Europe: Perpetual state of Crisis

For almost half a century now, the Society of the German Language has chosen the so called Word of the Year – a word or a group of words that in the past 12 months made the most significant contribution to the country’s history. Last year’s winner? “Fluechtlinge” or in English, “refugee”. The two other runners-up were “Je suis Charlie” and “Grexit”.

One does not have to rely on the German language to see that Europe had a rough year in 2015. Be it terrorism, crisis in Ukraine, the Eurozone, or the problems with the growing number of refugees. Europe seems to be stuck in a perpetual state of crisis and its current manifestation – the refugee crisis – may prove to be the one the EU might not recover from.

Refugee crisis: Old divides in New Era

That Europe is in crisis is no news. What matters more is that the EU also stands divided. Nothing illustrates this division more than the last year’s debate regarding refugee quotas. Allowing for some degree of simplification, the EU split along two camps: (1) one represented by Germany and; (2) that of the Visegrad Countries (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary) – with the former being a standard bearer for the Old Europe and the latter that of the New Europe.

However, while the issue of quotas has been largely settled since, the divisions in Europe over whether to accept more refugees has only intensified. Furthermore, the situation is extremely fluid – as demonstrated by the recent trend of creeping disintegration of Schengen.

Is Germany to blame for Europe’s problems?

When we look at the development of the situation in Europe between 2014 and 2015 we see not only a significant rise in number of asylum seeker and migrants (some 600,000 in 2014 compared to 1 million in 2015) but also the change of the routes via which they entered the Continent.

While the vast majority of refugees still arrived by sea, they would increasingly land on the shores of Greece (as opposed to Italy) and then make their way inland to Germany and Northern Europe via the Balkans.

In response to the crisis, Germany’s strategy has consisted of both short and long-term policy goals with the former highlighting the need for an EU re-distribution of refugees already in Europe and with the latter suggesting an assistance to countries outside the EU borders to prevent more people from coming in.

On the first point, and once the crisis became critical in summer of 2015, Berlin intensified its efforts to push for an EU-wide compulsory quota system. This was met with a level of opposition from a number of other Central European countries, notably the Visegrad Four.

Some of those opposed to the idea were convinced that the influx of refugees was, at least partially, aggravated by Angela Merkel’s open-door policy and her remarks that Germany would not impose any upper limit on the number of refugees. A degree of confusion of Germany’s intentions was also created by the then subsequent closure of borders between Germany and Austria (a precedence that has led to undermining Schengen).

Nevertheless, and regardless of the above, the refugee redistribution system was approved by the Council on 22 September last year.

Once this issue was settled, Europe’s and Germany’s attention turned more towards the situation beyond the EU – more precisely to Turkey and countries in North Africa – in order to curb if not halt the migration flow. One of the concrete outcomes of this was the recently signed 3bn Euro deal with Ankara that aspires to improve the situation for refugees stationed in Turkey in hope that they do not continue their journey any further.

Hello from the Other Side

While many of the newer EU member states have not been particularly and directly affected by the refugee crisis (with the exception of Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia), the issue has dominated the headlines in a number of them. This is also true for the Visegrad Four countries where fearmongering and hysteria have become the new norm.

The reasons why this is the case are mostly related to the region’s history and politics. As far as the latter goes, the issue of refugees has been used and abused for gaining political capital in countries such as, among others, Slovakia where the population is largely opposed to refugees and where parliamentary elections are being held in March.

While it can be assumed that the lack of a balanced debate is down to the media coverage and more importantly populism in politics the underlining attitudes of the majority of the population also rest in their historical context.

As a relic of the not-so-distant (Communist) past, countries in the former Eastern bloc are weary of any ethnic, cultural and political imposition perceived as foreign. The refugee quotas for people from remote cultures enforced by “Brussels”, or worse still “Berlin”, is perceived as such imposition and is hence rejected.

Moreover, the quotas are being rejected also on some objective grounds. There is no use in denying that most of the older EU member states are simply better equipped to deal with the flow of a Muslim population due to their long-standing migration history. From lacking interpreters, cultural centres to inadequate education leading to prejudice; Central Europe does not currently have the infrastructure and structures to integrate these refugees.

That is not to say, however, that the attitude and the approach of the V4 countries are by any means justified by this. But it does mean that if Europe is to find a workable and sustainable solution where all countries can and want to play their role, it has to start by recognising the differences. Otherwise the EU’s motto ‘united in diversity’ is not worth the paper it is written on.

For example, the often used argument that the Visegrad countries lack any sense of solidarity and that they treat the EU as a cash machine (i.e. they take a lot and give little in return) is a simplification at best and distortion of reality at worst. And this is true even when talking about the issue of immigration from outside the EU.

While the V4 states have been, for the reasons above, slow in accepting Muslim refugees, they – and Poland in particular – have been at the forefront of the migration flow from Ukraine. Conveniently, and also for the benefit of Ukraine, these immigrants are not referred to as refugees and have hence slipped under the radar of the general European public.

The way forward

Europe has undoubtedly hit an impasse and Germany’s (sometimes confused) leadership on the issue of refugees has led to frictions in the EU. However, in absence of any viable alternative of leadership (with France and the UK having abdicated on this role), should the question rather be: is any leadership or action better than none?

The answer is no, not necessarily but the question betrays a false assumption that Germany bears the sole responsibility for what has happened. It is true that the Old Member States have opted for easy solutions, notably to impose refugee quotas on countries that have little or no capabilities to deliver on their commitments; however, the approach of the Visegrad countries offers no alternative, nor has the V4 gone out of its way to propose more meaningful contribution to finding the solution to the problem.

To deal with the refugee crisis, Europe needs a viable and sustainable plan where all countries play their role. But to do that it needs to unite in its diversity and this requires better understanding among the EU´s 28. Europe needs a mature dialogue that is currently being drowned out in the sea of small and short-sighted politics. And until it recognises its different strengths and weaknesses and stops imposing a uniformity across the board, faced with crises, the EU will continue to undermine its own existence until it exists no more.