Europe's Double Crisis: Refugee and Terror

The Paris terrorist attacks have compounded the EU's refugee crisis. They have shifted the weights of several factors in the equation. Some of the most basic do not change at all, though. Foremost in the latter category is the continued presence within the European Union of more than a million newly arrived illegal immigrants (most from Syria) whose formal legal status and disposition has yet to be resolved. In addition, there remains the risk that further waves of persons exiting Turkey will arrive on the shores of Greece, Cyprus, et al. No conclusive agreement has been reached between European leaders and Erdogan on the issue of Turkey's encouragement to those seeking to leave. The same is true of the repatriation issue. As for conditions in Syria itself, and Iraq as well, there looks to be little likelihood of an early end to the hostilities - much less a wider modus vivendi producing stable conditions that could allow for the resettlement of the 2-3 million living outside Syria and the 4-5 million displaced internally who are potential emigres. On this score, the Europeans' collective and individual national influence on the embryonic negotiations will stay weak.

The full impact of the November 13 outrage is being registered on the attitudes of European governments toward the tentative program agreed in principle two weeks earlier. Its principal elements were: the distribution of 160,000 refugees throughout the community based on a formula including size and wealth (the total number is the remainder left after subtracting Germany's pledge to accept more than 800,000; the establishment of "reception" camps in the countries of arrival where a sorting of refugees by home country, reasons for seeking immigrant status, and possible association with organizations that promote violence; and the installation of a mechanism whereby those who do not meet the criteria for the status of landed immigrant would be repatriated to their home country or country of embarkation. The loose consensus on the plan outlined above began to unravel even before the Paris attacks.

A number of governments made known their uneasiness with the very idea of opening their doors to the largely Syrian refugees while questioning the formula used to set quotas. Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban was predictably the most adamant. He announced that Hungary would not participate within the agreed framework; but rather is would be selective in deciding which refugees and how many it would admit. Orban stated explicitly his preference for Christians in the context of remarks that cited the refugee wave as a threat to Europe's Christian civilization. He conveniently forgot that Budapest was ruled by the Muslim Ottomans for 150 years, and that, indeed, when the Magyars first settled on the Hungarian plain in the 9th century they themselves were not Christians.

In Warsaw, the country's prime minister-designate Beata Szydlo has referred to the EU refugee quota deal as "blackmail." She represents the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) which, under the tutelage of former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, won a surprise majority in the country's parliament the Sejm on 25 October. Newly appointed Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski warned that there was danger of terrorists lurking among the Syrian refugees. He added that the refugees were not as desperate as they were portrayed: "Tens of thousands of young men disembark from their rubber dinghies with iPad in hand and instead of asking for drink or food, they ask where they can charge their cellphones." Instead of seeking the comforts of Europe, they should follow the example of the Poles in World War II who formed units that fought with both the British and Soviet Air Forces and Armies to liberate their country.

The second regression from the open hands/open hearts policy was the re-imposition of border controls. Sweden, Austria and Germany have done so on a temporary basis. The stated purpose is to better document entrants, thereby creating an informed basis for make determinations on appeals for asylum, general eligibility, and for identifying security risks. More drastic measures were introduced by Slovenia and Croatia who joined Hungary in building physical obstructions to the unregulated movement of refugees. Their governments worry that their countries would become receptacles for large numbers beyond their capacity to handle as entry into Germany slowed with the establishment of more formal monitoring. Their nightmare was that they would find themselves custodians of tens or hundreds of thousands once the German (and other) quotas were met - or, if there were waves of new arrivals.

The tone has been set by national leaders. Everywhere the rhetoric evokes emotions and symbols of war - and war indeed is the word one hears repeatedly. President Hollande of France proclaimed before the Assemblee Nationale that France was at war against "terror," an enemy that it was committed to destroying. It is an open-ended war of unknown duration. It is noteworthy that Hollande did not specify that France was at war with the Islamic State. A senior French Intelligence analyst sees in this the same mistake that the Bush administration made in 2001 - and likely to produce similar counter-productive effects. "By not giving a name to the enemy, you don't see the enemy as what it is but as what we want it to be. The result is that we are going to try to fight against people for what they are and not for what they did and could do. That, in turn leads to actions that deepen the divide between French Muslims and the general population."

Hollande's declaration was immediately punctuated by a series of stepped-up airstrikes against IS targets in Raqqa followed by the announcement that France now saw Russia as an ally in the war against Islamic terrorism. The Paris government has not spelled out, though, what that means for its strategy in Syria? Would it cease giving priority to the overthrow of the Assad regime? Would it acknowledge that the Free Syrian Army is an empty shell and its political "chiefs" in Turkey, Paris and London baton wielders without an orchestra? Would it urge President Obama to confront the KSA, Qatar et al in the Gulf to cease all backing not only for the Islamic State but also for al-Nusra and its associates? Affirmative answers to these questions require a sharp break in the French strategic perspective on the Middle East that has prevailed for the past decade and which has powerful advocates in French political life.

The debate across Western Europe, too, has become more caustic. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been struggling the tamp down dissent to her generous asylum policy from critics within her ruling coalition, especially from the Christian Democratic Party's Bavarian partner, the Christian Social Union. State premier Horst Seehofer strongly urged better protection of Germany's frontier and called for stricter controls at Europe's external borders. "In light of the increased migration to Germany, we have to know who is driving through our country," he said. Government spokesmen rushed to shore up the Chancellor. Germany's interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere, himself less enthusiastic than Merkel to the idea of an open door policy, cautioned against connecting the attacks in France to the debate over the flow of refugees. "I make the urgent plea, as interior minister and as a responsible politician of this country, that there shouldn't be any hasty links made to the refugee debate."

Clearly, though, Merkel is now fighting a rearguard action to protect the essence of her strategy, and the EU strategy that she authored, against the upwelling of concern and skepticism that had put wind in the sail of her liberal program. That heightens the importance of working out an agreement with Turkey to regularize and to contain the exodus while putting place a structured system for vetting refugees who arrive on European shores. Her personal popularity and that of the CDU has dropped in the polls by six percentage points since the crisis broke - but it has stabilized and shows no further erosion in the aftermath of the Paris attacks.

In France, the political situation is more fraught. There, the main focus is not on quotas for Syrian refugees per se. France could handle its assigned quota of 50,000 over two years and is not on the frontline of the struggle as neither a readily accessible receiving state, transit state or destination. Rather, it is the simmering tensions about the failure of the country's Muslim residents to assimilate into France's secular, republican culture - with attendant conflicts over crime, segregation and social norms - that has roiled French political life. Marine Le Pen's Front National (FN) already was posing a growing electoral challenge to the governing Socialists led by Francois Hollande and the opposition conservative, renamed Republican Party. The FN's rise in the polls, prospects for breakthrough results in the upcoming regional elections (in the two departments of Alps-Maritime and Pas-de-Calais), and the unmistakable resonance engendered by Le Pen's heated rhetoric has the political establishment gnashing their teeth.

The counter strategy is to strike combative poses to demonstrate that the Hollande/Valls government will employ the full powers of the state to protect France's citizens by attacking the sources of terrorism and by crackdown on dangerous elements at home. In the former vein, on November 16 in Brussels, French Defense Minister Yves Le Drian invoked for the first time a European Union mutual aid pact, known as Article 42-7 of the Lisbon Treaty, which calls for members of the bloc to assist other member states if they are attacked. "Today France requests the aid and assistance for all Europe," E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters. "France is requesting help and assistance from Europe. And today all Europe, united, answers yes ....The European Union expressed its strongest, full support and readiness to provide all the aid and assistance asked for and needed."

What assistance fellow EU member can provide is obscure. Intelligence sharing and collaboration among the security services is already at a high level. Tangible support for the planned beefing up of FRONTEX, the frontier monitoring corps, along with the building and manning of reception centers will be welcomed by all parties. Beyond those obvious practical steps, there is the theoretical possibility of participation in the air campaign against ISIL. That doesn't appear to be in the cards, though, as none of the member states who possess the capability to do so (the UK, Germany, the Netherlands) are prepared to join in. Anyway, the need in Iraq and Syria is not for more aircraft but for effective troops on the ground.


The formulation of the challenge proposed by the most perspicacious French analysts rejects the "war" metaphor - as noted above. As one of them has explained:

"France is at war in the Sahel and in the Middle East but (despite the martial postures) is not at war on its own soil. The attack we suffered was by a tiny group of ten or twelve l criminals not so sophisticated and clever, even if the damage they wrought was great). Considering the fact that Abaaoud (who used to be the "commander in chief" of the French speaking volunteers inside ISIS) was part of the attack seems to mean that ISIS threw in this operation the core of its operational reserve able to strike in France and Belgium. We shall probably have to face several local replicas of these attacks triggered by exaltation at this attacks intoxicating effect. Declaring some kind of a French Patriot Act, mobilizing the French Army, using exaggerated language and imagery, calling for a global alliance and so on is exactly what Mr. al-Baghdadi wants us to do."

The French have come to the realization that the nub of the problem is at home. The hard truth is that probably all the perpetrators were French citizens - or, at least, permanent residents. Whatever assistance, training or direction they received abroad does not alter that reality. Indeed, it has yet to be established that ISIl or al-Qaeda was the instigator and organizer of the atrocity. As Alastair Crooke has pointed out: "if there was no direct order from the ISIS command, there is prima facie in Europe a shadow Al Qaeda-like structure taking shape." Unstructured and formless, without a fixed address, it would be far harder to dismantle than either ISIL or al-Qaeda.

Perspective is all important. The first step is to recognize that all the problems encountered by France with jihadist violence are created by Maghreb born, Maghrebi second or third generation French citizens, or French converts. It never has been attacked by somebody of Middle Eastern or Afghan origin. France is not confronted by legions of fanatical Islamists scaling the outer walls of the Republic. The menace comes from alienated and marginalized French youth who take a unique opportunity to act out their anger and sociopathic impulses.

It may be some consolation that the attacks of November 13 may actually have the effect of attenuating that dynamic. As Gilles Kepel argues, this attack could work against ISIL propaganda in the French Muslim community. Cynically speaking, killing unbeliever cartoonists and Jews was viewed sympathetically a few young Muslims of the "no-go zones" around Paris and elsewhere. Mass slaughter in a soccer stadium or a dance hall where those young people themselves congregate is quite another matter. The net effect could be other than the driving apart of France's religious and ethnic communities.

We should find our optimism where we can.