How the German “traffic light” coalition can solve the EU border crisis

Germany’s new government could defuse the conflict between Poland and Belarus by demonstrating greater toughness on Lukashenka and showing willingness to accept a limited number of migrants. And the EU should be ready to use its most effective weapon: trade.

Polish police at the Polish-Belarusian border, 11.11.2021

The crisis at the European Union’s eastern border, where Belarusian dictator Alyaksandar Lukashenka is using thousands of migrants to blackmail the EU, will be the foreign policy litmus test for Germany’s new coalition. The “traffic light” parties want to end the suffering at EU borders, act tougher on autocrats, take seriously Germany’s responsibility for shaping EU’s foreign policy, and represent Europe’s values – both internally and externally – more forcefully. But all of these goals are at stake in the current border crisis.

The crucial question is: how can the EU prevent a humanitarian catastrophe on Europe’s doorstep without playing into the hands of dictators to its east? And do these even go together – protecting human rights, defending the border, and confronting Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin? This should be possible. To achieve it, however, the new federal government will have to take bold steps.

The impression that the crisis is already under control is very misleading. Since two telephone calls took place between Angela Merkel and Lukashenka, the situation on the EU’s eastern border has indeed improved. Violent attacks on both sides of the border eased off. Some of the migrants have been taken into temporary care, and several hundred have been sent back to Iraq. But as long as thousands more refugees are stuck in Belarus, the humanitarian crisis will go unresolved, and the danger of a new escalation will remain. Lukashenka’s henchmen can at any moment send desperate people towards the border again. And the EU’s recently agreed sanctions on airlines and companies that facilitate so-called “migration tourism” to Minsk are still no guarantee that more people will not be lured to Belarus. There are enough flights from Russia to get them there.

The EU must organise a humanitarian corridor to get the migrants out of the Belarusian trap and have them distributed across Europe.

But the criticism Merkel has received for this move, especially from the German Greens and in Poland, is only partly justified. Yes, breaking with isolating the dictator, who has more than 800 political opponents in jail, is a dangerous undertaking. This is especially since the price for thwarting his attacks is unknown. But if those stranded in Belarus should be given help – and the traffic-light parties and many Europeans are all calling for just that – only two options remain: either let them enter the EU (read: Poland) and offer orderly asylum procedures; or try to provide for them on the Belarusian side. While the first option is unavailable because Warsaw rejects it, the second requires the resumption of talks with Lukashenka.

But it would be an illusion to believe that after Merkel’s and Lukashenka’s chat, all or most of the migrants remaining in Belarus will now be taken back home. Still, leaving them stuck in Belarus would be unacceptable for the EU, and not only for humanitarian reasons. They would then remain at the mercy of the Belarusian president and could be used for new provocations. The EU must therefore organise a humanitarian corridor to get the migrants out of the Belarusian trap and have them distributed across Europe. And, yes, Germany would have to be in the vanguard of this.

Around 10,000 migrants have made it to Germany via Poland by themselves so far. An orderly admission of a certain number of refugees has been taboo until now. But it would actually be in Berlin’s interest, and it would in no way overwhelm the country. “We have space,” cried Green chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock during the election campaign. This should certainly apply to Yemenis or Yazidis who are holding out in Belarus today.

But such a humanitarian gesture could potentially backfire. If the road to Europe – today blocked at its border by barbed wire and brutality – were to be opened to stranded migrants after all, would that not mean that many more will come, and thus give Lukashenka’s malicious activities a further boost? The fear of such a pull effect is what makes not only Poles and Lithuanians protest vehemently against admission. As long as this danger remains, there can be no talk of a credible humanitarian solution, which so many are loudly advocating.

For this not to be an empty promise, the traffic-light coalition must now show courage. It needs to work closely with Poland to ensure that the EU places more extensive economic sanctions on Belarus as quickly as possible. Above all, it should threaten to halt the flow of goods at the Polish-Belarusian border for Belarusian companies if “migrant tourism” is not stopped immediately. The Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, has already proposed such an option. It should become EU policy.

Germany and Poland are Belarus’s main trading partners, and Poland is the transit country for trade exchanges with the whole EU (in 2020 Belarus earned €8 billion from this). In order to put an end to this crime against humanity (Lukashenka is committing nothing less at the present moment) and targeted attacks on the EU’s border, the EU must be ready to resort to trade measures – its most effective weapon. And this would not fail to have a deterrent effect. Last but not least, this would also send a strong signal to Putin, who is threatening Ukraine. 

Even though bilateral relations between Warsaw and Berlin are strained, Germany should not be afraid of cooperating with Poland. After all, there is an overriding European interest at stake. Germany’s willingness to be tougher on Belarus and Russia could make Poland more receptive to solving the humanitarian issue. The goal should be to restore the implementation of EU asylum law at the Polish border and stop pushbacks. A joint initiative that includes the Polish sanctions proposal would also add to the appeal for Berlin. While the traffic-light coalition wants to remain firm in the rule of law dispute with Poland, it also has an interest in ensuring that this does not completely dominate the bilateral relationship. This was recently emphasised by three well-known ‘traffic-light’ politicians in an article in Tagesspiegel.

By being tougher on Lukashenka’s regime and being willing to accept a certain number of migrants, the traffic-light coalition can cut the Gordian knot of the crisis in the east. Both require courage and determination. In this way, though, the new federal government could demonstrate its creative power and set a long-awaited new tone in foreign policy in Europe. In doing so, it would live up to the goals it has set itself of a foreign policy based on a sense of responsibility for Europe, human rights, and steadfastness against dictatorships.

This article appeared first in German in Die Welt on 28 November 2021.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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Head, ECFR Warsaw
Senior Policy Fellow

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