FRONTEX officer on the Greek-Turkish border (Source: Wikimedia Commons/FRONTEX/Rock Cohen)

The crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border has highlighted the old and revealed new divisions within the European Union. One of these is the approach to the issue of migration policy, the other – the awareness of the threat posed by Russia and Belarus.

Dominika Ćosić

Although, theoretically, the entire community is aware of the seriousness of the crisis and condemns hybrid attacks against Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, the level of awareness concerning the threat varies and its source is often differently defined. While the south of Europe and the European right see it in the category of an uncontrolled influx of immigrants, for the east and the north of the EU it is, above all, an increasing danger of Russia’s expansion (even military).

During the first few months of this crisis, it did not make any significant impact on the European and world public opinion. The topic was popular only in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and partially in Estonia. Once it started appearing in the media, it was mainly in terms of the situation of the migrants themselves and in the context of the migration and humanitarian crisis. There were more and more accusations against primarily the Polish services concerning brutality and heartlessness. Foreign journalists criticized Poland for inhibiting the media and non-governmental organizations from being in the vicinity of the border. However, in September the European Commission, mainly Ylva Johansson, the first Commissioner for Migration and Internal Affairs, started talking about the use of migrants by the Belarusian regime as a weapon for destabilization of the region. On this occasion, the European Union expressed its traditional call for respecting human rights. Since then, the term “hybrid attacks” became part of the official narrative of EU institutions.

Political crisis

Only the last two weeks have resulted in a change of attitude. After attempts by Belarusian “little green men” to break into Poland, and especially after the subsequent mass attacks of migrants on the Polish border, this other point of view was clearly noticed – a political, not humanitarian, crisis, as admitted even by the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.
What is significant, however, is that this knowledge did not reach all countries in an equal scope. The threat of illegal migration (with full assistance from Russia and Belarus) was primarily noticed by the countries located on the external borders of the EU: Greece, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. All of them face the problems of mass illegal immigration, hence the expressions of solidarity from Greece for example, along with a simultaneous call on the EU institutions to support Poland.

A different attitude was adopted by Luxembourg, for instance, whose prime minister Xavier Bettel, during the EU summit in October, emotionally stated that the EU could not give community money to build something as repulsive as walls and barbed wire on the external borders, an idea that evokes the worst connotations and that is in itself inhumane. Luxembourg is in the fortunate situation in that the largest national minority there are, after all, Europeans – the Portuguese, who have integrated perfectly. There was also no terrorist attack there.

However, the Netherlands, for example, which is afraid of mass immigration, agrees with the stance of Poland. This country next to Germany is one of the most popular destinations for migration. Given the strong anti-immigrant sentiment in Dutch society, the government of Marek Rutte at least refrained from criticizing Poland.

The situation is interesting with France, where the majority of the media initially criticized the attitude of Warsaw, but in recent days they have changed their minds, which, for instance, can be seen in a series of texts in Le Figaro. The change in position was influenced by last week’s events, as well as the ongoing campaign before the parliamentary elections scheduled for spring. One of the main topics of the campaign is migration policy – in the case of France, related to the fight against radical Islam and terrorism. Right-wing candidates Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour, and even Michel Barnier, condemned the mass storming of migrants on the border. Le Pen called on the French authorities to provide military aid to Poland. Zemmour, on the other hand, wrote about Poland as the protector of Europe and was subsequently criticized by this very Europe. These opinions, as well as the popularity of both politicians, forced Macron and his government to change their tone. Especially since, according to polls, more than 60 percent of French citizens expressed support for the actions of the Polish government.
It is similar in Germany and Austria, where many citizens publicly express their gratitude to Poland for protecting European borders. And the right-wing politicians in both of these countries criticize their own governments for bad migration policy.

At the borderline and in between

In a certain group of countries, the crisis is perceived even differently – through the lens of the increasingly invasive policy of Belarus, that is de facto Russia. This understanding is shown mainly by the countries of the former Eastern Bloc, which know the methods and mentality of Russian politicians, and perceive the current crisis at the border as a smokescreen of sorts that is supposed to divert attention from the main plans of the Kremlin. This is how the matter is perceived in the Czech Republic (which offered to provide Poland with military support), Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis aptly noted that Belarus and Russia, by playing the escalation of the migration crisis, want to prove that the EU is either inhuman and ruthless towards immigrants, or weak.
In the case of Latvia and Estonia, a potential problem is the large Russian minority. A scenario of provoking these people is already being considered – for example, a fabricated attack on Russians in one of these countries, which would provoke demonstrations by the Russian population asking Russia for “help”.

Sweden and Finland also know that Russia and Belarus, which is doing Russia’s dirty work, are simply more dangerous than the migration crisis that has been triggered. The Finnish foreign minister recently said that it is not the migration crisis that is the problem, but Belarus and Russia, which seek to divide the EU with a self-created political crisis that has high potential for a military conflict.

The crisis at the border with Belarus revived the subject of communitising migration policy, as well as the one concerning European borders. The European Commission has even started to set an ultimatum to Poland – in exchange for funding the construction of security measures, it wants Frontex officials to go to the border region and start working there, and that Poland should cease stopping migrants at the border. Some politicians even began to say that the problem would not reach such a scale if it was the EU that dealt with the protection of external borders. This, however, is a very naive belief, as Russia would proceed to do what it wishes regardless. And finally – who would be in charge of the entire system? Wouldn’t it fall on the politicians who would establish that everyone must be let in?

(…)

Poland should now be looking for allies, referring to the arguments corresponding to a given country. And start spreading its side of the story more. If we lose the war on information, we will lose much more. Both the head of our diplomacy and the Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki are aware of this, the latter undertaking the diplomatic offensive by meeting in person with the leaders of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, then Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, etc. Simultaneously, Poland is still holding talks with countries who are the source of illegal immigration. This was also the purpose of the meeting in Warsaw between the Prime Minister and the head of the OECD.

On the one hand, Poland is trying to prevent the escalation of the immigration crisis, on the other – it has finally started to show its version of events. And this is very important, because – as one of the Italian journalists told me – hardly any government dares to criticize Poland for sending immigrants, when almost all governments of European countries do the same: from Greece, through Italy and Croatia, to France and Great Britain.

The full version of this article was published in November 2021 in “Do Rzeczy” weekly.