Interrupting their summer breaks, MEPs from the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs (AFET) and Development (DEVE) Committees heard from EU High Representative and Commission Vice-President Josep Borrell about the current situation in Afghanistan during an extraordinary joint session on Thursday.
And they had plenty to say themselves, too.
Emerging as the four main threads were the urgent need to bring to safety people at risk from the Taliban regime and for humanitarian assistance, the need to understand why the country’s government and armed forces had collapsed like a house of cards, the need to draw the right lessons and forge a way forward, and finally, the consequences in terms of migration and security for Europe.
AFET Committee Chair David McAllister set the tone in his opening remarks, saying, the dramatic developments in Afghanistan had led to calls for an “urgent discussion and for urgent action.
The German EPP deputy continued, “The violence brought by the Taliban and other groups has reached new heights, as witnessed by the continued attacks on children, on women, on activists, journalists and government officials. At this critical and dramatic moment, humanitarian action should be our top priority. We need to present a united front.”
Many of his MEP colleagues, as well as EU High Representative Borrell, argued later that the last requirement is far from achieved at the moment.
"At this critical and dramatic moment, humanitarian action should be our top priority. We need to present a united front” European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee Chair David McAllister
In his opening remarks, DEVE Committee Chair Tomas Tobé outlined the looming humanitarian crisis, warning that, “There are nearly four million people internally displaced and living in precarious conditions. These numbers are likely to increase, so it is essential the international community continues to support the Afghan population.”
Josep Borrell, who joined the meeting on video call and clearly showing the strains of the last few days, dispensed with diplomatic niceties: “Let me speak clearly and bluntly, this is a catastrophe; A catastrophe for the Afghan people, for the credibility of western nations and for international relations.”
Referring to US President Joe Biden’s remarks that, “nation building was never a goal in Afghanistan”, he begged to differ, calling Biden’s comments “arguable”. Europe, he insisted, had tried to build a modern state with respect for the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms, but, of course failed:
“There are lessons to learn from the failure of this nation building operation. The US has spent $300m a day - a day - for 20 years, ultimately with very modest results”, Borrell said.
On short-term priorities, he informed MEPs that 106 Afghan staff working for EU institutions had now safely landed in Madrid, and that a further 300 are currently trying to get to the airport in Kabul, with the road between the capital and the airport being notoriously difficult even in normal times.
He added that this number could grow further, to include people who worked for the EU in the past and, more broadly, human rights defenders, women’s rights activists and others. “The intelligence work on this is ongoing”, he said.
However, Borrell also admitted that it was unlikely that all of those people will be able to be flown out before the airport is closed.
“Let me speak clearly and bluntly, this is a catastrophe; A catastrophe for the Afghan people, for the credibility of western nations and for international relations” EU High Representative Josep Borrell
The High Representative also informed MEPs that the head of the EU delegation, Ambassador Andreas Von Brandt, was still in Kabul, and that four more European External Action Service officers were currently in Pakistan, waiting to be able to join him there, the EU special envoy for Afghanistan, Tomas Niklasson amongst them.
He also stated that the “EU is ready to discuss humanitarian aid with the Taliban” but emphasised that “this does not mean the regime has been politically recognised.”
On the other hand, about the many appeals made by leading western politicians to the Taliban to show respect for human rights, Borrell remarked: “We can always say ‘they must, they must, they must’ but the important thing is what we can, we can, we can.”
Crisis, Borrell insisted, was also always an opportunity, and “this will be an opportunity for us to discuss the European Union as a geopolitical actor. But this will require unity, in small things and in big things.”
He pointed to the fact that a recent statement demanding free passage to leave for Afghans who wished to do so, had been signed by almost seventy Member States of the UN but not by all Member States of the EU - namely Hungary and Poland, although Borrell didn’t name them.
The High Representative was unable to stay for the whole length of the exchange of views, as he had to prepare for yet another high-level Afghanistan meeting on Thursday, this time with the G7’s foreign ministers.
In his place, Fernando Gentilini, acting Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) answered MEPs questions.
“There are nearly four million people internally displaced and living in precarious conditions. These numbers are likely to increase, so it is essential the international community continues to support the Afghan population” European Parliament Development Committee Chair Tomas Tobé
The AFET Committee had also invited the members of its two subcommittees, on Human Rights (DROI) and on Security and Defence (SEDE). DROI Committee Chair, Belgian Socialist Group deputy Maria Arena strongly supported the call for urgent humanitarian action and help for people at risk.
SEDE Committee Chair French Renew Europe MEP Nathalie Loiseau pointed to the security risks arising from the Taliban takeover explaining that “the prisoners in Baghram Prison are all being released, among them several Al-Qaeda leaders”, and insisted on a strategic review of defence capabilities.
Belgian liberal MEP Hilde Vautmans spelled things out more bluntly, saying, “First of all, let’s take more steps forward towards a Defence Union, a real European army. It is crucial that we take those next steps in the coming months. Not years, months.”
In an equally straightforward manner, she addressed the one big issue on which EU unity is so painfully missing still, “and secondly, let’s not repeat the mistakes of 2015 and have a real European migration policy.”
Almost all MEPs commended the direction taken by the High Representative - perhaps also because almost all members of the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) and of the Identity and Democracy (ID) groups listed as speakers were absent in the committee room or did not connect to the video call.
The one ECR MEP who spoke, the group’s Vice-Chair, Flemish nationalist Assita Kanko, did find the “passion displayed by our High Representative” lacking, and insufficient to confront the Taliban. However, in her political analysis she did not differ radically from that of the majority.
She called the takeover of the Taliban a “monumental and historic failure of foreign policy“, adding that “so many world leaders should be ashamed now, including former [Afghan] President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani whose attitude of shamelessly abandoning his people and fleeing with cash shows that we have sponsored corruption for so many years.”
Several MEPs called for an extraordinary plenary session of Parliament in the coming days to be devoted to all aspects of the Afghan fall-out. Others stated their expectation of a likely new refugee crisis, eventually also affecting Europe itself, and suggested that other European Parliament committees, in particular the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) Committee, should convene as soon as possible to discuss this aspect in detail.
On Wednesday, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson had impressed on Member States’ ministers the need to offer legal, safe and organised pathways to the EU, and urged them to “step up their engagement on resettlement, to increase resettlement quotas to help those in need of international protection."