The refugee issue is deeply polarising and every country is acutely conscious of its limitations and capabilities.
The European Union has postponed the discussion — and its dithering — on sharing the refugee influx. Don’t hold your breath. Europe is scared out of its wits at the prospect of distributing 160,000 foreigners, mainly from Syria, evenly across the continent. It is also deeply conscious that it must mask its terror from the watching world.
This is a continent that experienced the Age of Reason some 300 years ago. It can do the maths. There are just 4 million Syrians haemorrhaging from their kill zone of a country. That’s a bit more than one-quarter of the 15 million who fled Europe’s bloodshed and barbarity 70 years ago. Not all of those 4 million fleeing Syrians are headed for Europe and, even if they were, it would be a relatively small number to absorb into the European Union’s population of 500 million if they were evenly distributed.
The majority of Syria’s displaced remain in their geographical neighbourhood — Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey — but without the protection (and crucially, the papers) that enable them to work, live decently and rebuild their shattered world. Europe, in contrast, represents, as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker declared, “a beacon of hope… That is something to be proud of and not something to fear.”
But they do fear. Deeply and truly. The 15 million refugees after the second world war were European. And, for the most part, Christian. Not so the Syrians.
Hence the new border controls and barbed-wire box cars. The talk of “sanctions” by some EU countries against those that refuse to accept refugees. By September 15th, when it was clear there would be no agreement on distribution, with Central and Eastern Europeans particularly obdurate, five countries re-introduced border checks.
Each had different reasons: Germany because it could not take in everyone and wanted other countries to share the burden; the Netherlands was driven to follow Germany; Austria because it was wary of the thousands being transported to its border by Hungary by train; the Czech Republic and Slovakia because they oppose compulsory refugee quotas. Legally, this overriding of the Schengen agreement, which proudly abolished internal borders and passport controls for 26 participating countries, can last ten weeks.
What will happen after that?
Malik Azmani, a Dutch parliamentarian of Moroccan descent, may have called it. If Europe cannot find a solution, he says, and borders remain closed, “then it becomes an every man for himself kind of Europe,” he said. Not really a European Union at all.
Or as Juncker, in a State of the Union address September 9th, lamented: “There is not enough Europe in this union. And there is not enough union in this union.”
This is hardly surprising. The refugee issue is deeply polarising and every country is acutely conscious of its limitations and capabilities.
As Romanian President Klaus Iohannis explained, his country is not “xenophobic, autistic or separatist”, just unable to absorb large numbers of migrants. He added that it wasn’t hard to find shelter for migrants; it was just hard to integrate them.
Romania’s perspective is interesting and illustrative of some of the problems thrown up by the refugee crisis. It has said it can take 1,785 migrants; the European Union wants it to take in an extra 4,650 people. It knows it can’t cope. Is it wrong to acknowledge that?
Who, in Europe, can cope? Can Germany? For all its stated generosity, the smiling initial welcome and the Arabic-language refugee guides helpfully printed by its tabloid newspapers, Germany’s Turkish issue remains a conundrum.
Decades after the large-scale migration of Turkish guest workers, they are perceived, as historian Klaus J. Bade wrote in Migration in European History, by some to be the “’most foreign’ group in Germany”.
Unlike the United States, most European countries do not have the mechanisms and cultural filters that allow for the easy eliding of differences and the enforced absorption of newcomers. It will take time to create the habit of acceptance. Unfortunately, time is a luxury Europe can ill-afford.