Diplomats issue a new border alarm

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Two top diplomats in Norway’s foreign ministry have warned that the pressure on Europe’s borders will only increase, and that border blockades in the Balkans will lead to another influx of asylum seekers over Russia’s border to Norway. They also warn of the “perfect political storm” in Europe, in an internal ministry memorandum obtained by newspaper VG that was supposed to be kept confidential.

Norway shares a border with Russia in the far north, and is concerned that relations are getting more difficult because of increasingly authoritarian policies during Russian President Vladimir Putin's second term. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Norway shares a border with Russia in the far northeast that’s likely, according to Norwegian diplomats, to experience a new influx of people fleeing mostly Syria and Afghanistan, and seeking asylum in Norway and elsewhere in Europe. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

VG made the memorandum public on Tuesday, just as thousands of desperate people fleeing war and terrorism were left stranded at the border between Macedonia and Greece. Macedonia closed its border and even resorted to fending off the asylum seekers with tear gas this week, putting beleaguered Greece under ever more pressure. Greece is unable to care for the thousands of migrants still arriving on its shores every day and now stuck with onward routes blocked. That’s in turn leading to more social unrest in an EU country that’s been under severe economic pressure for years.

With Macedonia, Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia all claiming they can’t take in more than 580 people per day, and Austria accepting as few as 80 asylum seekers per day, the two top diplomats in the Norwegian foreign ministry predict determined migrants will again try to enter Europe, and Norway, through Russia. While EU leaders quarrel and German Chancellor Angela Merkel laments the border closures now occurring, the Norwegian diplomatic observers paint a dire picture of the situation, claiming that “the limits of what citizens and authorities in the European countries can absorb are either already reached” or are close to being so. They claim that EU President Donald Tusk of Poland and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte think Europe only has “six to eight weeks” in which to head off a “cascading crisis.”

‘Thoroughly pessimistic’
VG reported that the internal memorandum was written by the director of the foreign ministry’s European department, John Mikal Kvistad, and a senior adviser in the ministry’s “Region” department, Morten Aasland. Their thoughts and views on the ongoing turmoil appear “thoroughly pessimistic,” according to VG. They warned, for example, that the EU/Schengen cooperation that has kept European borders open for years will lead to a widespread crisis within the next six months, that may unleash considerable political and institutional setbacks for the entire EU and its partners. Norway is not a member of the EU, but is part of the European Economic Area and must abide by most EU regulations in order to maintain market access for Norwegian exports.

Several “negative developments” within the EU can result in “the perfect political storm,” unleashed by political polarization, an increase in extremism in Europe, splits between northern and southern Europe, more nationalistic and anti-EU policies, increasingly “complicated” relations with Turkey and Russia and a “probability” of new terrorist attacks.

Effects on Norway
VG reported that the diplomats wrote in their so-called notat that the “dynamics on the continent” and the closure of the Balkan route “can quickly put increased pressure” on the Russian-Norwegian border at Storskog, just east of Kirkenes, or over Finland and the Baltic countries in the coming months. They wrote that both Germany and Sweden, which have taken in by far the most asylum seekers, are about “to meet the wall,” and must limit their own arrivals as both countries’ asylum reception systems are on the verge of collapse.

Even though around 35,000 asylum seekers also arrived in Norway last year, the Norwegian diplomats studying the situation claimed that Norway has been relatively shielded so far. They noted that there also aren’t many “immigration-critical forces to the right of the (conservative) government (coalition).” But that can change this spring, they warn, when the weather improves and if the so-called “Arctic route” through Russia reopens. Norway may also “inherit” some of Sweden’s problems in dealing with its refugee influx: “Asylum seekers in an over-burdened Sweden seek residence in Norway,” they wrote. A report that Sweden will try to return up to half of those who arrived last year will increase the pressure on Norway.

Norwegians ‘unprepared’
The two diplomats concluded that much of what Europe has achieved in terms of unification over the past few decades is now at risk. VG reported that they also worry that the vast majority of Norwegians are not prepared for the consequences.

“Norwegian public opinion is hardly mentally prepared for the full weight of the migration crisis,” the diplomats wrote, referring to the costs and consequences for public budgets and policies. “It can be difficult to avoid increased unemploynent and higher social and welfare costs in election year 2017,” they added. They also warned against believing that any peace in Syria and Iraq will reduce the streams of refugees still trying to move to Europe.

The memorandum comes not only as the refugee crisis reaches a boiling point in southern Europe but also as Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg has gathered her government’s support parties for a conference in advance of state budget deliberations for next year. High on the agenda at their meeting on Tuesday is the preliminary agreement with Parliament over how Norway should tighten its own asylum and immigration policies and control its own borders. Debate has raged that Solberg’s new minister in charge of immigration and asylum, Sylvi Listhaug, is far too strict with her restrictive proposals that also may violate UN policies. Now she seems to have received support from the diplomatic observers charged with examining current events and offering their analyses. One local professor was quick to criticize their report, noting to VG how they failed to take human rights into consideration.

Foreign ministry officials told VG that Foreign Minister Børge Brende had not received the diplomats’ memorandum himself and had no immediate comment.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

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