How has the refugee crisis affected countries in South Eastern Europe? In a discussion on the situation in Serbia, Croatia and Hungary, James Ker-Lindsay argues that with no country – Germany included – managing to get all of their moves right, the crisis is proving to be the most divisive issue Europe has so far had to face.

Serbia was among the first countries in South Eastern Europe to face a large influx of refugees. What risks is it facing?

There is a risk that Serbia will be left to house a large number of refugees. In such circumstances, should it happen, there is a danger that this will be exploited by those opposed to Serbia’s membership of the EU. Already, we have seen the Russian ambassador issue warnings that Serbia will be left with responsibility for the refugees by the EU. This is an obvious attempt to generate anti-EU sentiment in the country. My worry is that if Serbia starts to find that the numbers of refugees stranded in the country is too high and that it cannot manage the situation, the wider public might start to question why Serbia is being left to handle a situation that is essentially a matter for the EU to manage.

Do you think that Serbia’s response has been adequate?

Yes. Serbia has responded in an exemplary fashion to a situation that is not of its making and of which it has almost no control. It could have closed off its borders. Instead, it has provided safe passage and a vital chance for many refugees to rest and recover. Many have said that it has shown a greater appreciation of European values than many EU members. I agree.

Serbia, when faced with a massive influx of refugees, has shown compassion and a humanitarian spirit. Serbia should be proud of the way it has responded, especially as compared with so many other countries in the region, including a number of EU members. Needless to say, there will be many who feel that Serbia should now be rewarded in some way by the EU. The most obvious way would be with the start of formal accession negotiations.

What is your evaluation of the Hungarian response to the crisis?

In the view of most observers, Hungary has behaved in a particularly bad manner. It took a decision to set up a fence on its border, knowing full well that this would only shift the problem to its fellow EU partners, Croatia and Romania. However, it simply did not care. It just decided to do it anyway. Of all the symbols of the failure of EU members to try to act in a united manner, this perhaps stands out as the worst.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has said that barbed wire and militarised borders are the only way to protect his country. Do you think this strategy will eventually work?

Orbán may well be right to say that this is the only way to ‘protect’ his country. However, this shows an appalling lack of respect for the principle of European unity. Again, he took a decision to close the borders knowing full well that he was simply passing the problem over to his other EU neighbours. But he didn’t care. As to whether it will work in the longer term, it depends what one considers to be a success. If it means keeping people out of Hungary, then yes. It probably will work. If it means protecting Hungary’s reputation, then no. It has failed terribly. Hungary’s standing is now unbelievably low in many EU circles.

A man carries a 6-day-old child at Horgoš near the Hungary-Serbia border. © Elio Germani 2015 / Politico (published with the permission of the author)

A man carries a 6-day-old child at Horgoš near the Hungary-Serbia border. © Elio Germani 2015 / Politico (published with the permission of the author)

Serbia and Croatia came to serious clashes over the migration issues, sometimes turning to ridicule. Which side is at fault?

This year has not been good for relations between Belgrade and Zagreb. Sadly, the scenes we have seen on the border have simply been the latest in a string of negative incidents between the two countries in recent months. What makes this unfortunate is that neither side is at fault. Again, this is the result of Hungary deciding unilaterally to shift a problem it was facing onto Croatia.

Why is Serbia not sending immigrants to the Hungarian border crossing Horgos? Croatia argues that this would significantly ease the pressure on its authorities.

I think that there is a sense in Croatia that somehow the crisis that has emerged has been because some sort of deal has been reached between Belgrade and Budapest to force the problem onto Zagreb. I have seen no evidence to support this. Instead, I think this is about Hungary’s unilateralism.

When Prime Minister Orbán took the decision to close off the border with Serbia he knew full well that the refugees and migrants would not stay in Serbia. They want to get into the EU and would find alternative ways to do so. Even if Serbia tried to keep them, they would not stay. The only alternatives would be to head to Croatia or to Romania. As Croatia is closer to Germany, it was always going to be the case that when Hungary became inaccessible, people would start to head into Croatia.

Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarović has been very critical of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying she was to blame for the uncontrolled influx into Europe. What is your opinion? 

With the benefit of hindsight, I think that there are many who would now agree that the decision to open up Germany’s borders to refugees, while done with the best possible intentions, served to make the problem worse. The trouble is that we are dealing with a humanitarian crisis and the EU has not been able to come up with effective measures to address this situation. In the absence of a united position on how to manage the flow of refugees, something needed to be done. I believe that Germany acted with the best of intentions, but it has come at a price in South East Europe.

Croatia’s Prime Minister Zoran Milanović has expressed strong criticism of Orbán’s policies and of the EU itself, saying that it has no unified strategy on this crisis. How would you asses his performance so far?

I fully understand why Milanovic feels so angry. As I noted, Hungary behaved in an unacceptable way. But ultimately, this is a European problem. Neither Hungary nor Croatia should have been put in the situation of having to manage such a huge influx of people on their own. For that matter, neither should Greece have faced this situation on its own.

It is simply unacceptable for those EU members far away from the situation to say that it is not their problem. It is a problem for the entire EU. One can only hope that things might start to change now. Sadly, I am not optimistic. The EU does not seem to realise the scope of the challenge it faces. For example, the latest agreement on the reallocation of refugees seems wholly inadequate to meet the numbers that have arrived.

In your opinion, how is Croatia treating immigrants?

It has certainly come as a surprise for Croatia to have to deal with such large numbers of people almost overnight. To this extent, one can understand why it was overwhelmed. This is a major burden to take on. The key is to try to remain as compassionate as possible. In terms of its public image, Croatia needs to avoid taking the sort of steps Hungary has taken. It needs to show that it still believes in EU values, even if some of its neighbours do not.

How long do you expect this emergency to go on for? Six months, a year, longer?

It is hard to say. Some are now predicting that what we are seeing is merely the start of the problem. The war in Syria continues and there are many millions of refugees in the neighbouring countries who may now be preparing to make their way to the EU. In the immediate future, it will be important to see if we start to see the numbers decline somewhat as autumn and then winter approach.

This may give the EU a window of opportunity to start taking some steps to address the situation before the start of new flows in the spring. The danger is that people may still want to make the journey, unaware of how cold the region can be in winter. In this case, the humanitarian problems will get worse. People will need to be given shelter and warm clothing.

Are Schengen rules going to survive the crisis?

It is now clear to many observers that if the EU wants to maintain its open borders internally, it is going to have to take real steps to manage and secure its external borders. This is not going to be easy to achieve. The creation of a unified border force would be a major step towards further EU political integration. It will also be costly. However, it may also be what is now needed to give a greater sense of purpose to the European project.

My main concern is the way in which the refugee crisis has damaged the sense of unity in the EU. It has not only been terrible to see the way Hungary acted with such disregard for its EU partners, but it was also awful to see how many Eastern European states tried to avoid taking any responsibility for accepting refugees. For many Western European states, this came as a shock and a disappointment; especially as many of these countries had openly welcomed large numbers of people from those same Eastern European states. For any committed European, this period has been utterly depressing.

Do you think that the refugee crisis is posing a serious risk for the European project?

There is no doubt that this is a huge challenge to the EU. For anyone who believes in the European project the lack of solidarity has been shocking at all levels. The failure of the EU members to work with one another to share responsibility for taking in refugees has left some countries handling more than their fair share of the problem.

This is unacceptable. It is also terrible to see the reintroduction of border controls in Europe. One of the greatest successes of the European project was freedom of movement and the removal of barriers across the continent. One can only hope that it will be a temporary situation. In the meantime, I have certainly never seen the EU so utterly divided and working against the very principles upon which it was built.

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Note: This interview is based on comments James Ker-Lindsay has given to the Serbian daily Blic and the Croatian paper Telegram. It gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

James Ker-Lindsay – London School of Economics
James Ker-Lindsay is a Senior Visiting Fellow at LSEE-Research on South Eastern Europe, European Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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