Europe is losing it in Afghanistan
The crisis in Afghanistan is proving a point the Eurocrat has made repeatedly: Europe is struggling to build a common foreign policy.
The first time Brussels – by mouth of Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel - addressed the press after things went pear-shaped in Afghanistan was almost a week after the Taliban took Kabul. That didn’t stop the pair from welcoming a first group of evacuees in Madrid this weekend. Pictures of the visit were no doubt prettier than the scenes on the ground at Kabul airport, where thousands of desperate Afghans are trapped between the Taliban and the US.
Von der Leyen and Michel have sent a few tweets about Afghanistan, while Josep Borrell, chief of the EU’s diplomacy, coordinated with the governments in the background. Communication matters especially in times of crisis, and it is hard to believe in any ambition for the EU to play a bigger role on the international stage when its leaders remain silent just when one of the West’s main geopolitical missions so far this century is falling apart.
While Von der Leyen – who has pledged to run a “geopolitical Commission” - was nowhere to be seen, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed their people about the debacle. Merkel called for an extraordinary meeting of the European Council to coordinate what countries are doing – but no word from Michel yet either.
The crisis in Afghanistan exposes the shortcomings of EU foreign policy yet again. That became clearest when countries asked Washington to stay in Kabul beyond a self-imposed 31 August deadline to give Europe more time to evacuate its own people and Afghan staff.
Not all EU countries are members of NATO, so not all of them took part in the twenty-year-long war. That also means not everybody is going to be willing to pay for the mess that others have made. Yet all of them will face the geopolitical consequences of the failure in Afghanistan.
A Western debacle
While Europe has not come up with a single view on Afghanistan, Borrell was one high-level politician not to mince his words. Accepting that the war was lost, he admitted the withdrawal had proven to be a catastrophe “for the Afghan people, Western values and credibility and the international community,” going as far as questioning the US version of events.
Afghanistan taught the EU the hard way that it cannot rely on a single powerful ally for its foreign policy. It has done so for decades, which has made it far too dependent on Washington. The consequences of that lack of independence are clear now that US President Joe Biden is neatly implementing an Afghanistan policy that his predecessor Donald Trump – widely detested in Europe – had laid out in words. There is hardly any difference between the two.
The Union needs to act quickly and decide what relation they want with a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Borrell has said. Otherwise, China and Russia will rapidly take advantage of the power vacuum and win influence in a highly strategic region.
Ghosts of 2015
The Afghan crisis will put Europe’s unity to test again on other fronts too. Many fear a new refugee crisis like the one the world witnessed in 2015, when over a million people hastily fled to Europe to escape the war in Syria. Afghanistan’s population is much poorer and the country is far away. Yet the fall of Kabul has rekindled debate in the EU. If you thought Europe failed to live up to its role as a humanitarian actor back then, the picture does not look much better now.
Many governments – beyond the usual suspects of Hungary, Poland and Czechia - are reluctant to take people in at all. Days before the Taliban took the Afghan capital, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, and The Netherlands asked the Commission to ensure that asylum seekers whose requests have failed will be deported – even to Afghanistan. On Sunday, Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz said his country had already done its part, hosting 44,000 Afghans already and not willing to take more in. Slovenia’s Janez Jansa, who holds the rotating presidency of the Council, warned the EU would not open humanitarian corridors to help refugees, prompting anger from the European Parliament but not from his colleagues at the European Council.
Even reaching an agreement on taking up the modest groups of Afghans who worked for Western governments will be hard. Spain has volunteered to serve as a hot spot for the first evacuees, though Borrell – who is Spanish – has said that was a struggle as well. What the EU wants to avoid at all cost, is a collapse of the system and it is desperately trying to convince countries that they need to be prepared. Yet when it comes to refugees, the only thing governments seem to agree on is the need to strengthen their outside borders.