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How the issues of migration and asylum are reshaping the politics of Belgium

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It was a big surprise for many people seeing the Belgian government break up after intensive negotiations between all parties involved. Mr. Charles Michel , the prime minister, representing the center-right and liberal parties supporting the UN Migration Compact on the one hand, Mr. Theo Francken (State’s Secretary for Asylum and Migration) and his N-VA-colleagues occupying ministerial posts within the government strongly opposing the Compact on the other hand. The NV-A (New Flemish Alliance) even threatened to leave the government if Mr. Michel insisted on approving the Compact, hoping that by doing such, Belgium would not approve the Compact or at least abstain.

Through his political career as a State’s Secretary for Asylum and Migration Mr. Francken demonstrated a very strict policy towards migrants and asylum seekers as well as refugees. By implementing extremely tough measurements, he hoped to limit the numbers of asylum seekers who choose Belgium as the final destination of their long often journey of hardship and misery.

Starting from discharging massive campaign  against refugees and asylum seekers in media, social media and even his own twitter account, executing one of the largest deportation action in Europe, to his putting a limit on the number of daily asylum applications by only allowing 60 people per day submit such claim, the latter sparking widespread anger. All of these procedures aimed solely at making Belgium less attractive a country of destination for asylum seekers, as Mr.Francken himself expressed. The strategy he maintained throughout his time in office was and is a clear reflection of the party he represents, the N-VA which has recently used improper photos for its campaign which they took form a campaign launched by one of the notoriously well-known extreme right German party.

The clearly incoherent cabinet, later to be known as Michel I,  survived for almost 4 years with visible discordant voices, though. It all started with “marathonic” negotiations to form the new government in 2014. At the time the N-VA , the relatively new formed party , won the largest number of seats among other parties in federal Belgian parliament , beating the deeply rooted Belgian  parties like the Christian democrats, the liberals, the socialists and the green. Allied with the Christian democrats  and the liberals the new Flemish alliance could successfully form the new cabinet.

The newly formed cabinet, at the time, would soon be hit by a series of problems, migration wise, amongst which the huge influx of refugees in 2015, which some refer to as the ‘asylum crisis’, was the first one. Apparently there were different voices within the government on how to handle the matter. The right wing was overwhelmed by the public pressure  to present a humane solution for these poor people  in the Maximilian Park. The park , which will play a central role in the shaping of Mr.Francken’s migration policy at a later stage, was in 2015 a place where over the course of several months thousands of asylum seekers took shelter including elderly, women and children while awaiting their asylum claim to be registered.  A Park that over time has also become be synonymous to a different approach on migration.

Soon after the biggest influx of asylum seekers in the history of the Belgian kingdom, a phenomenon that had existed  for decades started to draw public attention, the phenomenon of transmigration, people on the run who are in Belgium but only plan to stay there temporarily awaiting a change to get to the United Kingdom or another European country. The Maximilian Park became a meeting point for these people on the run who are mainly originary from Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia and who range from young children (as young as 12 years old) to grown-up men and women. Being forced out if their little tents in Calais and Dunkirk, they found themselves in the heart of the Belgian capital, profiting from the presence of international bus lines at the nearby Brussels-North railway station to try and get to the United Kingdom clandestinely. Or using the national railway network to get to local ports or highway parking lots to get aboard lorries or containers, hoping these would set course for the United Kingdom. Living conditions in the Park being in human, soon a citizen’s platform of hundreds of families willing to offer a place to eat and sleep to these people on the run emerged. This initiative was wildly criticized by the right wing and hardliners in the country . The police force was on high alert especially in the surroundings of the Park and the earlier mentioned Brussels North station.

New tough measurements were introduced including a wide spread man hunt for the (transmigrants) by the police, a scheme which was designed by both the Home Office and the State Secretary for Asylum and Migration. The photos of young men handcuffed ignited public outcry asking for a humane solution rather than arresting the unknowing migrants.  In the meantime Mr. Francken was bringing up even more sensitive issue for the public. With his broad scheme of deportation and his record number that no minister of migration has reached before, he began to lock up asylum seekers who failed to get their claims accepted by authorities as well as people who stay in Belgium illegally in detention centers as a step to deport them to their homeland soon after. A step which was widely criticized keeping in mind that families with children were also locked up.  The European supreme court issued a statement that this step contradicts the European laws and firmly stated that (you cannot lock up children in detention centers).

Among other things Mr. Francken also tried to introduce a separate social security system for refugees so they would receive lower social benefits than the Belgians, his attempt was doomed to fail due to the strict European equality laws.

The internal conflict within the government, reached its peak with the issue of signing the UN Migration Compact. With strong  opposition from the N-VA (which only started to criticize the Compact after 2 years of negotiations and after a formal approval by – amongst others – their own government ministers earlier on in 2018) and the willingness to sign it from its counterparts, many analysts expected the end of the coalition. N-VA constantly threatened to withdraw from the government if Michel insisted on going to Marrakesh to approve the Compact  . Michel decided to consult the parliament as a whole about the issue and the Compact was approved of by a majority of government and opposition parties, except the N-VA and the far-right Vlaams Belang.

Shortly after Michel travelled to Marrakesh and stated there Belgium approves of the pact. A collective resignation from N-VA ministers took place only one day before. A new State’s Secretary of Asylum and Migration was appointed, Mrs. Maggie De Block. Mrs. De Block introduced her first day at the office by declaring that she would l abolish Mr. Francken’s 60 asylum applications per day policy. She also promised to clear the mess in the federal asylum department ,known as FEDASIL , in order to fetch more places in the reception centers for the new asylum seekers. Furthermore, she gave her orders to offline the social media anti-asylum campaign.

It is a bit early to judge and to determine whether there is actually a new asylum policy, but it is crystal clear that the new State’s Secretary has come with a different tone. The coming months will reveal more about the new adapted policy.

While Mrs. De Block was busy clearing the mess in her new ministry, Mr. Michel’s new government, also known as Michel II, has failed to gain trust from the parliament. Both N-VA and Vlaams Belang are calling for early elections. The King himself has intervened to put an end to the chaos. He consoled all the parties except the extreme right wing Vlaams Belang.

Whether there will be early elections or not, the federal elections of 2019 will definitely shape the new governmental façade of Belgium including its migration and asylum policy. But more importantly the issue of migration and asylum will be heavily present in the parties programs. So it is not only the politics changing migration, but migration changing politics as well.

Policy officer at Flanders Refugee Action (Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen) Syrian, Freelance journalist/blogger and lecturer Writes in Arabic and English

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China, Central and Eastern Europe in 2021: BRI and the 17+1 Initiative during vaccine times

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When the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19 spread in March 2020, China played a crucial role in the global supply of critical medical goods such as face masks and disinfectants as their main exporter. According to UN Comtrade (2020) data, 44% of the world’s exports of face masks originated from China in 2018, whereas the next largest exporters such as Germany (7%) and the US (6%), play a comparatively minor role. Due to China´s a track record of using trade to pursue its foreign-policy goals, Beijing´s donation of medical equipment to other countries has been called as a mask diplomacy as the officials and politicians in many Western European countries as well as the European Union have viewed it as a Chinese influence-buying campaign that seeks to divide the EU.

Similar scenario is nowadays taking place under new magical keyword – a vaccine. Hungary was the only European Union member state to decide not to wait for the European Medicines Agency to approve the vaccines and began negotiating supplies of COVID vaccines from China and Russia. This so called Chinese vaccine diplomacy is no surprise. Last May, President Xi Jinping indicated that China would want to use vaccines to strengthen its position in the world. The “Health Silk Road” is together with winning the COVID-19 vaccine race one of the Beijing´s top priorities in 2021. President Xi Jinping is also expected to offer a Chinese vaccine to participants in the online 17+1 Central and Eastern European Summit on February 9.

The ninth 17+1 Central and Eastern European Summit is being postponed since the first half of 2020 where was supposed to take place before the hit of pandemic. Already before the COVID-19 outbreak, the Central and Eastern European countries have been increasingly dissatisfied with the outcome of their economic engagement with China and thus the upgrade of the economic cooperation and shaping the relations is in long-term plan. Moreover, when the U.S.-China confrontation has turned the Central and Eastern Europe into a new ground of great power competition for influence. This summit would break a deadlock over holding a meeting and show new signs in relations between China and Europe.

The transregional cooperation between China and Eastern Europe, the so-called “17+1” initiative, began in April 2012 in Poland where Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, and representatives of 16 CEE countries, including 11 EU members, hold a meeting. Wen promised investments and infrastructure development to boost the regional economies. China puts an emphasis on its connectivity with Europe and regards railways, ports and FDI as the foundation for achieving balanced development and social cohesion in Europe. For China, the region promised cheap access to European markets. The initiative was quickly co-opted into China’s wider Belt and Road Initiative, which launched the following year. When Greece joined as the 17th member in 2019, it elevated the political significance of the now 17+1 alliance even further. Before the onset of 17+1 cooperation, Chinese investment and trade were spatially unbalanced, and concentrated in north-western Europe. Because of the weak condition of transport infrastructure, the trade between China and Central and Eastern European countries heavily relied on the infrastructure networks of Germany, the Netherlands and France.

Despite voices about the decreasing power of the 17+1 Initiative, the COVID-19 pandemic does not bring an era of active Chinese engagement in the European region to the end. It contrary shows Beijing´s flexibility and adaptation to the world circumstances, including the competition imposed by U.S. interests in bilateral cooperation with the Central and Eastern European countries that could contribute to regional development as well.

References

UN Comtrade (2020), “UN Comtrade Database. Export data at country level

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EU playing a zero-sum game in Kosovo

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When it comes to Kosovo settlement, the European Union is clearly trying to regain the initiative. It was with poorly concealed jealousy and irritation that Brussels watched the delegations of Belgrade and Pristina sign an agreement to normalize their bilateral trade and economic relations in early September in Washington, and with the current change of guard in the US, is now trying to get back its levers of influence. Therefore, Brussels wants to organize a new high-level meeting between Serbia and Kosovo.

Miroslav Lajcak, the European Union’s Special Representative (EUSR) for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue, made this intention clear on December 2, when speaking at the European Parliament event marking the 25th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Agreement on Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to him, preparations are now underway for a new high-level meeting to be held as part of the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade.

Tellingly, according to a report by the Albanian news agency Telegrafi, citing sources in Brussels, the upcoming talks are expected to focus on resolving property rights in Kosovo. This means that Brussels is looking for an agenda that the sides can agree on and one that would differ from what they discussed in Washington. This is all the more important now that the negotiating process has virtually ground to a halt since September. According to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Belgrade will not agree to have a new summit unless the Kosovar authorities are prepared to create an Association of Serbian Municipalities on the territory of their province (primarily in the north). This provision is part of the accords signed by Belgrade and Pristina in Brussels under the auspices of the EU, but since then the Kosovo authorities have actually blocked its implementation. However, because the European Union hasn’t got any really ambitious initiatives to come up with, the planned parley (if it takes place any time soon) looks bound to be less effective than the September talks in Washington. This, in turn, will deal a new blow to Brussels’ ambitions in the Balkans.

Realizing this, the EU leadership has been ramping up its criticism of the United States, essentially accusing Washington of trying to phase Brussels out of the Kosovo negotiation process. Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, recently said it loud and clear that the solution of problems in the Western Balkans is entirely the EU’s patch, and that the bloc’s global role depends on the success of its policy in this region.

“If we are unable to solve the problems in the Balkans, then we can’t be a significant global player,” Borrell said.

Russia insists that the problems of Kosovo and other Balkan disputes can only be solved on the basis of international law through talks to achieve mutually-acceptable compromises. During a December 14 visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated that there is no alternative to ensuring peace and stability through political dialogue and respect for national interests, based on international law and pertinent UN Security Council resolutions.

“It is principally important to help the countries of this region settle their problems via national dialogue and avoid attempts to drag any of these countries into serving somebody else’s unilateral geopolitical interests,” Lavrov emphasized.

Interaction between Russia and Serbia is all the more important amid the ongoing negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina, as it serves as a political and diplomatic counterbalance to the Pristina- Brussels-Washington “axis.” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic confirmed the invariable nature and timeliness of such interaction during a December 14 joint news conference in Belgrade with Russia’s visiting Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Vucic also underscored his country’s desire to expand friendly and partnership relations with Russia.

When speaking about the possible outcome of the negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina, one should also keep in mind Turkey’s growing interest in this issue. Ankara is trying to play an increasingly active role in the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean region. As the Serbian daily newspaper Informer rightly noted, “One thing the Turkish president can’t be denied is the consistency and frankness with which he is implementing a strategy to bring back a big and mighty Turkey on the territories once occupied by the Ottoman Empire.”

In this situation, it is in Russia’s best interests to expand its partnership with Serbia, while simultaneously working with other key international players to ensure stability and security in the Balkans and counter the nationalist and destructive forces that can still be found in the Balkan capitals.

From our partner International Affairs

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Talking Turkey With Greece: Turkey and Israel’s Marriage of Convenience

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On January 25, Graeco-Turkish talks begin, at which Turkish claims to Greek island territories will be high on the agenda. Before we briefly consider the Israeli position, herewith a spot of recent history.

Scorned countries sometimes seek out other scorned countries, for reasons of self-interest. Thus Germany, humiliated after the First World War, co-operated with the Soviet Union, first with secret military agreements, and then more openly after the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922; both countries also had problems with the same country, Poland. Both were considered international pariahs at the time, whether rightly or wrongly.

Israel co-operated closely with South Africa when the latter, under its apartheid regime, was internationally blackballed, with most of the balls being black. The co-operation was largely military, overt and covert. Links between the countries’ external security services, Boss and Mossad, were close. Both countries ignored numerous UN resolutions.

The most recent example of the scorned seeking the scorned is, or course, that of Israel and Turkey, who revived a military co-operation agreement in 1996, that goes back to the late Fifties. Again, both states are hardly a paragon of international virtue, supported only consistently by the USA and its strategic acolyte, Britain, but also by Germany, for atavistic business reasons in the case of Turkey, and a contrived feeling of guilt in the case of Israel.

Both Israel and Turkey ignore numerous UN resolutions; both fear Russia; their respective security services exchange information on Syria; and both have a common enemy, also Syria. Both countries occupy parts of other countries, illegally, Cyprus and Palestine, and Syria’s Golan Heights. An interesting quirk is that Syria has territorial claims on its former coloniser, Turkey: with the connivance of France, Hatay (Alexandretta) was stealthily ‘acquired’ by Turkey in 1939, despite the fact that Syrians were in a majority.

The question is whether this is just another ephemeral unholy alliance, an alliance of pure self-interest, that works in spite of deep-seated historico-cultural differences, or something more significant. The evidence suggests that it is more than a simple marriage of convenience. Anyone who knows about the plethora of secret meetings between the two states, that has gone on for years, of the deep-seated mutual disdain between much of the Arab world and its former coloniser, Turkey, will realise that the military co-operation agreement is but the tip of an iceberg, an iceberg being pushed by hoards of American frogmen, with the avowed objective of achieving firm control over the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean. In this way, Russian influence in the Mediterranean and the Middle East can be contained, á la Kennan, and Israel can be subtly inserted into the de facto NATO fold, with Jordan perhaps being brought into the equation for good measure, while the Turkish mercenaries continue to kill Kurds and Israel conveniently buries the Oslo accords, continuing its ethnic cleansing and illegal settlements.

The U.S. Embassy in Athens has justified Israeli-Turkish co-operation with the following words: ‘US military co-operation with Turkey and Israel is a matter of long-standing policy and practice. As a NATO ally and friend with Turkey and as a special ally with Israel, both democracies and key regional players, the United States shares core values and mutual security and political objectives in the Eastern Mediterranean. Israel and Turkey have likewise found that they share common objectives, in part from confronting the same set of neighbours which have pursued weapons of mass destruction programmes, have been sponsors and supporters of terrorism, and which have been inimical to democracy, the rule of law and regional stability.’

These neighbours are not actually named, but are obviously Iran and Syria, not to mention some others. There is no mention of Israeli terrorism at home and abroad (vis. Vanunu) or of the treatment of innocent and unarmed Kurdish villagers, no mention of Israel’s nuclear arsenal and chemical and biological weapons programmes, nor of its disregard for international law. Above all, the core values and common objectives shared by the USA, Turkey and Israel are difficult to locate, unless it is to help the U.S. contain Russia.

A few years ago the essentially pro-American Economist wrote that Syria’s concerns about Turkish-Israeli military co-operation were ‘fairly well grounded.’ The article undoubtedly embarrassed the Pentagon and angered the Turkish and Israeli governments. It represented one of those very occasional but authoritative Economist warnings that things had gone too far. The last time the Economist had said anything so risqué was just after the abortive American attempt to rescue the American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, by printing a front-page cartoon of President Carter dressed as a cowboy, with his six-guns at the ready. Cruel stuff, and exaggerated criticism, maybe unjustified, even, yet nevertheless telling.

Turkey has in the past threatened to attack Syria. Today it occupies part of it, claiming that Syria supports the Kurds in Turkey. Israel also bombs Syria periodically. In 2008, published Israeli-Turkish military co-operation involved a 1998 $ 700 million contract for Israel to upgrade 54 Turkish F4’s, a $70 million one to upgrade 48 F5’s, and joint manufacture of 1000 tanks and ‘some helicopters.’ Israel also hoped to sell Turkey an early warning system, and also used Turkish territory for low-flying exercises.

Then came a sudden deterioration in Turkey-Israel relations, with Israeli commandos killing of nine Turks on a vessel trying to break the Gaza blockade. Military co-operation between Israel and Turkey was suspended. Backstage American pressure on its two key allies, however, along with an American sponsored joint military love-in between Greece and Israel is leading to new Turkish diplomatic pirouetting: relations between Israel and Turkey could be improving. Bilateral talks are in the offing, and full diplomatic relations could be restored by March, meaning re-activating Turkish-Israeli diplomatic and military relations.

For Greece, the unholy alliance could become more than an irritant, because of Cyprus. However far-fetched it may sound, Turkey could easily encourage the Israeli air force and navy to train in occupied Cyprus, with the Pentagon publicly tut-tutting, but privately sniggering. It could even offer a home in northern Cyprus to would-be Jewish immigrants, as it did in the sixteenth century. There is even a small minority of extreme Zionists in Israel that claims Cypriot territory as part of the Jewish heritage. Thus, an already overcrowded Israel could find more Lebensraum. When one looks at the extremist elements in Turkey and Israel, such plans are not beyond the bounds of possibility.

Greece is now part and parcel of the “new” Cold War, co-operating with Israel and the U.S. militarily more than ever before, in the naïve hope that Turkey will drop its claims on Greek territory. But despite irritation with recent Turkish behaviour, the U.S. and Israel are unlikely to be of much help when it comes down to diplomatic detail: in 2003, the U.S. Embassy wrote the following to me: ‘We recognize Greece’s border with Turkey, but not all the territorial waters implications which Greece asserts. We have not taken a position on sovereignty over Imia/Kardak, in part because of the lack of an agreed maritime boundary.’

When I asked about Greece’s twelve mile nautical and ten-mile airspace limits, the reply was: ‘We recognize the six [!]-mile territorial sea claim and a claim to the superjacent air space. We do not recognize Greece’s claim to territorial air space seaward of the outer limit of its territorial sea.’ I doubt that their position has changed. Similarly, the Israel Embassy refused to answer my question about Greece’s air and sea limits.

Clever Turkish diplomacy currently involves balancing itself between the U.S. and Russia, in the knowledge that neither the U.S. nor Israel will do more than protest diplomatically – á la Cyprus invasion – if Turkey snatches a small Greek island. The U.S.’s main aim is to keep Greece in the anti-Russian camp by not agreeing with Greece’s position on its Aegean borders. For if the U.S. – and Israel – came out in support of Greece’s position, this would push Ankara more towards Moscow.

From our partner RIAC

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