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The refugee question in Europe: 'south' vs 'east'

The refugee crisis has triggered a diplomatic row between Greece and certain 'new' member-states from Central and Eastern Europe. What does this tell us?

Humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees at Idomeni, Greece, August, 2015. Demotix/Giorgios Christakis. All rights reserved.The refugee waves from war-torn territories remain an ongoing and vivid reality across Europe. Since early autumn, Greece has been cooperating steadily with the EC and Frontex towards the establishment of five ‘hotspots’ for the initial registration and relocation of refugees (i.e. in the islands of Chios, Leros, Kos, Samos and Lesbos along the Turkish coastline). According to the EC guidelines, only migrants of the following nationalities are eligible for relocation to other EU member-states: Syrians, Eritreans, Afghans, Somalis and Iraqis.

On the macro-political level, the relocation process has spurred inter-state tensions. A series of EU member-states from Central Europe (e.g. Hungary, Slovakia and Czech Republic) have accused Greek authorities of unjustifiable and inexplicable hastiness in the relocation of refugees to the north. Even more emphatically, Slovakia’s PM Robert Fico and the Czech President Miloš Zeman openly called for Greece to be expelled from the Schengen zone unless Athens demonstrates acute responsibility and accountability during the relocation.

On its part, the Greek government protested that while some are setting up ‘hotspots’ for refugees, others are erecting barbwire fences and engaging into anti-refugee demagogy. Primary attention will be paid to the following questions: Why have so many political actors throughout Central and Eastern Europe capitalized on an ostensibly anti-refugee rhetoric? Do the, either lenient or negative, stances towards the refugee question interweave with the various shades of Euroscepticism across the Continent and how?   

Central and Eastern Europe: dealing with essentially introverted societies?

Various parts of Central and Eastern Europe are characterized by a high degree of ethno-cultural hybridity. Nevertheless, with the relative exception of cases such as Belgrade’s Chinese and Prague’s Vietnamese communities, Central and Southeast Europe have not witnessed systematic waves of external migration.

The latest refugee influx from Greece to Central Europe, via the former Yugoslavia, is a unique experience that has drastically impacted upon these societies’ perceptions as well as actual management of otherness. Meanwhile, the gradual consolidation of ISIS and its militant Salafism in the Levant has intensified the alarmism over the potential export of asymmetric threats to their region among many Middle Europeans.

The first endeavours to capitalize on popular insecurities over the refugee question were carried out by the populist and the more extremist branches of the far right. Marian Kotleba’s Naše Slovensko (’Our Slovakia’) party organized protests in Bratislava and other urban centres across the country with the aim to obstruct the settlement of refugees in Slovakia. A comparable mobilization of the far right was also observed further to the north in Poland and the Baltic States.

In Estonia, far right groupings even warned of the danger that the relocation of Middle Eastern refugees to the country might result in ‘the long-term pollution of the Estonian gene pool’. As for Hungary, not so long ago, Jobbik’s leadership tended to pride themselves as a non-Islamophobic and non-Eurocentric party. Nevertheless, in the light of the latest developments, Gabor Vona and other high-rank Jobbik affiliates have castigated the alleged machinations by the proponents of globalization and multiculturalism to dilute the cultural physiognomy of Hungary and the other Central European nations.

Of greater significance is the project(s) by various, nominally non-far right, parties to gain political capital out of the mass discontent with the refugee influx. In the course of FIDESZ’s more decisive turn to the right, Viktor Orbán rushed to justify the erection of a razor-wire fence along the Serbian-Hungarian border on the basis that: ‘European and Christian values must be safeguarded…Hungary must be free to defend its borders’ (September 2015).

A few weeks later, Robert Fico equally objected to the introduction of refugee quotas for Slovakia along the cultural argument that: ‘Slovakia is a country built upon Christian values’. He then added that: ‘If the social integration of Roma has been so complicated, one can only imagine how difficult the integration of populations with a completely different set of cultural values is going to be’. Most recently, Miloš Zeman caused an upheaval with his statement that: ‘we are currently facing an organized invasion and not a spontaneous movement of refugees…why do not these young male migrants stay in their countries to fight ISIS instead?’

The simultaneous mobilization of a wide network of humanitarian activists throughout Central and Eastern Europe (also, the Baltic States) demonstrates that the categorization of this macro-region as essentially xenophobic and uncompassionate would be a sweeping generalization.

Meanwhile, the endeavour by political actors across the traditional left-right axis (e.g. Hungary's conservative FIDESZ and Slovakia's social-democrat SMER) to capitalize on anti-refugee sentiment remains highly intriguing. Instead of resorting to cliché explanations entrenched in cultural essentialism, this apparent peculiarity can be comprehended through reference to two political particularities.

The one of them is the almost longstanding tradition of short-term and idiosyncratic decision-making among political actors in the region. Post-Communist Europe can provide numerous examples of shortsighted constitutional engineering and accommodation of crucial political issues (e.g. the Serbian and Croatian constitutional frameworks during the 1990s).

In the Hungarian case, capitalizing on the current alarmism over the refugee question may facilitate Viktor Orbán and his ruling FIDESZ to enhance their already dominant status in Hungary's political landscape. Preventing Jobbik from using this opportunity for its advantage may also form a, if only, secondary concern. Slovakia, on the contrary, has undergone a series of rather fragile and 'situationally adaptive' government coalitions over the last decade.

In this case, playing the patriotic card can help Robert Fico to consolidate SMER's powerful status in a country whose political landscape has been marked by a state of chronic fragmentation. The vocal and negative reactions on the part of the European Social-Democrats do not seem to have deterred the Slovak PM from adopting a harsh tone on the movement of refugees within the EU space.

A second and complementary explanation that can be offered is the apparent inability of several statesmen in Central and Eastern Europe to strike the proper balance between their benefits and obligations within the EU. Quite a few statesmen and policymakers throughout the region viewed their countries' accession to the EU from a highly conditional and issue-specific angle. Principal emphasis was laid on free movement and employment opportunities within the EU space as well as foreign investment in the public and private sectors of the economy.

Nevertheless, a series of controversies frequently resurfaced in other areas of policymaking. For instance, the revision of the national legislations on minority rights often emerged as a thorn in the bilateral relations between the EC and several states during their accession stage (e.g. Slovakia, Romania, Latvia and Estonia). On that specific occasion and under certain circumstances, regional statesmen might be excused to complain about double standards and a 'do as a say, not as I do' pattern (i.e. the disproportionally lenient stance of the EC towards certain 'old' member-states on minority rights).

However, the current abundance of anti-refugee narratives firmly exhibits the inability among regional statesmen to weigh benefits (or rights) vis-à-vis obligations in a coherent way. In stark contrast to Viktor Orbán's recent comments, the refugee crisis is not 'just Germany's problem' but a humanitarian issue with European and universal repercussions. This needs to be addressed and managed in a coordinated and proportional manner within the EU.

Milder and inclusive versus harder and exclusive variants of Euroscepticism?

However 'situationally adaptive', this adoption of anti-refugee speech across the left-right axis has resulted in a, if only by default, political phenomenon: The gradual crystallization of an exclusivist Euroscepticism with the potential to become harder as long as the resentment of Middle European statesmen over the refugee question persists.

With specific regard to classical signifiers of political culture, this brand of Euroscepticism mostly embodies values associated with the right wing: cultural essentialism, cultural exceptionalism, and a strictly majoritarian as well as organic outlook on states and their (predominant) cultural identities. By contrast to Central and Eastern Europe, the refugee question and its management seems to interweave with milder and more inclusive variants of Euroscepticism in Southern Europe.

At this point, it should be borne in mind that instances of discrepancy between benefits and obligations have also been observed in Southern Europe during the EU's older rounds of enlargement. The Greek case in the 1980s provides an appropriate example where the allocation of Structural Funds often combined with a reluctance to implement additional reforms in the administrative bureaucracy and the occasional adoption of 'anti-imperialist'/Eurosceptic demagogy for domestic consumption (i.e. Andreas Papandreou and his populist project). Furthermore, Greece, in particular, has recently seen the popularity of highly exclusivist and militant brands of Euroscepticism among the far right (i.e. the case of Golden Dawn).

Nevertheless, the refugee question seems to currently interweave with milder and more inclusive variants of Euroscepticism in Southern Europe. Between 2012 and 2015, SYRIZA fashioned themselves as a dynamic and wide-reaching coalition with the aim of accommodating a broad range of interests. The rapid migration of Greece's 'patriotic left' to SYRIZA and the ensuing pact with the Independent Greeks/ANEL cast certain shades of doubt over this endeavour.

However, the Migration Policy Minister, Nikos Mouzalas, and other SYRIZA-affiliates have continuously emphasized the humanitarian and European dimensions of the refugee crisis while staunchly opposing any 'Fortress Europe' proposals. Following the party's gradual 'de-radicalization', this inclusive stance towards the refugee question combines with a remarkably milder variant of Euroscepticism in comparison to SYRIZA's erstwhile confrontational rhetoric.

The opposition to 'Fortress Europe' options and the gradual adoption of a milder Euroscepticism is equally topical for SYRIZA's 'fellow travellers', the Spanish Podemos. This observation is particularly valid in the light of the Podemos' disillusionment with the 'SYRIZA precedent' in summer 2015 and their recent prospects for a government coalition with the Socialists/PSOE. A combination between soft Euroscepticism and a more inclusive stance on the refugee question equally reflects the prevalent mood among Portugal's centre-left/left government coalition.

The latest controversy between Greece and certain Central European states over the refugee relocation also signifies a clash between these milder/more inclusive and harder/more exclusive variants of Euroscepticism. Especially following allegations that one of the perpetrators of the Bataclan massacre had crossed into the EU via Leros, Robert Fico intensified his charges of irresponsibility against the Greek government.

Meanwhile, political commentators throughout Central and Eastern Europe accused Greece of intentionally 'smuggling' migrants to the Continent as a pressure means for securing better terms in the domestic reforms. Middle European statesmen refrained from interlinking the latest misunderstanding with their previous reluctance towards a new bailout for Greece. Nevertheless, Miloš Zeman's latest statements that: 'Czech Republic will join the Eurozone after the inevitable Grexit' and the subsequent recall of the Greek ambassador from Prague further widened than alleviated the existing cleavage.  

What becomes evident is that various stimuli can trigger different centrifugal trends and cleavages throughout the EU (i.e. the management of the economic crisis in the south and the refugee relocation in the east). Tensions may not solely arise between the core and the peripheries but among the peripheries too. Moreover, it becomes clear that the existing brands of Euroscepticism are qualitatively diverse, rather malleable and fluctuating.

Under the impact of different (domestic and external) catalysts, certain variants of Euroscepticism may soften whereas others may harden. The long-term evolution of this correlation is hard to predict at this given moment. Most certainly, however, this multiplicity and de-territorialized pattern come to show that a crucial crash-test is under way for the EU. 

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About the author

Vassilis Petsinis is a Marie Curie Experienced Researcher at the University of Tartu (Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies). His specialisation is European politics and ethnopolitics with a regional focus on central and southeast Europe (including the Baltic States). He holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham. His personal profile on academia.edu can be accessed here.


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