries respond to the migration crisis. The Balkans is portrayed as a region of transit for people trying to reach northern Europe. But the situation is actually more complicated than that.

In reality there is very significant outward migration from the region: 40% of all asylum seekers arriving in Germany in 2015 came from Albania, Kosovo and Serbia. Unemployment stands at around 40% across the region but opportunities for co-operation between states are limited by the violent experience of its not-so-distant past.

The sad fact is that the wounds of the Balkan wars have not yet healed – but the problems and the political divisions which mark relations between the Balkan states are being downplayed in the interests of securing EU membership.

Political impasse

Seen from a geopolitical perspective it is absolutely clear that the so-called “migration crisis” is being used as a front to further other political agendas, most notably the path to joining the EU for countries like Turkey and the Balkan states. And these old grudges and stereotypes are equally useful to displace blame for how little has been achieved to solve the problem.

Much of what is said and done in response to the crisis serves the purpose of positioning countries in relation to one another. By talking up the threat of migration for more than a decade, Europe now finds itself ill-equipped to respond in any way other than lashing out, not only at migrants and refugees but also at fellow and emerging EU member states. Everyone else is to blame.

If ever there was a time that the EU needed to take a deep breath and look at how it can revitalise its relationships, both internally and with the outside world, it is now. The only solutions to this crisis are those which acknowledge the geopolitical factors that lie at its heart.

Originally written for ‘the Conversation’.



Coventry University