Why the Syrian Refugee Crisis Requires a German-Polish Initiative
The refugee crisis is dividing Europe, and media coverage seems to be exacerbating this division. Sharing not only a border, but also historical experiences of displaced persons in wars previously, Germany and Poland should come together to offer a common solution for the crisis, thus demonstrating the strength, sustainability and, most importantly, the solidarity of the European Union.
In the debate on the refugee crisis advanced by the media, the notion of concrete short- and long-term policy responses is obscured by depictions of people's suffering and voices critical to a rather dispirited stance towards welcoming the uncontrolled influx of refugees, as exemplified by Poland. Inasmuch as the media bashing of Poland's position towards the refugee crisis is inaccurate, this precludes the possibility of devising ways to overcome the immediate and long-term implications of the crisis.
The possibility of utilizing synergies in bilateral collaboration and ad-hoc cross-border support is not discussed in the mainstream debate pertaining to the crisis, which is otherwise dominated by the question of quotas. Paradoxically, although Poland and Germany seem to exemplify two strikingly different perspectives on the challenge of addressing the refugee crisis, a significant potential exists for the two countries to develop a bilateral initiative. If successfully emulated at the level of EU policy-making, a German-Polish initiative might substantiate the beginning of a workable EU immigration and integration policy in the future while simultaneously highlighting advantages of bilateral, cross-border collaboration.
The romanticized picture of arms wide open and banners welcoming the refugees is just one facet of the contemporary human tragedy unfolding in Europe. The media remain silent about shelter, housing, sanitation and the resulting public health concerns. The substantial differences in regional climates and resulting variance in the resilience of refugees to microflora and micro-fauna exposes new arrivals as well as native inhabitants to health risks particularly acute if emerging on a massive scale.
Apply the same lens to think of toddlers and infants, with insufficient vaccination programs to protect expectant mothers and elderly people, and an idea emerges of what to expect. As winter approaches and the number of asylum seekers do not lessen, the imperative is that short-and medium-term policy responses to the refugee crisis be discussed now. Practical solutions, from common shelters, improved housing capacity in the border areas to health-care provisions and sanitation are only a few examples of how a bilateral effort might ease the strains of the massive refugee inflow. There is, however, another dimension to the refugee crisis.
Both Germany and Poland face the common task to consider the implications of displacement, i.e., not only the question of logistics for refugees' short-to-medium- term stay in Europe, yet also in regard to their long-term integration in their respective societies. In the context of European history, Poland and Germany share historical memories as societies whose members were displaced in the postwar era. Decisions taken at Yalta left huge numbers of Poles displaced from what used to be Polish territory in the East. By pushing Poland's borders to the west, a significant number of Germans were forced to leave their homes as well.
It is precisely because Germany and Poland have these historical experiences from which to learn that a bilateral initiative within the larger European context may offer specific policy ideas regarding mechanisms to develop for longer term societal integration. Political conduct is as much about values as about strategic interests. The prospect of a Polish-German initiative to tackle the refugee crisis may be attractive to both countries in terms of the political leverage this may create in Brussels. Specifically, Poland might redress its lack of political leverage outside the Eurozone by forging an initiative with Germany that requires diplomatic finesse and considerable bargaining power. Germany, on the other hand, criticized for dominating the crisis-torn Eurozone and facing suspicion given its open-arms policy vis-à-vis the refugees, needs a trusted ally in the Union. Together, Poland and Germany may buttress social integration initiatives inside and beyond Europe; initiatives that – drawing on shared Polish and German historical experience – would take into account strategic concerns about brain-drain, war-time trauma, and their impact on fragile states from which refugees flee.
Historically, the most contentious and pressing issues in European integration required initiatives by two or more countries that could bring a critical mass of member states on board. Today, faced with the implications of the refugee crisis, Germany and Poland have a historic responsibility to demonstrate that Europe's postwar social experiment retains its relevance. This is a notion of equal importance for the Union as well as for its closest neighbors.
Colette Mazzucelli is a professor at New York University.
Anna Visvizi is an assistant professor at DEREE, The American College of Greece and a senior analyst with IESW-Institute of East-Central Europe in Poland.
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