It seems that the stars have not aligned in Europe’s favor in recent months. On top of all the problems that the EU has been facing with regard to economy, the refugees and the closed borders crisis, the attack in Brussels has made things even worse.
The heinous and condemnable blow in Belgium caused the disgust of the international community but made some others in Europe to feel justified for proactive policy regarding the closure of European borders. This means the far right in Europe, especially the Austrian Government and its Visegrad allies who have flagrantly violated the Schengen Treaty by closing the borders of the central Balkan route and "punishing" Greece for the allegedly inadequate guarding of its own border with Turkey.
Currently in some of the best preserved imperial buildings of the Habsburg period, the Austrian chancellor and his ministers feel the course of events has vindicated their decisions. Moreover, by keeping alive in their minds the tradition of Ottoman sieges of Vienna in the 16th and 17th century, they seem to implicitly consider themselves defenders of Charlemagne’s Europe and successors to the imperial Habsburg security policy for central Europe. This time not against a Muslim army, but the soft power of Muslim refugees crowding in the Balkans and the Danube countries for a better economic future. At the moment the future of Schengen, the eurozone and ultimately united Europe are being jeopardized by Austrian diplomacy.
In Vienna’s view, Charlemagne’s vision of Europe does not include the Balkans, which it sees as a foreign field and suitable for all kinds of experiments. Mainly in their Byzantine past, the Balkans were treated not as Europe but as an exotic region close to Europe. During the refugee crisis, Athens has been viewed through a Byzantine prism and not an ancient Greek one, which the Austrians keep as a privileged cultural legacy through Central European neoclassicism. The Austrian rulers, who joined EU proceedings somewhat late in 1995, seem to forget the constructive role Greece played in Vienna’s effort to join the Union and the Greeks’ fundamental cultural importance for the EU.
Austrian policy’s biggest operational mistake is that the closed borders will not succeed despite expectations that the exact opposite will happen. The coming of spring is already opening up the mountain passes of the Balkans and the penned in refugees will stream from the Balkans to the north. If the Austrians move the fences northward, they will make things worse: The crisis will spread across the peninsula with potentially damaging security consequences, especially in relation to the Islamic State. Austria runs the risk of finding on its doorstep not desperate civilian refugees seeking a better economic future but fighters of the Islamic State who may find support among the Balkan Muslims. These fighters may seek to capitalize on the humanitarian crisis and misery that has fallen on Muslim refugees in the Balkans currently because of Austria’s closed borders.
This is why the Balkan countries must not be influenced by Austrian policy but should collaborate with Greece to implement a flexible management of refugees, in line with the principles of human rights. They have to avoid transforming the Balkans, our common cultural space, into a camp of human misery for the sake of some governments in northwestern Europe.
The Austrians, and those who tacitly support them in the EU, should quickly understand that the closed borders are an old-fashioned and inadequate way of maintaining security in the modern globalized internet environment. Europe needs modern security methods adapted to the human rights of all people regardless of religion, gender and origin. Vienna needs to understand that its superficial policy can only jeopardize the future of a united Europe by leading to the abolishment of Schengen and the euro. This is something that must be prevented from happening in any case because then the consequences for Europe would be devastating and those responsible will have to answer to history.
* Dr Evangelos Venetis is a specialist in refugee and migration studies. The coordinator of the Middle East Research Project of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) recently joined the Refugee Studies Program at the Stavros Niarchos Center for Hellenic Studies, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver.