Every meaningful political conflict is really about two things: reality and time. It is about who lives in a fantasy world, and who has their feet firmly on the ground. And it is about who is stuck in the past, and who owns the future.
And so it is no wonder that in the pan-European debate about the refugee crisis, each side accuses the other of being unrealistic and preaching unsustainable policies at the same time. Besides that, there are other aspects to the debate, such as national sovereignty, our international commitments, demographics and EU law and solidarity. But in the end, it all boils down to time and reality.
So, what are the two sides saying in this debate? Leaving aside nuances for a moment, and simplifying a bit, one might say that one side sees Europe as a Christian continent that should protect itself against a migration of peoples, if necessary, by fences. The opposite view claims that Europe’s future is globalised and multicultural. ‘Christian Europe’ is pessimistic about the sheltering and integration of so many refugees while comparatively optimistic about our ability to keep them out via fences and border controls. ‘Globalised Europe’ is very can-do about letting the migrants in (‘Wir schaffen das!’) and rather skeptical about our chances to keep them out. ‘Christian Europe’ sees Angela Merkel on her way to failure because she is stuck in the multiculturalist dreams of the late 20th century whereas ‘Globalised Europe’ locates leaders like Viktor Orbán or Jarosław Kaczyński ominously somewhere in the 1930s.
There are three problems with this polarisation: First, it became, at least in the beginning, a sort of East-West conflict in the EU. This was particularly evident when the EU Council discussed and then, at the end of September, voted on a quota system distributing 160.000 refugees among the member states: The Visegrad-4 stood out arguing against the system; in the final vote, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania voted against. So to many in the West of the continent, especially among post-modern elites, the new member states looked a bit like people who had missed the era of globalization: Frozen in their Iron Curtain past. And some in the West of the continent were already linking the issue of solidarity in refugee matters to the solidarity about Russian aggression. Among the new member states, on the other hand, the Old West seemed to display its habitual arrogance and ignorance of Central European specificities.
Second, as the conflict deepened, it became more of a polarisation between Germany and the rest. The German government, basking in the light of ‘Willkommenskultur’, began to take the moral high ground. To some of its partners, Germany began to look like a ‘hippie state’ imposing its ‘Birkenstock imperialism’ upon its neighbours. In the past, most German-Central European debates had always contained an element of German guilt about World War II, which often helped to moderate German politicians’ and diplomats’ tone. Even in the Greek Eurozone drama, that had still played a certain role. Suddenly, in the debate about refugees, it was completely absent. Germany, or at least the part of it that welcomed refugees, seemed to have learned the right lessons from history. And the others, in the eyes of some Germans, became the fascists. To be fair, some of the rhetoric from Central Europe about refugees was hard to bear: Jarosław Kaczyński’s claim that they carried diseases, or his statements about churches in Western Europe being converted into public toilets. Ditto for Robert Fico’s postulate of only letting Christian refugees into the country – which is in open contradiction to the Geneva Convention. But all in all, this is an untenable situation, and if the German government wants to exert leadership, it will have to stop the moralising and revert to more moderate and pragmatic language.
Third, and most importantly, it seems to get more and more difficult to formulate a sound middle position between ‘Globalised Europe’ and ‘Christian Europe’. Such a position could consist of the following elements:
There is an obligation to treat refugees in a humane way (also rhetorically). But there is no obligation for EU countries to let everyone cross their borders without control. National sovereignty and the control of the external borders of the Schengen space are not 19th century illusions.
Europe needs immigration, for demographic reasons. The current wave of migrants may be a part of the answer to that question, but especially those that have a right to asylum might not be the people we need for our labour markets.
Solidarity among the member states is important, but it must go much beyond quotas, and extend to helping ‘frontline states’ set up registration facilities.
In trying to improve conditions in countries closer to the conflict zones, such as Turkey, the EU will have to mobilise more political energy and financial power, in order to improve conditions for people before they feel they have no choice but to enter the Schengen space.
People who seek shelter in EU countries will have to accept some fundamental values, such as equal rights between men and women, freedom of expression and religion, and the fact that antisemitism is bad. That refers to all religious groups coming in, and Muslims may have particular problems with that. All recipient countries in the EU must become much more active in promoting these values.
Above all, the debate on refugees needs to become more rational, on both sides. No one should accuse someone else of living outside of reality, or being hopelessly stuck in the past. Culture matters, but what counts in the end for our identity is not the exact correlation between Muslims and Christians in Europe. It is whether we will still be an open society in the future, and neither ‘Eurabia’ nor a continent beset by xenophobia and nationalism. Let’s work on that together.