Can Europe Make It?

Refugees in CEE: why the lack of compassion?

The generic space of "Central and Eastern Europe" is castigated for its lack of compassion. But can we get under the skin of particular perspectives to explain - even understand - the attitude?

Jan Macháček
16 September 2015

Refugees make their way to the Serbia-Hungary border. Demotix/Geovein So. All rights reserved.Ivan Krastev and Jacques Rupnik have both written critically of the lack of compassion shown towards refugees by so-called “East Europeans”.

I don’t want to enter a direct polemic against them: both articles are very thoughtful and contain much that is true. Instead, I want to add a layer of complexity to the analysis. I am also very aware of the audience I’m addressing. Do I have an audience of fellow Czech or Eastern European citizens? For them my duty as an intellectual is to criticize harshly the xenophobia seen on social networks and our to castigate cowardly political elites. Or am I speaking to international audience? Towards you, I feel instead the need to confront prejudices and simplifications. Let me be clear. Here, I am doing the latter.

Krastev writes about this phenomenon: people in “Eastern Europe” thought the EU would bring prosperity but instead, they feel it’s now mainly been a source of problems.

But Krastev shouldn’t be so quick to generalise. In Central Europe, countries like Poland, the Czech republic and Slovakia all enjoyed at least five years of quite rapid growth; they benefited from inflows of both foreign investments and EU money between 2003 and 2008. Bulgaria and Romania did not enjoy this relatively bountiful period; they entered EU at the time of the global financial crises and the great recession that ensued. Naturally, for them, EU entry was not associated with an inflow of investments, nor any sense of rapidly rising prosperity.

Whichever wave of accession we’re talking about, the reaction to this giant refugee crises should be compared to the reaction to the fall of Lehman brothers. Here is my account of the probable internal monologue that accompanies the sort of attitude - if that is what it really is - that Krastev and Rupnik point to:

“We in CEE (Central and Eastern Europe) were just ready – after the painflul transformation of 1990’s – to enjoy the fruits of capitalism and markets and, with Lehman, you suddenly tell us that capitalism is no longer working - we’ve missed the boat.”

Similarly with refugees. Here could be the (semi or sub-conscious attitude) in CEE:

“You guys in the West enjoyed the quiet prosperity of the post-War; we in Eastern Europe have “a right”, for a few decades at least, to something similar. Why should it be just now that it’s our turn to go up the escalator that we’re entering this age of turbulence and instability?”

There’s a further question we should be asking here: what exactly do we mean by “Eastern Europe.” There is Central Europe with its culture and mentality, then there are the Balkans etc. What we’re probably really talking about is those post-communist countries that are members of EU and who share the characteristics of being very nervous about refugees from Islamic countries and migrants from Africa.

But is that a blanket hostility to refugees, migrants and other "others"? In the case of the Czech republic for instance (a country of ten million people), there are three hundred thousand legal Ukrainian migrants (plus some more illegals) and one hundred thousand Vietnamese. Czech society apparently would be willing to absorb many more with no major problems. Both minorities are seen to be hard working, with Ukrainians very visible in construction and Vietnamese refugees and migrants running many grocery stores. Czechs in general have no problems with them at all. Twelve years ago, Czechs welcomed almost 30,000 from the Balkans and there was no fuss.

The trouble today is that most of the Syrian refugees know perfectly well, where they are heading. They’re on their way to Germany or Sweden, because they have relatives there, they know someone, and in any case they know how generous the welfare systems are there.

For the nations of CEE, it is obviously complicated to feel compassion for someone who has no interest whatsoever in your country, who is only focused on Germany, Germany, Germany. Part of the wave of German compassion for refugees, the CEE might feel, arises precisely from a somewhat sentimental reaction: “these poor escapees and refugees on the run from the horrors of war associate our country, Germany, with a paradise on earth; they even call our German chancellor “mother” ...” etc.

Is it really a surprise that it’s so hard to win the hearts of Hungarians when refugees consider their country good only for transit? And believe this: Hungary would still only be a transit point even if the prime minister of Hungary were His holiness the Dalai Lama or Mother Theresa. It is hard to win the hearts of Czechs, if your country is not good even as a transit country, because it is quicker and more convenient to go to Germany via Austria.

And still remember this: whatever we think about the authoritarian tendencies of Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, the safety of refugees itself is not under threat in Hungary. Hungary is a normal EU country, no one is cutting anyone‘s throat there. The same is true for Greece, with all its economic troubles - it is a civilized EU country. And yet almost no refugee seriously considers Greece as a possible destination.

Lack of compassion is not reserved to “East Europeans”. Why single us out, might be the thought of CEE citizens? Take Denmark, for example, through which refugees seek a quick and safe passage to Sweden. Why? Because social security for Danes is more limited that for Swedes? That’s Denmark’s choice. It still remains, despite its relatively unwelcoming policy, in the family, the tradition, the culture, of the “Western” country.

Everyone is different, every culture is different, every nation is a bit different. If you want to generalise, think of Czechs, for instance, as a nation whose culture is of hard-headed peasants (as they originally were, for the most part), who are not easily manipulated by any kind of collective hype nor any overly sudden wave of enthusiasm or sense of massive, urgent collective action.

In this respect Czechs do not understand Germany. First Angela Merkel proclaims multiculturalism to be dead, then she confirms the position of Germany to be a defender of the rule of law (“Greek debt must be fully repaid, it is a matter of principle!”), then Germany proclaims rules to be dead (“open the borders ... here comes the time to be flexible!”) and then, after all that, she once again imposes order (“everyone has to play by rules now!”) and borders closed. And what's more, In the eyes of most Czechs, Germany to quite an extent initiated this wave of refugees. If it were just the dream of a safe haven, they could also go to the Czech republic or to Poland, but they are not interested in us.

If a refugee does receive asylum in the Czech republic, goes the average citizen's thought, he'll be moving on to Germany the very next day. Czech or Slovak social benefits are significantly lower than in Germany; the Slovak minimum wage is equal to the monthly benefit due an asylum seeker in Germany. Czechs and Slovaks are against the system of mandatory quotas because once someone is given asylum in their country, they immediately move to Germany. It’s not even worth travelling back to the Czech republic to pick up benefits: the cost of the journey exceeds what’s on offer.

It's clear: mandatory quotas would function only in a system without Schengen, in a system with perfectly closed national borders within the EU. Within a Schengen system, you cannot keep anyone, where they do not want to stay.

So non-CEE Europe should change its perceptions of the problem: Hungary is a front line country on Europe’s common border and needs help and solidarity. Instead, it is ostracized. But this means the situation gets even worse because Hungarians start to feel that they have nothing to lose. German, Czech and Polish border patrols should help Hungarians to protect their border in a more civilized manner, one consistent with European values. Dutch and Finnish bureaucrats should help Hungarian bureaucrats to proceed with registration of refugees in an efficient and humane manner.

All agreed? Now the average CEE citizen has a final question: the root cause of the problem is the war outside the EU’s borders; so who is going stop the war? Will Germans be as active in this as they are in addressing the consequential damage? Will CEE countries be part of this solution?

So that’s for the voiced and unvoiced thoughts running through the minds of citizens in CEE.

Nevertheless, it is obviously the case that political leaders in CEE need to change their rhetoric; it’s not for them to preach this to the West. They are the ones who must express solidarity and explain to their own people who the refugees are, where they come from and why and, above all, why we all owe them a duty of care and refuge. Rationality, the citizen might well think, seems to be on the side of the CEE political leaders. But they need to understand, that for Germans, symbols, gestures and emotions are now also driving politics and decisions. It's not for us, goes the voice, to come across as crowing or superior.

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