Brussels Behind the Scenes: ‘Cause you’re there for me too

Brussels Behind the Scenes: ‘Cause you’re there for me too
Ukrainians at the country's border. Credit: Belga

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES

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With SAM MORGAN

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‘Cause you’re there for me too

More than 4 million Ukrainians have been made refugees by Vladimir Putin’s war on their country and with no realistic end to the invasion in sight, that number is only set to grow. New research shows where these desperate people are turning to during their hour of need.

The European Union bickered this week over whether or not to impose energy sanctions for the first time on Russia, in a bid to stem the flow of payments into the Kremlin’s war machine. Coal, oil and gas were all on the table.

In the end, only sanctions on coal will be deployed, after the likes of Germany firmly ruled out a gas embargo and Hungary insisted that oil is a no-go. That just left coal, which is worth around €4 billion every year to the Russian economy. It's low-hanging fruit at best.

Sanctions will not bite overnight either, as European countries have a couple of months grace period in which to wind down existing contracts, leading many advocates of firmer action against Russia to ask “what’s the point?” of the new levies.

As more atrocities committed by Putin’s forces are revealed, it is clear that more Ukrainians will be forced to leave their homes and, if not internally displaced, be forced to seek sanctuary in another country.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


The United Nations says that more than 4,300,000 people have fled Ukraine since 24 February. Poland, Romania, Hungary and Moldova have welcomed the most arrivals, given their location along Ukraine’s border with the EU.

But new research by Germany’s ifo institute published this week into the social media presence and contacts of Ukrainians reveals where refugees are likely to head beyond the short-term.

The institute suggests that existing friendship and family groups mean Ukrainians are most likely to head to Poland, Italy and the Czech Republic. Germany, Spain and Hungary are next on its ranking, followed by France, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Romania.

It is arguably only the optimists that now think there will be a swift resolution to the conflict, so many Ukrainians may be considering where they want to start their new lives. For many, they have no homes to return to.

Italy is at first glance a surprising inclusion on the list, given how far it is from the Ukrainian border and the less-than-ideal economic situation that still hampers the country.

However, Centre for European Policy Analysis fellow Olga Tokariuk points out that it is not a statistical anomaly, given the history of immigration between Ukraine and Italy in recent years.

“It’s not surprising. There are more than 250,000 Ukrainian migrants who are officially living in Italy, many already have Italian passports and many more are not registered,” she explains.

“Ukrainian migration to Italy dates back more than 20 years, the community there is one of the biggest in the EU,” Tokariuk adds, underlining the point made by ifo that social bonds are a strong pull factor for refugees.

Germany is often cited as a poster child of welcoming refugees ever since its efforts in 2015 during the height of the Syrian war crisis. Angela Merkel’s “wir schaffen das” soundbite is probably one of the most memorable of her long tenure as chancellor.

But according to ifo, the Bundesrepublik will not be expected to repeat its admirable showing, as Ukrainian social contacts are stronger in other countries.

“If 5 million Ukrainians were to flee to the EU, about 600,000 of them would come to Germany. Considering Germany’s population weight of about 19% in the EU, this represents a below-average effect,” the institute’s report reads.

Resources needed

While those statistics put to bed some negative preconceptions about refugees and immigration in general, the simple fact remains that the mass relocation of the same amount of people as the entire population of Ireland will require financial resources.

The Bruegel think tank estimates that it may cost EU countries a whopping €40 billion this year, which when you take into account that the pandemic recovery effort has barely begun, is a significant worry.

Bruegel’s research points out that Ukrainian refugees differ from, for example, displaced Syrians, in that they often have money to get by at least in the short-term. But given the unpredictability of Putin’s conflict, those resources will quickly run out.

The EU has already unlocked around half a billion euros in funding from various programmes that can be used to meet the costs of processing and hosting refugees but again this will not be enough in the long run.

Budget negotiations are already fraught affairs and there appears to be very little appetite to source new money to meet the €40 billion in costs that Bruegel calculates. In public, leaders may say the right things but behind closed doors at summits, they are ruthless.

That is why the think tank proposes that the EU agree to set up a brand new fund, dedicated to helping Ukrainian refugees. Whether that fund is fuelled by national contributions or by a fresh round of EU borrowing is “a secondary issue”, the researchers add.

EU leaders have shied away from discussing the prospect of adding another joint-debt fund to the existing €800 billion pandemic warchest that is already in place, as more frugal-minded countries do not like the idea of taking on more liabilities.

But the various crises the Union is facing – Ukraine, climate breakdown – might mean that government leaders have nowhere else to turn.

If gas-dependent countries are not willing to turn off the taps just yet, they should at least consider the possibility of letting the European Commission go to the capital markets and source a huge chunk of money that can be spent on people who desperately need it.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


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