Hungarian soldiers hanging a signpost on the border fence. Photo: Darko BandicThe scenario that seems to be solidifying for some time now in the Mediterranean is disheartening. Hundreds of thousands of people literally adrift at sea; European states are caught in a dilemma between financial sustainability, social stability and the need to save the human beings presenting themselves at their borders; the added difficulty of distinguishing the crowds of desperate people leaving countries in the throes of civil war from economic migrants, while seeking to deter economic migrants from making their way to Europe as every entryway and border have fallen. The European and international regulations distinguish the statuses of those who reach the borders rigorously, assuring them different kinds of mobility: some — normally foreign residents and predominantly workers — can move freely in Europe (within the Schengen area), while others must remain and benefit from the protection of the country of first asylum.
It is almost superfluous to add that these regulations have currently had a boomerang effect. As the States of arrival are also often the poorest states, those who arrive on the southern coasts of the continent elude their checks and head for the heart of Europe, only officially knocking at the doors of wealthier nations: which therefore become the ones of first arrival and must take care of refugees. This strategy is welcomed by poorer nations which, instead of having to accommodate, only see refugees passing through. The reaction of nations like Austria, Germany and France has been the closing of borders and the de facto suspension of Schengen, despite the fact that some of them had initially opened their doors, essentially urging refugees to make the trip (with the effect of straining all neighboring countries which suddenly became the access routes to those territories against their will).
The European Union appears unprepared to meet the challenge: it imposed — on paper — the distribution of refugees among its members, but in doing so has provoked a serious political crisis. A number of eastern European countries opposed this solution, but the European institutions have decided to impose themselves, breaking the practice of seeking unanimity in their decisions. Perhaps, the fractious member states will raise their voice in the coming months, being mindful of the type of ultimatum that Great Britain recently imposed on itself and the European Union, renegotiating its very presence in the EU and holding a referendum on the matter. Why abide by European decisions if Great Britain wants to disagree with them and threaten to leave? Finally: it is true that the Union excluded government expenses associated with the presence of refugees from the European stability pact, but can this really reassure the minds of the citizens of different countries who see the rising presence of desperate individuals trying to make ends meet, at a critical juncture for the economy and the welfare state? Ultimately, it is understandable that nationalism, Euroscepticism and isolationism join forces creating new political platforms. These phenomena find grounding in seemingly uncontrollable and wide reaching processes, which are understandably scary.
Nevertheless, not everything has been said so far. Other details equally merit to be the subject of reflection. It is neither realistic nor appropriate to transform processes that are global in scope into guilt complexes; but neither is it reasonable to offer a selective look at the phenomena that have taken place at least in the last decade.
Libya, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — the countries from or through which an unusual number of refugees continue to arrive, compared to the masses that during the summer of the past twenty years, cross the Mediterranean in search of a better future — are very much the concern of Westerners. America and the States of Europe have more or less agreed upon and criticized actions which, in the name of democracy, liberty and the fight against terrorism, involved serious interventions in those African and Asian countries. There are varying degrees of approval of those initiatives, but now the reasons cannot be addressed. However, every one of those actions laid the foundations for what we are observing. In North Africa and the Middle East, various western states have played an important if not leading role; in many of these cases, they have literally provoked or even led change.
Some aspects of these events seem widely unquestionable, and it is useful to put them in order.
A) The destabilization in certain areas could have been justified, but it definitely paved the way for the current disorder and triggered a process that produces millions of refugees.
B) The decision on whether or not to intervene in every one of these areas was not imposed by the EU, but decided by the United States, either singularly or in a coordinated effort — therefore it is misplaced to blame Europe for the inability to cope with a crisis generated by others, as well as think that the state dimension is culturally the one capable of dealing with this crisis, from the moment that it helped to create them.
C) Europe is the last terminal of a human movement of millions of people that is changing the Middle East in a larger and longer lasting way than the military interventions were: Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are overflowing with refugees. And there is no end in sight for the flow of refugees, or any sense of how it could smoothly change directions, considering that the conflict has exacerbated the situation in different areas to such an extent that only the slow passing of time will heal: for comparison, look at what life in Northern Ireland is like today, despite the peace agreements.
D) Schengen is not just any kind of agreement: it is one of the most immediately palpable elements of the existence of a European society. Its end — or its prolonged suspension — could have a significant effect on Europe’s self-understanding.
E) Europe only grew institutionally thanks to the constructive adhesion of its members: if this turns into hostility, it cannot last.
After such a somber outline, it is that much more essential to offer constructive observation. In the first place, the European dimension — whether you like it or not — is an area that is affected by the actions of every member: if the States are moving in no particular order, they should also be asking how their actions will affect Europe on a broader scale, with the penalty of losing some aspects of Europe itself which will end up turning against them. Secondly, the strategy of trying to “export freedom and democracy” — with weapons or in a nonviolent way — could possibly work, but only if, in the countries of the planned intervention, there are certain prerequisites that Europe supports and which make those key words not only values to be pursued, but daily customs. These are not institutional requirements, nor are they found in law. Asking about these aspects is only possible if a political community — both European and national — is not simply perceived as a service provider and a safety net (as its newest and currently hostile members seem to warn), but also as a dimension of the very existence of its citizens and residents. It is time to ask about the real wealth of Europe and its components, and what it truly means to cultivate them.