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Did the EU welcome Ukrainians to gain soft power? New study explores

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When Russia invaded Ukraine last year, a mass influx of Ukrainians fled to Europe and were given unprecedented rights from the EU. The EU sent a clear message of support to Ukraine while imposing entry restrictions on Russia - but to what extent did the union use migration policy to gain soft power? A new study by Brunel University London investigated.

In February 2022, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent shockwaves around the world. Over 6 million Ukrainians left their country in search of safety, with the vast majority seeking refuge in Europe.

In response to the crisis, the European Union (EU) triggered for the first time a special right called ‘temporary protection’, which was available to fleeing Ukrainians.

“Despite being in place since 2001, the temporary protection directive had never been triggered before,” said Dr Matilde Rosina, an expert in migration policy in Europe, who conducted the study.

“The temporary protection gave Ukrainians rights throughout the EU and access to services and opportunities such as housing, medical care, employment and education.

“The protection is believed to have been motivated by the speed and scale of arrivals, which was enhanced by Ukrainians’ visa-free access to the EU for short stays of up to 90 days.”

In contrast, the EU highlighted Russia’s violation of international law and issued multiple rounds of sanctions, which included visa restrictions. Dr Rosina concluded that restricting the visa facilitation agreement with Russia sent a clear message to Russia and the rest of the world regarding the EU’s unity and solidarity with Kiev.

As part of the research, published in Policy Studies, Dr Rosina, from Brunel University London, studied 110 EU documents released during the first month of the war – which included official documents, speeches, council press releases and agendas.

“This was a crucial time for the development of the EU’s response to the conflict, and I wanted to learn about their response in the field of migration, as well as how this was leveraged for foreign policy objectives and ‘soft power’ - a non-coercive way of attracting others to align with your desired outcomes,” said Dr Rosina.

“Migration policy and refugee policies can be seen as a tool to attract soft power, and although the temporary protection was a lifeline for fleeing Ukrainians, the EU leveraged it for foreign policy and soft power purposes.”

According to Dr Rosina, visas can also be seen as a tool for soft power. A generous visa policy can build bridges and promote global partnerships, while a restrictive visa policy can damage relations and create disapproval.

“Visa policies are inherently a foreign policy tool that signals ‘something’ about another country’s government,” she said. “By tightening its visa policy towards Russia, the EU aimed to delegitimise the Kremlin’s actions and weaken the country’s leadership in the eyes of the international community and Russian people.

The migration expert explains that the EU promoted the image of a non-compliant and isolated Russia while portraying itself as responsible and united.

“By regularly emphasising solidarity with Ukraine and the threats to European and global security, the EU documents portrayed the Russian invasion as a conflict not only with Ukraine but also with Europe and the ‘democratic world’.”

As well as showing its support for Ukraine, Dr Rosina finds that the EU presented itself as acting in defence of the shared values of ‘freedom and democracy’, in an effort to enhance its reputation and showcase the attractiveness of the EU.

“Migration policies can play a pivotal role in foreign policy and in the projection of soft power on the global stage,” she said.

“The EU’s activation of temporary protection for Ukrainians and sanctions on Russia sent a clear signal to the rest of the world about the EU’s position on the conflict, and was used strategically to enhance the union’s soft power.”

‘Migration and soft power: The EU’s visa and refugee policy response to the war in Ukraine’, by Matilde Rosina, is published in Policy Studies.

Reported by:

Nadine Palmer, Media Relations
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