Can Europe Make It?

Eastern Europe's crisis of compassion

Why has eastern Europe has become synonymous for animosity towards refugees and migrants?

Zoltán Pogátsa
25 January 2016
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Röszke refugee camp, Hungary. Peter Tkac/flickr. Some rights reserved.At the beginning of 2016 Austria decided to suspend the Schengen system, joining a number of other member states that have already done so at least partially. The Austrian Chancellor also warned that they would no longer pay transfers to countries that are unwilling to be part of the EU quota system for refugees. These countries are Central and Eastern European states, which have been major recipients of EU cohesion transfers.

Thus two of the greatest achievements of European integration: the Schengen system and Cohesion Policy are unravelling in front of our eyes. Both are of central importance for eastern Europeans. As countries formerly locked behind the Iron Curtain, they appreciate more than anyone the unrestricted freedom to travel across the continent. As for Cohesion Policy, it is basically what drives economic growth today in these countries. As an example, Hungary, the leader of the anti-migrant eastern European group, has been absorbing 5-7 percentage points of its GDP in recent years from cohesion policy transfers from the Union.

Without these transfers, most countries of the region would have had no economic growth in recent years, and governments would have collapsed. It is therefore highly surprising that these countries are willing to risk these enormously important benefits for the miniscule contribution of taking in a few thousand refugees

How are we to understand them? Are eastern Europeans ungrateful? Do they lack a sense of solidarity? On a certain level, yes, they do. The lives of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others in their own countries are, without a doubt, hell on earth. The neighbouring countries (Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan) that they have escaped to are at full capacity with millions of refugees, about six times as many as have arrived in Europe so far, and provide no chance of acceptable housing conditions, education or jobs.The likelihood that they can return to their countries of origin is close to zero as violence in the region continues to escalate. Therefore they decide to migrate to Europe in search of work and prospects.

Why do some (though not all, since many private citizens came out to provide food and shelter) eastern Europeans perceive these migrants as a threat, rather then feel a sense of solidarity and attempt to help them in their desperate plight? Partially it is ignorance, a fear of the unknown in dominantly atheist or Christian countries, where the average citizen has zero real life experience of Muslims. The global sensationalist media filter portrays Muslims in the Middle East and in western Europe as a threat, neglecting to report the tens of millions who live in peace side by side with their Christian neighbours. This lack of actual experience and fear of the unknown is therefore easily exploited by politicians looking to gain or keep votes.

But is it as simple as this? No, it is not. The problem is that large segments of eastern Europeans cannot be described as rich westerners who have been lifted up by generous transfers paid for by EU member states, and who are now uncharitable towards Middle Eastern migrants escaping from war.

Tens of millions of eastern Europeans are in fact themselves in precarious life situations, they see no prospects for stability or prosperity. The poor of eastern Europe see the often middle class Arab migrants as only slightly less affluent than themselves. In Hungary, for instance, 4 out 10 citizens live beyond the local existence minimum (an income equivalent to the living wage), measured at local prices. Four out of five do not have significant savings apart from the properties that they own.

Furthermore, there is currently a natural population decline in all eastern European member states due to the lack of prospects for raising a family. This is coupled with a large outflow of labour migration towards western Europe, once again propelled by the lack of opportunities at home. Teachers (the vanguards for future economic prosperity) in the four Visegrad states are the worst paid in all of the OECD, earning just a fraction of their western counterparts. The Gallup Potential Net Migration Index, the most trusted forecast for likely migration trends in the near future, is negative for the entire eastern periphery of the European Union, meaning that eastern Europeans are themselves planning to migrate. The success of eastern European economic convergence is, by and large, a myth for all but the local elites.

Tens of millions of eastern Europeans therefore view the Middle Eastern migrants less as refugees fleeing war, but as competitors with similar levels of prospects, or just slightly lower. They take notice of how Syrian migrants carry smart phones (vital for migration!) because owning smart phones is still not universal amongst the lower classes of eastern Europeans themselves. Syrians pay more to people smugglers than the price of a business class plane ticket from the Middle East to Berlin, mainly because they could not take those planes legally. Like them, large segments of eastern Europeans would also have to sell their property to be able to raise such funds. 

The neoliberal dominance of political discourse in the eastern European member states has disabled principles of solidarity. Rawls’ theory of distributive justice, where society gives you a chance to pursue your existential dreams regardless of the lottery of birth, has not been a reality for the majority of eastern Europeans in the decades following transition from Communism. There is therefore a sense of resentment: why should they feel solidarity with refugees from a conflict they did not create when no one has felt enough solidarity with them to guarantee a real chance of making it?

Of course this does not explain why states in the region have not mobilised available resources to help alleviate the desperation of the Middle Eastern arrivals, and have even harassed them and made their journey more difficult. But perhaps it helps explain why attitudes amongst atomised citizens of eastern Europe are more hostile than in north-western Europe, which has had a long tradition of opportunity creating welfare states, based on principles of social solidarity, of which they were themselves beneficiaries.

An additional aspect is that Middle Eastern migrants are in direct competition on the labour markets of western Europe with eastern Europeans. A further privilege of EU membership, the free movement of labour, is being rendered meaningless by hundreds of thousands of Middle Easterners being welcomed by countries such as Germany and Sweden, who are planning to provide social assistance, education and training for these migrants to be able to integrate into their labour markets. Such opportunities have never been available for the poor of eastern Europe, who are forced to rely on the collapsed welfare and training regimes in their own countries to be able to compete with the new arrivals.

Eastern Europeans are also suspicious of the sustainability of the EU approach to the refugees crisis, and rightly so. In a recent lecture, based on the above mentioned Gallup Survey, professor Alan Manning from the London School of Economics estimated that 630 million people plan to migrate away from their home countries globally, with 48 million planning to leave in the next twelve months and 19 million of them already making preparations to move. If conflicts in the Middle East continue, tens of millions will potentially be forced to leave, and their destination is likely to be Europe.

So far the benefits of labour migration have been universally measured to be slightly more positive than negative for host economies. The labour market integration rate of non-EU citizens is far lower than EU citizens in western Europe, but that of young non-EU citizens is comparable (Germany, crucially, does not provide data). This is unlikely to continue to be the case if further inward migrations of this magnitude actually materialise. Thus a further aspect of European integration, the Common Foreign and Security Policy, has to take responsibility.

All sides in recent debates on migration miss the point. Whether shutting out refugees altogether, or distributing them according to a quota system, the EU is only looking to find a solution for the roughly 1.3 million who have already reached Europe. In order to be able to provide a sustainable solution, EU foreign policy must send generous financial aid to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey to be able to provide decent housing conditions, education and employment for the millions of refugees they already host. EU foreign policy must also demand the involvement of the Arab states in the Persian Gulf in resolving the refugee crisis. It must challenge states financing and backing combatant sides in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere, as well as those buying oil from these warring sides, even if this means confrontation with countries that have so far been allies.

Only sustained peace and a chance for the return of refugees to their homelands will provide a permanent solution. It is vital to resolve the situation of the 1.3 million who are already in Europe, but tens of millions are suffering even more in the Middle East. Neither keeping them out of Europe entirely nor inviting them in is a realistic solution for their future.

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