The Fence

“The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out.” The words of J.R.R. Tolkein, and as applicable to the problems of the Middle East today as to those of Middle Earth. For at a meeting of the Polish prime minister Beata Szydło and the other Visegrad Group (Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia) prime ministers in Prague on Monday, the politicians were not so much sitting on the fence as calling for a new one to be built to fence out if not the wide world, troublesome part of it.

And the fence for the construction of which they have called would close the borders of Macedonia and Bulgaria with Greece, a concrete – or at least chain-link – response to the continuing refugee crisis. “We expect that at the March meeting of the European Council at the latest decisions will be taken that will allow for real control of the borders of the EU and effective measures to reduce the influx of refugees,” Szydło said on Monday following the V4 meeting.

The V4 prime ministers also expressed their support for the establishment of a European border guard. “We have to have concrete solutions, namely, control of borders and control of the flow of refugees,” Szydło added, noting that there is also a need for cooperation with Turkey. Turkey, of course, having negotiated a large payment to help has decided that yet more money is needed to ensure its cooperation or it will be helping the unfortunate refugees on their way. So much for Danegeld, or Eurogeld as we must now name it.

The Visegrad Group was founded 25 years ago, following the collapse of another very effective fence, the Iron Curtain and, without one assumes a trace of irony, a celebratory cake was cut at Monday’s meeting. Still, one’s view of a fence will always depend on which side of it one falls and, having joined the EU in 2004, the V4 is on the right side.

“Thanks to our accession to the EU, today we can speak with one voice,” Szydło said. “I am very happy about this, because today Europe is facing major challenges.” Of course one person’s one voice is another’s right to dissent when it suits, a right which Poland is ever quick to exercise, from making the case for Polish coal in the face of EU environmental concerns, to arguing that the changes to Poland’s constitutional tribunal and other legislative changes do not in fact depart from EU standards (please see Venice).

Be that as it may, the refugee crisis is a pressing problem to which none of our political leaders seems able to offer a coherent solution. Bombing Syria is not the answer, not least because intervening in other folks’ civil wars is never the route to health, wealth and happiness, and such an approach seems only to create more refugees. Or, because there is an alarming lack of women and children among the angry young men from, it appears, anywhere but Syria, whose idea of fighting – for some at least – is not to tackle ISIS but rather European women going about their business, thus spreading the peace and harmony for which their religion is known.

Into this heady mix will fly four Polish F-16 fighter jets to patrol Syrian airspace although Krzysztof Szczerski, Secretary of State at the President’s Chancellery, said in an interview with TVP that Polish military action in Syria has been ruled out. He insisted that the prospective operation in Syria would involve only training and patrolling. “It is a signal to our allies that we are co-responsible for the security of the whole of Europe.”

The US, the UK and France have been engaged in airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and Poland’s involvement is not wholly altruistic. Paweł Soloch, the head of Poland’s National Security Bureau, said on Monday regarding this operation that “we expect the same solidarity on eastern issues,” referring to Poland’s repeated calls for a permanent NATO presence on its eastern border, especially Poland. Indeed, President Duda at the weekend told the 52nd Munich Security Conference (irony piled upon irony this week): “I think the most important [thing] for Poland now is strengthening NATO’s presence in the eastern flank of the alliance. This is, in my opinion, the most important problem for Poland and for Eastern European countries now.

Whatever else of which one might wish to accuse the Polish government, it can’t be accused of sitting on the fence.

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