Can Europe Make It?

Europe's refugee choice: unity or deluge

A great inflow of refugees has triggered division and alarm across the European Union. But history advises, and the present requires, a more rational response.

Radan Kanev
7 October 2015

Syrian refugees in Bulgaria. Demotix/Katya Yordanova. All rights reserved.The panic-driven political and media reactions to Europe's current refugee crisis carry an echo of the doom and perdition omnipresent in Henryk Sienkiewicz's historical novel Potop / The Deluge, published in 1886. This, the second of a trilogy that would help earn Sienkiewicz (1846-1916) the Nobel prize for literature two decades later, depicted the Swedish invasion of Poland in 1626-29 under Gustavus Adophus; its related works portrayed epic struggles in central Europe against Tatar and Ottoman would-be conquerors.

Today's refugee and migratory inflow from the Middle East and north Africa are very distant from these events, both in time and character. But the atmosphere of turmoil is near enough to provoke an imaginative leap across centuries.

By recalling these conflicts for a contemporary Polish audience, Sienkiewicz's purpose was also to underline the importance of the great Polish-Commonwealth Commonwealth of 1569-1795 (retrospectively viewed as the first Polish “republic”) to the history of law, freedom and constitutional governance in Europe. For the Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów (or "Commonwealth of Both Nations" as it was later called) had enlightened features whose memory would persist long after it was in stages partitioned by surrounding empires in the late 18th century.

The Commonwealth, in this perspective, is much more even than the historic saviour of central Europe from invaders from the continent's fringes. It was a federal, elective monarchy; a complex system where political and military powers were held in balance; a symbol of unprecedented ethnic and religious tolerance. From the perspective of the 19th-20th centuries its institutions and values can be seen as a precursor of modern democracy: constitutional government (whether monarchical or republican in form), federalism, accommodation of different faiths, even the partial subordination of major Christian values to notions of human rights and dignity (thus safeguarding the rights of Lutherans and Jews under a "laic" Catholic dispensation).

In a sense, it is an earlier version of the modern European Union - somewhat chaotic, but genuinely engaged with the wellbeing and the rights of its citizens. Yet the Commonwealth in the end disappeared from the map, amid a mood that also seems to presage the continent's present disarray. Instead of coming together, European states are divided by the inflows of people: some closing their borders, seeking delusional safety behind barbed-wire fences, taking refuge in populism, hiding behind an undeliverable promise of territorial control of people's movement, pushing the cost of hosting many thousands of immigrants onto fellow member-states. And this destructive logic - of "every state for itself" - is getting a firm grip among the European Union's leadership.

Two conflicting but equally maleficent tendencies of political discourse are today colliding. Most of the national leaders in eastern and central Europe, headed by the always “on duty” populists - Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Robert Fico in Slovakia, as well as the post-communist Czech government - stubbornly reject the idea of a coordinated European policy, and actively promote the closing of national borders. They are supported by prosperous north European states that combine financial egoism with hollow political rhetoric. Meanwhile the EU leadership itself (starting with the European commission), and the predominantly left-wing opposition parties of north and west Europe, are concerned more with making a sentimental response than generating real political action.

Together, all this behaviour seems inadequate to a moment of ordeal: militantism and striking attitudes,not the responsible execution of political power. The mechanical references to abstract values - while ignoring the risks that those values are now facing, and without resolute ideas about how to preserve them amid the current turmoil - only encourage the nationalist-populism of “cold-hearted” central Europe. The collapse of the pan-European “Rzeczpospolita” as a common home of freedom, human rights and citizen-centred power is not under immediate threat. But the refugee crisis does close the period when Europe could dream of becoming either a family of free and united people, or an everlasting “rich club” that could avoid difficult issues of defence and security. After all, neither 1989 nor the Maastricht era of the early 1990s were Europe's "end of history".

What then must Europe do to overcome the refugee and migrant crisis, and ensure the union grows stronger in the aftermath? The starting point is to base decisions on firm ground: that is, good sense and rationality, not shallow populism and naive sentimentality. In practice, here are three guiding steps.

First, the crisis is unsolvable at the national level. This is especially true for peripheral countries like Bulgaria and Hungary. The pressure on their borders is extreme and just shutting their borders (as Hungary shows) ensures they will become "buffer-zones" where hundreds of thousands gather on their way to richer west European countries, thus causing havoc in their already slim social-protection systems. No European country can solve the problem in isolation, nor even gain through a "free-rider" strategy of diverting the flow toward other member-states. The only possible way out is a common European decision, enforced by the central power of European institutions and implemented in close cooperation among national governments.

Second, closing all of the EU's external borders is another unworkable strategic option. Even if the entire continent is surrounded by barbed-wire, immigration will continue and human trafficking will flourish. The quarrel between noisy populism and defeatist sentimentalism will seal the failure of the Schengen system of open borders and precipitate the EU's decline. Instead, the EU as a whole must finance control and registration of all refugees; create protective areas and refugees camps in third countries neighbouring the EU; manage the gradual admission of genuine refugees to all member-states; and keep track of them during their residence in the EU while being prepared to facilitate their return to their homelands after a peaceful solution is found to the tragic conflicts there. In addition, Europe needs more jointly financed and centralised measures against human trafficking and a new common policy for internal EU security.

Third, it must be recognised that any political union is above all one of common security, not merely a common market with its privileged members on top. Of course, economic conditions are part of the wider security situation: the collapse of Greece contributed to the uncontrolled inflow of refugees to neighbouring states, and regional economic divisions in Italy make even a limited "national" strategy harder to establish. But this also confirms the point that common security is a Europe-wide interest, and solidarity - including towards the poorer states from the richer - a matter of the latter's own internal security. There is no rational alternative to EU-wide decision-making and coordinated political action.

Both the populist fixation on national borders, and the moralistic reiteration of humanitarian values without firm security policies, are actually a threat to national interests and to these values. Most of all, because they are the artefact of societies whose integrity is seriously endangered by out-of-control immigration.

Poland's experience again provides valuable lessons for present-day Europe. The eventual decline of the Commonwealth was anticipated in the second half of the 17th century when King Jan II Kazimierz (John II Casimir) alienated the country’s Protestant leaders and allowed the central state's power to diminish even before invaders raided the country. The separatism of the various warlords of the “Republic” - Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Transylvanian - was the major cause of the military defeats that followed.

Even today, a Polish analogy is relevant. Donald Tusk’s period as prime minister during the last decade was one of the best examples of balance between protection of the national interest and a strong pro-European policy. The governments he led, backed by the Civic Platform party, offered hope that eastern Europe could invigorate the EU as a united political union of proud and free nations joining forces for the security and well-being of their citizens. Poland's parliamentary elections on 26 October, following the presidential vote in May 2015 won by Andrzej Duda of the Law & Justice party, suggest that the wave of populism throughout Europe is having its effect in Poland too. If this propels the country into the “closed borders” camp, it could have serious consequences for the Polish state, especially in the event of a deepening of the Ukrainian crisis.

When a character In one of Henryk Sienkiewicz's later books expresses a selfish view of morality, the author comments that "similar views of evil and good deeds were enunciated in Europe not only by politicians but by whole nations.” Today, a solution to the refugee crisis depends on the European Union's ability to overcome selfishness and achieve a common mobilisation of resources by all member-states. The same goes for other security threats facing Europe and the western world, regardless of their point of origin. Europe must hang together, as Benjamin Franklin once said, or its divided components will hang separately.

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