Thursday, 3 September 2015

The coalition of the unwilling

Hungary, Poland, Spain and the UK were willing to invade Iraq in 2003, but they are unwilling to deal with the refugee crisis which that invasion has spawned 12 years later. Germany and France are the countries shouldering the responsibility.

Today I bought a ticket for the overnight train from Berlin to Budapest, to interview people next week for a radio story I'm working on about the disappearance of Europe's cross-border rail routes. As I was making the booking at the DB ticket office, the woman gave me a look of concern. "That train is going from Hungary to Germany," she said. "Be careful."

Despite watching the news reports about what is happening at Budapest Keleti Station the past few days, it did not occur to me until that moment that I am going to be on one of these international trains next week. This international train travel piece could end up being very different from what I had planned.

The images of Middle East refugees trampling each other trying to get onto trains to Western Europe in Budapest broadcast today were truly horrific. I'm still a bit unclear about whether these are regularly scheduled trains or specific migrant trains, and whether or not my Budapest-Berlin train will be affected at all. But it's hard to imagine it won't be.

This is certainly not Europe's finest hour. Frantic talks are taking place in Brussels right now to try to come up with a common position for what to do about this migration crisis. It is Europe's divided response that is causing these scenes in Budapest. Germany has offered asylum to refugees from the Syrian civil war, and they are pouring through the Balkans, trying to enter the EU at the Serbian-Hungarian border and then make their way to Germany to claim asylum. The countries in between - Serbia, Hungary and the Czech Republic, have treated the migrants brutally. Hungary has constructed a barbed-wire fence along its border and there have been violent scuffles. The Czech Republic has started labelling the refugees on their skin. All of the Eastern European countries have refused to accept Muslim refugees (Poland has said it will only take Christian refugees from Syria).

Germany, France and Sweden, who are all accepting refugees, say the resettlement burden should be shared equally among EU member states, but they are meeting resistance from Eastern Europe, the UK and Spain. Today Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban visited Brussels and re-asserted his position that Hungary will keep asylum limited, saying that the migration influx presents a threat to Europe's Christian roots. The Spanish government has also said they will not take in additional refugees, because the economy cannot support it. Today UK Prime Minister David Cameron reiterated his refusal to participate in the Franco-German plan, saying that Europe should instead focus on bringing peace and stability to the Middle East.

Ah of course, why didn't anyone think of that before? Thanks Dave.

Take a look at the map on the left. At first glance, you might think it's showing the countries which are refusing to take on refugees. But in fact, it is a map of the so-called "Coalition of the Willing" - the group of countries that participated in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Not all of the migrants are coming from Syria and Iraq, but a lot of them are (and this is the specific category to which Germany has offered asylum). It would be hard to argue that the disaster unfolding in Syria and Iraq is not a direct result of that 2003 invasion. It had a hugely destabilising effect on the region. Without the Iraq War, there would be no ISIS (and there would be no one fleeing them).

I find it ironic, then, that it is the very countries which participated in that regionally destabilising invasion that are now refusing to take in refugees from the crisis their invasion has spawned. And who are the countries that are now taking in refugees? It is the countries that refused to participate in the Iraq War: Germany, France and Sweden. The group that former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously derided as "old Europe".

Like in 2003, Europe is not exactly covering itself in glory at this moment. The scenes coming out of Eastern Europe right now are horrific, and it is only a matter of time until we start seeing these scenes in Western Europe. It's a shameful episode, but it is particularly shameful for those countries which helped create this problem by participating in the 2003 Coalition of the Willing.

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