No amount of money can mask the European Union's failure of Middle Eastern refugees

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock (L) and UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (R) appeal for funds to help Syrian refugees displaced by the seven-year war. Geert Vanden Wijngaert / AP
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock (L) and UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (R) appeal for funds to help Syrian refugees displaced by the seven-year war. Geert Vanden Wijngaert / AP

For the duration of the Syrian conflict, a distracted and disoriented Europe has struggled to play a peace-making role that leveraged historic ties, diplomatic strengths and geographic proximity.

Into the vacuum stepped other states with a variety of motivations. Rocked by the refugee crisis that the Syrian conflict fuelled, the European Union turned in on itself, and domestic battles over immigration further divided individual member states.

European diplomats were outclassed at venues such as the UN Security Council, while players in the conflict – notably Russia – sought to shape events on the battlefield.

Europe’s collective failure of will removed the option of military intervention from the table, even as the balance of fortune between the regime and the mainstream opposition was up for grabs.

The EU’s most effective platform in the conflict has been donor-pledging conferences whose stated aim is to “seek to further mobilise the international community behind efforts to support the Syrian people and achieve a lasting political solution to the Syria crisis, in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254”.

Examining the briefing materials ahead of what is known as Brussels III (its predecessors were London, Brussels, Brussels II) reveals some impressive figures.

For example, EU states and institutions pledged $4.3 billion in grants for Syria and its neighbours at last year’s meeting in Brussels but then delivered $6 billion by the end of 2018. That represented a 38 per cent overshoot.

It is rare to hear of international donors delivering more than they pledge. Part of the credit for that lies in the well-designed structures and frameworks that have been the outcome of Brussels II, which is co-hosted with the UN. The total generated by the conference, including loans, was more than $25 billion.

Another telling figure in the detailed reports is that one quarter of all grants made last year were to finance education for Syrians, not just at home but throughout the region.

In the year since the last meeting, the scale of the problems faced by the 16 million Syrians who are either displaced or dependent on assistance has grown, not diminished.

However, numbers alone do nothing to measure the success of gatherings such as these. As Janine Lasseter, a German-based charity worker, said last week, the values underlying the programmes remain key to better outcomes.

Changing the tone, the organisers of Brussels III – which runs from March 12 to March 14 – have sought to introduce a community feel to the summit. The focus is not all about long lines of limousines and big speeches. Grassroots Syrian organisations and individuals will also be heard at events taking place in the European parliament building and a number of other prestigious venues.

Broadening participation brings individuals and communities together to focus on the future, instead of bogging conversations down in process-led meetings dedicated to issues such as the ring-fencing of funds and the creation of audit trails.

Europe’s moral clout is also amplified by efforts such as those in Brussels. However, the continent’s treatment of Syrian and Iraqi refugees continues to undermine this.

The European Council on Refugees and Exiles in Europe warned last week that the destruction of an informal housing settlement in Italy that was home to 1,500 people had made large numbers of refugees destitute. The group also underscored the “nexus between migration and labour exploitation” and added that “the reduction or withdrawal of reception conditions is considered and used as a tool for immigration control” by a range of countries.

Nations such as Hungary, Italy, Poland and Austria pursue policies of outright hostility to migrants. Meanwhile, the European Union at large is exhibiting signs of distress as the UK government seeks to deliver Brexit. It is a safe bet that the rest of the group will spend years debating reform after the loss of its biggest military power and second-largest economy.

The EU’s leaders would also do well to look at how the bloc failed the Syria test after 2012. Its member nations have had the necessary resources to provide generous assistance throughout seven years of fighting. They have also not spoken with the coherent and unified voice that would have made the pursuit of a diplomatic path viable.

The Syrian opposition always suffered asymmetric disadvantages at the conference tables in Geneva and elsewhere. One of the reasons for this is that Europeans have consistently misread and mishandled the challenge before them.

While marshalling support and assistance for Syria is a great cause, Europe’s failures of this war-torn nation remain too numerous to ignore.

Updated: March 9, 2019 07:12 PM


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