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Friday, 5 February 2016

Refugees? Or referendum?

Ten billion dollars? That's an impressive-sounding sum of money to be spent on helping Syrian refugees -- until you compare it to the $9 billion that, according to The Economist, Germans spend on chocolate every year.

Beware of big numbers. Yesterday's London donor conference on Syria made all the right noises -- they always do -- but if past experience is anything to go by, the right noises rarely translate into ready cash. Meanwhile, the Turkish government says up to 70,000 refugees are heading towards the Turkish border after renewed fighting near Aleppo, Syria's largest city.

Still, I did think it made a pleasant change to see David Cameron grappling with a real crisis, rather than wasting his time negotiating meaningless changes to the EU's rulebook for the sole purpose of keeping his backbenches quiet.

The details of the pre-referendum deal that he is trying to sell us are of no real consequence. I cannot imagine that there is a single person anywhere in the country whose decision on how to vote will be based on the precise wording of whatever document is finally presented to us. It is a gigantic waste of everyone's time, not just Mr Cameron's -- and it is the risible result of Mr Cameron's pressing tactical need three years ago to spike UKIP's guns. To misquote Aesop's fable, he has laboured mightily and brought forth a mouse.

I have no great love for the EU, but I still think Europe is a better place with it than without it, and that the UK is a better place in it than outside it. The same goes for the United Nations, which, like the EU, is far better at staring at its own navel than at the world around it, and far happier organising conferences than tackling the world's most pressing problems.

The faults of the EU and the UN are, in reality, the faults of the government leaders who make the decisions. Last year's unprecedented flow of refugees from Syria to Europe was a direct result of a catastrophic shortfall in funding for the camps in Turkey and Jordan -- and the responsibility for that shortfall lies with donor governments.

So too does responsibility for the failure to agree on a burden-sharing deal that would relieve the pressure on Greece, Italy, Germany and Sweden, which have borne the brunt of the crisis. If the EU is meant to enable Europe's leaders to come up with common solutions to common problems, well, excuse me, but what is the refugee crisis if it is not a common problem? And if it is impossible for EU governments to agree on a common solution -- which is obviously the case -- then we need to ask serious questions about some governments' commitment to the EU project.

To be specific: are the governments of, for example, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic prepared to accept the responsibilities of being members of the club at the same time as they enjoy its benefits? They like the fact that their citizens are free to seek work anywhere in the EU (and send their family allowances back home) and they like the open border trade arrangements that enable them to sell their goods in Germany and elsewhere tariff-free. But they don't like the idea of accepting their fair share of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan.

The (relatively) painless and peaceful end of Soviet domination in central and eastern Europe was one of the miracles of the post-war era. The fragile flowering of multi-party democracy in the region owes much to the blandishments offered by the EU in return for an acceptance of basic democratic norms. The people of the former Warsaw Pact countries have much to thank the EU for, as do the rest of us. But they need to be reminded that they signed a deal, and they need to stick to its terms.

There is a growing fear in European capitals that the refugee challenge is threatening to overwhelm Europe and destroy the EU. As Gideon Rachman pointed out this week in the Financial Times, if the UK leaves the EU, weakened as it is, it could even hasten its collapse. 'Given Europe’s bloody past and troubled present, helping to destroy the major vehicle for European co-operation cannot be a good idea.' EU-haters may welcome the prospect, but they would be wrong.

For one thing, the refugees will not stop coming just because the EU is in pieces. For another, Russia will be even more likely to nibble dangerously at its neighbours if they have no alternative power bloc to call on for help. Ask the governments of Latvia or Ukraine how they would feel if the EU were to collapse. And then remember why first the League of Nations and then the UN and the EU were born from the ashes of two world wars and built on the graves of millions of dead.

So the sooner this wretched referendum is out of the way the better. And if, as I hope, the UK votes to remain in the EU, perhaps Mr Cameron will then devote more of his attention to helping it come up with a more effective and more humane solution to the refugee crisis. He and Angela Merkel, who despite her falling poll ratings is still the most powerful leader in the EU, seem to have developed a decent working relationship. It is time for them to work together on something more important than how to keep Boris Johnson from snapping at the prime minister's heels. 

Ensuring that the governments represented at that donor conference on Syria make good on their pledges would be a useful start.