The EU has Long Foresworn its Normativity: Why are Well-Wishers so Surprised?

Source: REUTERS/Fatih Saribas

Source: REUTERS/Fatih Saribas

Hot on the heels of the EU-Turkey refugee deal of November 29 came a barrage of criticism by civil society organizations, academics and diplomats on the EU failing to live up to its putative normative principles. The 28-strong block, their view goes, seemed to ardently pursue a deal that prioritised its domestic and strategic interests over its concern and respect for progressive politics. The EU, in their eyes, is transforming from a normative actor to a realistic, selfish one. But a closer look at the EU’s foreign policy adventures points to a record which is hardly a testament to the union’s normative character.

In Syria, the EU briefly embraced and welcomed Bashar al-Assad’s “Damascus Spring” in 2000-2001, a short-lived experiment at liberalizing the country’s political system. However shortly after this, the EU pressed for a set of neo-liberal reforms that were certain to benefit the country’s ruling elite while depriving the population of a number of significant subsidies. It also aimed at opening the Syrian market to foreign products.

Regarding Iran, some EU countries were instrumental in bringing about the nuclear deal. They even exerted strong pressure on the US, when the latter appeared uncertain and faint-hearted. But the nuclear deal was far from an exercise in normativity; right after the deal, massive British, French and German trade delegations visited Tehran to explore business opportunities. The deal reached was fast-tracked while little, if any, attention was paid to the country’s recent human rights record. According to an Amnesty International report, the number of executions in Iran for the first half of 2015 was “staggering”.

In Libya, the EU was quick to prophesize Qaddafi’s fall and actively pursued his removal. It was mainly Italy, France and Great Britain who led the drive to topple the Libyan leader, thus majorly contributing to the subsequent country’s descent into chaos. In an ironic twist of fate, a lot of the weapons formerly belonging to Qaddafi’s army are said to have been transferred to Turkey and smuggled into Syria, where they ended up in the hands of extremists.

As such, what would justify such a sanguine perception and expectations of the EU’s role in regional affairs? Individuals holding such views should hardly be blamed for intellectual disingenuousness; their assertions stemming more from a frustrated urge to see Europe, for many a light unto nations, put its money where its mouth is. But for more sober observers, the EU’s post-normative turn has most likely been completed, most likely irreversibly. How can a multi-faceted entity with a recent record as the one aforementioned be plausibly expected to care about Turkey’s judiciary tribulations, human rights violations and press freedoms?

The recent EU-Turkey deal’s goals were at best vague: not a word on how the $3 billion will be spent, on what criteria Turkey will be expected to predicate its refugee status-assessment policies and what the deal will mean for future Greek-Turkish cooperation which is currently a hot topic. As the Turkey-Greece route is by far the most popular taken by refugees aiming to reach Europe, a number of mechanisms to deal with this issue have been broached; from joint sea patrols in the Aegean to the setting up of hotspots in Turkey for their direct transfer to EU states. But none of the above measures have been sufficiently detailed or explained and, as with the $3 billion given to Turkey, nobody knows what practical steps and measures will amalgamate into a cohesive and fair refugee policy. Given the aforementioned foreign policy record, the EU’s sluggish bureaucratic mechanisms and huge divergences among member-states in their (refugee) politics, those wishful refugees well should look elsewhere for safe-haven and support.

In every country, the refugee issue is inextricably linked to domestic and foreign policies. Eastern and South-eastern European states have been categorically more anti-immigration than Western ones. In the absence of an adjudicating mechanism/organization that could help solve such problems and given the huge conceptual gap between European states, the EU’s post-normative realpolitik could at least be supplemented with some degree of idealism (albeit a pragmatic one). It is imperative for progressive-minded civil society organizations, individuals and intellectuals to propose a new modus operandi for dealing with the refugee issue in our troubled neighbourhood. In line with the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, progressive forces in each country could press for the temporary hosting of refugees until the situation in their home countries improve. Once this happens, and if refugees remain as unwelcome as they are in some places, they could be returned to their countries of origin. Alternatively, EU governments could be pressed to at least define what they expect of Turkey, if the latter country is to serve as a buffer against a hard-to-control refugee influx into Europe. If Turkey is to shoulder such a heavy burden (as it has done so far), it should at least get some help in navigating through a regional order not exclusively of its own making.

Finally, it’s already too late for the EU to exercise any kind of normativity; the EU has had ample opportunity to do so since the launch of its Neighbourhood Policy in 2004. The time is now far from propitious. There is still a lot that can be achieved with a small dose of imagination, but hiding behind one’s finger or thinking wishfully is a recipe for disappointment, or even disaster.

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