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Afghan humanitarian crisis prompts renewed EU aid efforts

Disappointment with US-led withdrawal prompts calls for more capable EU defence force

EU-European-Union-flag-Summit-Reuters European Union flags flutter outside the European Commission headquarters ahead of an EU leaders summit at the European Council headquarters, in Brussels, Belgium July 16, 2020 | REUTERS

The blowback over the botched evacuation of western forces from Afghanistan has already claimed its first political heavyweight, Dutch foreign minister Sigrid Kaag. Kaag resigned Thursday after the lower house of parliament passed a motion of censure against the government over its handling of evacuations from Afghanistan amid the Taliban takeover.

With the European Union still reeling from Brexit and the looming exit of its greatest unifier, Angela Merkel, who is set to retire from active German politics, it faces a significant challenge: dealing with the fallout of the Afghanistan withdrawal of Western forces and the Taliban takeover. With the United Nations warning of up to 500,000 more Afghan refugees by the end of the year, the pressure is on Europe as it faces a possible repeat of the situation that took place after the 2015 Syrian Civil war.

"It is true that we are now in a major crisis," European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas told Austrian daily Wiener Zeitung on September 5. Although the EU did not create this situation, he said, it is once again "called upon to be part of the solution."

On September 15, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen pledged €100 million in additional aid for Afghanistan. Earlier, the European Commission had quadrupled its humanitarian aid to the country to €200 million. The aid is not intended to go to the Taliban but towards the Afghan people. But to achieve this, the EU will need to talk with the Taliban. As the world's biggest aid donor, the EU will likely use aid as a bargaining chip--an idea backed by Slovenian foreign minister Anze Logar.

"For Afghanistan and its economy, without this aid, it is the biggest blow to the citizens of the country, but there is a point of conditionality as well," he said, adding that EU policy should always be based on its values, which the bloc typically cites as human rights, democracy, rule of law and freedom of expression. Slovenia currently holds the six-month presidency of the EU.

The European Commission also plans to resettle around 30,000 Afghans--but this proposal will need the support of EU states.

But EU nations have already made moves to take a tough stance on refugees. Greece, which often faces refugees from wartorn countries in Africa and the Middle East arriving by sea, has opened a new migrant holding camp on the island of Samos, near Turkey, and plans more facilities. Aid groups said the camp looked like a jail, while Greece said it would offer "lost dignity" to those seeking protection. Greece has already fortified its land border with Turkey, extending a 40km border wall.

Turkey has said it does not have the capacity to handle more refugees and has called on its fellow EU members to share the responsibility. 

Rights groups have already slammed the EU for allegedly "shirking" its responsibility to take care of refugees. "We are disappointed by the absence of leadership at the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 31 August and Interior Ministers’ continued focus on preventing people from arriving in the EU, instead of providing pathways to protection," read a joint letter by several aid and humanitarian agencies.

The EU has also been examining raising its military profile for such emergencies such as what happened in Afghanistan. With von Leyer telling the European Parliament in Strasbourg that Europe can "and should be able and willing to do more on its own", and called for the EU to step up its own military capabilities. She said she believed EU military forces would be "part of the solution" and said the EU needed the "political will" to intervene militarily without the US-led NATO.

There was disappointment in the lack of extension of the deadline to leave Afghanistan. France, Germany and non-EU member Britain were among countries that wanted a longer time-frame to leave. "We do not need another such geopolitical event to grasp that the EU must strive for greater decision-making autonomy and greater capacity for action in the world," EU Council President Charles Michel, who chairs EU summits, said on Wednesday at the Bled Strategic Forum in Slovenia.

For years, the EU has been debating creating a "first entry force" that could react rapidly to military crises with some EU leaders seeking a deal on this forces' design as early as March 2022.

The revival of calls for an EU Army, which French President Emmanuel Macron has backed in the past. But such an idea, decades in the making, has long been controversial, even within the EU. Member states neighbouring Russia fear participation in the same will anger Moscow. NATO too has been cool to the idea, with Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg saying he supported plans to build a common defence policy but warned against the creation of rapid reaction forces that could duplicate NATO operations.

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