Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

Europe failed immigrants after the Berlin Wall fell, now it risks doing the same

Thirty years on, European countries cannot once again respond to immigration with denial and barbed wire.

Anna Triandafyllidou
12 November 2019
Arrival of a train with Albanian refugees on 15 July 1990 in Geseke.
Arrival of a train with Albanian refugees on 15 July 1990 in Geseke.
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PA Images

The decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall have presented new opportunities and challenges for the free movement of people. On the one hand, the fall reunited families and opened up exchange and study programmes for young people. But it also gave rise to informal, irregular and exploitative labour migration. With Europe once again facing a immigration crisis, there are vital lessons to be learned from the post-Wall period.

While European nations welcomed the fall of the Berlin Wall, they were unprepared for the immigration flows that followed. This included refugees from the Yugoslav wars (approximately 800,000); co-ethnic migrations from the former Soviet Union to Germany (over 3 million), Greece (200,000), Poland and Finland (10,000s); and labour migrants from central and eastern Europe to both western and southern Europe. By the late 2000s, 4.8 million had resettled in central Europe. 

Southern European countries in particular became hosts of significant immigrant populations in the early 1990s. Their governments were mostly in denial about this shift; they seemed to think that immigration pressures would be a short-lived. As such, they attempted to regulate immigration through border controls and rigid immigration requirements. 

The initial enthusiasm about democracy and freedom quickly cooled down, border security was beefed up and so were expulsions, and integration policies took at least a decade to emerge. In spite of this,  integration happened on the ground through migrant support networks and the labour market. Migrant labourers found jobs, brought their families and later regularised their status through immigration amnesties. 

Southern European societies changed demographically – and also culturally and politically – in significant ways as a result of these post-1989 immigrations, a large part of which originated from former Communist countries. Poles, Ukrainians, Romanians, Bulgarians migrated in significant numbers during the 1990s to Greece, Italy and Spain. While migration is caused by a multitude of factors, it is clear that 1989 completely changed the migration map of Europe and led to important immigration flows. 

The lesson to be learnt here is that immigration policies should adapt to realities rather than expect to control, and actually stop, immigration flows. If southern European countries had tried to manage immigration proactively in the early 1990s they would have saved a lot of hardship for migrants but also would have better regulated their own labour markets and welfare systems. The irregular entry and informal employment of many central and eastern European migrants in the 1990s led to significant exploitation by unscrupulous employers and, as a result, significant losses for public coffers

“European countries that are now insisting on ethnic homogeneity should make no mistake: barbed wire cannot take the clock back.”

The same central and eastern European countries that are now insisting on their ethnic and religious homogeneity in the face of immigration flows from Africa and Asia should make no mistake: barbed wire cannot take the clock back. We all live in an interconnected world. It is better to manage migration through flexible channels (e.g. temporary and long-term, less skilled or highly skilled, international students and family members) so as to ensure people have legal status and access to fundamental rights. By refusing to do so, states are pushing migrants to make riskier journeys and allowing pockets of exploitation and abuse to emerge in their societies. 

Thirty years after 1989, we are now seeing the emergence of an aggressive, authoritarian nationalism in central and eastern Europe. Why has an ethno-religious  nationalism with racist overtones come to power in Hungary and Poland? Why do these countries refuse to take any asylum seekers when their own citizens fled authoritarian Communism. 

The answer does not lie in either migration or asylum. This neo-tribal nationalism has not emerged because of migration pressures in central and eastern European countries – they do not face such pressures. On the contrary, the populations of many of these nations are declining because of emigration and low birth rates

The answer lies in the lack of a credible political and ideological alternative after 1989. The transition to democracy and free-market economy was a one-way street and largely driven by imitation rather than a true transformation, as Ivan Krastev also argues. Differences between left and right have largely been effaced leaving citizens disillusioned. In the absence of ideological and political competition between the Communist east and the liberal capitalist West, native minorities like the Roma, old outgroups like the Jews and new scapegoats like Muslim refugees have filled the gap – they have become the significant other, against which the ingroup unites. 

The rise of ethno-nationalism in Europe shows that democracy requires distinct political alternatives to choose from to function. When these are reduced to two versions of the same neoliberal consensus without credible alternative ideas and policies, nationalism and the fear of the ethnic other fills that void.

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