It’s been a rough year for European unity, and it’s not getting any better. The sudden flood of refugees from the Middle East and Africa is straining the unity of European Project more than any crisis in recent memory. The member states are divided and unable to agree on a common solution. Militarized borders are being reopened, refugee camps are being hastily erected, and armies are mobilizing, all echoing nightmares of an Old Europe and a time long thought to be in the past. The EU is at a pivotal moment: a crossroads which may determine the fate of the entire European project.
The refugee crisis has amplified the serious disagreements amongst Europeans about the roles of national sovereignty and cultural identity in the future of the European Union. According to estimates from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly 200,000 refugees have arrived in Europe just in 2015, with over a million total asylum seekers estimated to be residing in the EU by the end of the year. With most of the refugees fleeing the embattled nations of Syria, Libya, and Iraq, there is a palpable fear in Europe that the influx of such a large number of Muslims will result in a spread of radicalism and a weakening of perceived national identities, spurred by the spread of homegrown terrorism already on the rise on the continent.
In fairness, individual states are taking action because the European Union is not.
There are two sides that have taken diametrically opposed moral stances on the issue: One side, comprised mostly of the EU-founding member nations of Western Europe, are citing humanitarian moral obligations and wish to see a pan-European solution to absorb the refugees and distribute them fairly throughout Europe. The second, comprised of the newer Eastern European members of the EU, are resisting allowing migrants to remain in their countries. These states, located on the periphery of the EU, are concerned about the political and economic shock that would come should the refugees stay, and are fearful of the perceived threat to their respective national identities if they absorb thousands of Arab Muslims.
Emergence of a Crisis
This summer, Italy cancelled the European Commission-funded Operation Mare Nostrum, an extensive maritime operation to provide safety for refugees coming into Europe from the Middle East. Without Italian ships dedicated to their rescue, many refugees are avoiding the perils of traveling on makeshift boats run by smugglers in favor of joining the already innumerable masses of Syrians and Iraqis escaping into Europe by the longer land route through Turkey. As a result, the western Balkans are receiving an ever increasing number of refugees as the Hungarian-Serbian border was seen as the main entry point through which they can travel to the more prosperous regions of the EU.
Hungary has since made clear its severest objections to the presence of refugees within its borders and has loudly criticized fellow EU members for disregarding their own rules regarding asylum seekers. The Dublin Regulation requires the first EU country in which a refugee enters to register them for asylum and to provide humanitarian assistance. This arrangement leaves Greece and Italy, the main points of entry by land and sea respectively, to provide these essential services to the bulk of the refugees. Italy is already hosting over 170,000 mostly North African refugees, and the vast majority of those traveling into the EU via Turkey should have remained in Greece. Greece however, has been overwhelmed and unable to support them. The European periphery, plagued already by high unemployment, unstable economies, and troubled governments, is in a precarious position and needs immediate relief from the rest of Europe even without the overwhelming presence of so many refugees.
The uncontrollable movement of refugees through the poorer regions of Europe has called into question the very notion of a border-less EU. The Schengen Area provides border checks only upon entry into member states, and allows free travel without passports between signatory states. In response to the deluge of migrants, Austria, Germany, Slovakia, and the Netherlands have re-instituted border controls, with various other European nations considering similar actions. Hungary not only built a wall along the Serbian border, but is also considering (or already erecting) a fence on borders with EU members Croatia and Romania. As European states build walls between themselves, the idea of a border-less Europe is quite literally disappearing.
Disunity in Action
The refugee crisis has reignited the debates about what it means to be European. While the more prosperous Western European states have been receiving large numbers of Muslim and Asian immigrants for decades, the former Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe have not. France and Germany, for example, have been the destinations of millions of migrants that have been assimilated to their respective cultures to varying degrees (although not without difficulty). The Eastern European members of the EU, however, are still nearly homogeneous, each comprised almost entirely of self-identified white Christian Europeans with no significant recent history of non-European migration.
The different national perceptions of identity politics between West and East is the crux of the problem. On 3 September, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán explicitly labelled the refugees a threat to Europe’s Christian identity, “We shouldn’t forget that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture… this is an important question, because Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity… is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian?” The prime minister sees multicultural France, with its large North African population, and Germany with its sizable Kurdish and Turkish minorities, as a warning to his fellow Eastern Europeans about what could happen if the refugees were allowed to stay. “We don’t want to be like them” he almost seems to say.
In fairness, individual states are taking action because the European Union is not. The EU has been slow to come to a consensus about how to handle the refugee crisis, resulting in member states taking action into their own hands, rather than relying on the cumbersome EU political process. After months of indecision, on 22 September the EU voted to institute a quota system that would distribute 120,000 refugees among member states. Framing the issue as a matter of national sovereignty, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Romania voted against the plan. As of 24 September, however, only Slovakia has refused to comply outright, threatening to sue the EU in court. Slovak prime minster Robert Fico was defiant, “As long as I am prime minister, mandatory quotas will not be implemented on Slovak territory.”
Nation-states erecting walls and barbed wire fences echo a not-so-distant, unpleasant past.
Eastern Europe is by no means united in response to the crisis. Croatia, which opened its borders to migrants on 16 September in response to Hungary’s completion of its fence along the Serbian border, closed them just two days later. In an almost schizophrenic reaction, Croatia began busing migrants to the (as of yet) unfenced Hungarian border. Responding to this action, Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto stated, “Instead of honestly making provision for the immigrants, it sent them straight to Hungary. What kind of European solidarity is this?” Szijjarto captured the sentiment of disunity and made perhaps the most poignant comment regarding the issue, “Rather than respecting the laws in place in the E.U., they are encouraging the masses to break the law, because illegally crossing a border is breaking the law.” Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanović bluntly replied, “We forced them (Hungary) by sending people up there, and we’ll keep doing it”. Croatia seems content with letting migrants in, as long as it can pass them off to Hungary. Unity indeed.
Crisis = Opportunity
This is the defining moment for the European Project. The refugee crisis could be the wake-up call Europe needs to recommit to the ideals of the European Union, else it could be the driving force behind its dissolution. Western Europeans need to take care to ensure the substantial inclusion of a very nervous and frustrated East, concerned that in any major decision, national sovereignty will simply be pushed aside by another round of majority voting in which a unified West will always win. This is not a sustainable state for the future of the continent.
Nation-states erecting walls and barbed wire fences echo a not-so-distant, unpleasant past buried just barely beneath the surface: a Europe divided against itself. Europeans must seize this moment to forge a real union or they will soon find the idea of a singular Europe relegated to a footnote of history. It is in these moments of doubt and discord that Europeans must remember one simple fact: that Europe will always be its best as one, rather than divided against itself.
LT Nick Avila is a U.S. Naval Officer and Olmsted Scholar in Belgrade, Serbia. He received his B.A. in History with a focus on American Diplomacy from Amherst College in 2008. He is an MH-60S helicopter pilot by trade and has military experience from two deployments in the western Pacific to include operations in Guam, Japan, and Australia. The views expressed here are his own and not those of the US Navy or the George and Carol Olmsted Foundation.