Policy-makers across Europe are trapped in a security mindset, causing the conflict in Syria to be viewed primarily through a military and strategic lens. While this is part of the wider picture, it overlooks the fact that Europe’s security is also a question of values. By Maria Chalhoub

Policy-makers across Europe are trapped in a security mindset, causing the conflict in Syria to be viewed primarily through a military and strategic lens. While this is part of the wider picture, it overlooks the fact that Europe’s security is also a question of values.

“We are helpless, hopeless. I don’t want to lose hope, I still have to live with hope, but how can I do so? . . . Do something to end this war”, said the Syrian head of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organisations, Dr Zaidoun al-Zoabi in a live interview with CNN, seconds before breaking in tears. As in the past four years of reckless war in Syria, this video was added to the list of sound bites articulating the suffering of Syrian war victims and representing their collective outcry. Despite these news pieces’ success in generating public outrage, the EU remains as divided over what a resolution to the conflict should entail. In the absence of political creativity, the EU has continued to lead the crisis response to Syria with more than €4.2 billion in relief and recovery assistance.

Security vs values?

As Europe has become the preferred destination for refugees, EU member states are increasingly adopting short-term security-driven policies to deal with this influx. New border reinforcements are erected, new security measures proposed. Some of these policies are called for but they are also enacted at the expense of European values, causing EU High Representative Federica Mogherini to reiterate the need to be “faithful to our European values – the values of respect of human rights and solidarity”. 

Europe’s response however continues to be guided by its fear of returning foreign fighters, growing chauvinism and an increasingly polarised public debate. The attacks in Paris have been used by various populists to stir anti-refugee sentiment. Likewise, the right to asylum – an important element of European values – is increasingly treated as a burden.  

That being said, the issue at stake is not the artificial choice between European security and European values but the implications of this trade-off in the long run.

Syria is the perfect example. Syrians perceive Europe’s decision to stand at the sidelines of a political solution as a moral failure. Europe talks about solidarity and human rights in theory but it is seen as unable to implement them in practice. European policy-makers are indeed wary of repeating past mistakes when it comes to dealing with the Arab and Muslim world, but they should not forget that inaction is also an action.

How are Syrians going to remember the war – and Europe’s role?

Over 250,000 Syrians have been killed. But for the millions of Syrians that will outlive the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, the aching memory of the thousands of Syrians dead, drowning, displaced, disabled, detained or deserted in underfunded refugee camps or in famished besieged areas, will remain vivid for generations to come.

Chances are that these generations will look to Europe not with admiration and reverence but with negligence and agony. European values will matter little in their society because they made little difference when they could have been decisive.  

Such a society will resemble those most conflict-torn Arab countries find themselves in today; filled with resentment and short on hope; societies where violent action is justifiable and radicalisation tempting for those young and restless who are urged to resist and retaliate.

There is still time to change course

To reverse this dangerous course bound to continue to erupt on European soil; the EU must proactively reduce the disparity between the values it projects and the foreign policies it adopts. Never before has it been as crucial to recall that European values exist not to be traded off in times of despair, but to remind us that European security and well-being can only stem from the security and well-being of our neighbours.