Yesterday, the EU agreed to new sanctions against Belarus for facilitating the transport of people to its border with Poland, where Belarusian authorities have aided migrants’ movement into the EU member state. The situation has become a humanitarian crisis, with many migrants left freezing in the forest on the Poland-Belarus border as both countries reject their entry. The EU accused Belarus’ dictator Alexander Lukashenko of waging a “hybrid attack” against the bloc by allowing people from the Middle East who are desperate to reach the EU to fly into Minsk then head for the Polish border. Mr Lukashenko warned his country will retaliate, saying: “They’re scaring us with sanctions. We will defend ourselves. We cannot retreat.”
He has also threatened to cut off gas supply to Europe from a pipeline in Russia.
Piotr Buras, a Warsaw-based fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations, explained to the New York Times why the situation is so challenging for the EU.
He said last week: “This is a very serious crisis for the European Union, not just for Poland.
“It’s a crisis of security, which could get much worse if Polish and Belarusian guards start shooting, and it’s a very serious humanitarian crisis, because Europe can’t accept people starving and freezing on the border.”
The fear of violence intensified in October, when Polish border guards accused the Belarusian side of shooting at Polish soldiers patrolling the frontier.
The state-run PAP news agency quoted Border Guard spokeswoman Anna Michalska as saying: “A Belarusian patrol fired shots at Polish Army soldiers who are patrolling the border with us.
“It was probably using blank ammunition. Nothing happened to anyone.”
Sky News reporter Diana Magnay travelled to the Polish-Belarusian border to speak to the people who have been left stranded between the two European countries.
A contact named Dino said: “It’s too cold and we are in a place that’s quite open, we have no protection from the rain and snow. And all the children are coughing because of smoke.
“Hopefully the EU will make a good decision for us.”
The report adds that many of the migrants that have travelled to Belarus are from Iraqi Kurdistan, a troubled region where war, corruption and a lack of opportunities has made life difficult.
One man said: “They said the Belarusian president has a problem with the EU and Poland so he decided to open up the gates.
“Before this we were going to Turkey and Italy and Greece in small boats, this way is more safe.”
While Poland is getting help from Brussels, expert Mr Buras also pointed out that figures in Warsaw have benefited politically in previous years from pitting itself against the EU.
He continued: “The problem is not that the EU doesn’t want to help Poland, because of the rule of law.
“It’s the other way around — it’s very difficult for this Polish government to accept help from EU institutions that they are fighting on another front.
“And the government wants to present itself as the sole saviour and defender of the Polish people.”
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In recent years, the EU and its leaders have condemned Poland for infringing on the independence of its judiciary.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) called on Poland to take “rapid remedial action” on rule of law and the independence of the judiciary in a ruling released last week, in which the court said two Polish judges were denied the right to a fair hearing.
The battle between Brussels and Warsaw over the rule of law has been escalating. On October 27, the Court of Justice of the European Union hit Poland with a €1million (£845,000) daily fine for not complying with an order to suspend the Disciplinary Chamber.
This has coincided with the Polish government ramping up anti-EU rhetoric.
President Andrzej Duda has used harsh terms to describe the EU, branding it an “imaginary community of little consequence for us”.