The refugee crisis: A Europe unsure of itself

Hundreds of thousands of people are streaming into Southern Europe and making their way, many by foot, toward Northern and Western Europe. They are arriving to escape war in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, or grinding poverty elsewhere. They are risking their lives and even the lives of their children in order to do so. This is a catastrophe on a Biblical scale, with thousands dying en route to a continent that does not know how to deal with them.

The challenge for Europe is immense — logistically, politically, economically, linguistically and culturally. The response, so far, has been incoherent. The problem was at first ignored, before being met with belated panic, followed now by more panic as that response unravels and the borders of Europe slam shut. This crisis has exposed fissures in the European ideal of itself, particularly in “Old Europe” — the Western and Northern core that formed the early European Economic Community, forerunner of the European Union (EU). The political and cultural consequences of what is occurring might be with us long after the refugees stop coming.

Origins and crisis point

The current crisis has its origins in the series of popular revolts known as the “Arab Spring,” and in the political and military vacuum following the exit of coalition forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. The overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and the ongoing attempt to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria created the conditions for civil war and for Wahhabi extremists to export their conception of jihad. One such group — Islamic State, or Da’esh — has used the chaos in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan to pursue an Islamic Caliphate by means of sadistic violence combined with media savvy. The Assad regime, however, kills many more Syrian civilians than the Islamic State does, with refugees often keen to emphasize that it is Assad that they are fleeing.

The consequences for civilian populations have been devastating, with hundreds of thousands killed or maimed, and livelihoods and homes destroyed. All of 7.6 million people have been internally displaced in Syria, with nearly five million registered as refugees in neighboring countries — particularly Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The revolts were encouraged by Western European powers — Britain and France took part in air strikes against Gaddafi, while support and encouragement were offered to the Free Syrian Army in its fight against Assad. Other European countries also encouraged these risings, proclaiming an Arab “awakening” to the merits of liberal democracy. This role as cheerleader is one reason for the belief among some that Western Europe has a moral duty to bear a fair proportion of the burden of refugee resettlement.

Refugees have been crossing the Mediterranean Sea in droves for over three years, from North Africa into Italy or from the Middle East into Turkey and Greece, drowning by the thousands. Southern Europe was left to deal with the emerging catastrophe by itself, despite repeated pleas for a coordinated European response and condemnation from Pope Francis. In 2013 the Italian government launched a year-long emergency search and rescue program, Mare Nostrum, which is estimated to have saved 130,000 lives. When it ended, the EU launched a much smaller rescue program, Triton, with reduced funding despite the increasing numbers drowning.

It was the image of one child’s corpse washed up on the Turkish shore last summer that finally prompted a political response to the crisis at an EU-wide level, and even then only after widespread public protests. Aylan Kurdi was a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned while crossing the Mediterranean in an unseaworthy dinghy with his family. The image of his body lying face down on a beach was seen around the world, and Aylan’s death became a catalyst for massive demonstrations in many European cities demanding action to help and accommodate the refugees. The responses from European governments varied widely.

Some countries such as Germany and Sweden liberally welcomed refugees and crowds appeared at train stations to applaud and aid the arrivals. Others, however, were more cautious about opening their doors to a large number of refugees, believing that to do so risked social upheaval and an increased risk of extremist undesirables finding their way in. The enthusiasm with which many in Western Europe greeted refugees became blunted by the atrocities that occurred in Paris in November 2015, when 130 people were murdered by Da’esh-inspired extremists in gun and bomb attacks. The perception that two of the nine known attackers arrived in Europe alongside refugees prompted fears of a potential “fifth column” of extremists hiding among genuine refugees. It must be pointed out that seven of the nine were actually French and Belgian citizens whose presence in Paris had nothing to do with the refugee crisis.

The changing attitude toward refugees was compounded by a series of sexual assaults upon as many as 117 women near Cologne’s train station on New Year’s Eve at the end of 2015. The perpetrators, acting together in large groups, were men of what was described as “Arab or North African” appearance, many of whom had recently arrived in the country from North Africa. In the days following the attacks, cities in a number of countries, including elsewhere in Germany, Austria and Sweden, reported similar attacks upon women.

Such events provided ammunition for the far Right across Europe to claim that allowing in so many Muslim men would ignite violence. Politicians who had supported accommodating a large number of refugees, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, were accused of “betrayal” by the likes of anti-immigrant group Pediga. The number involved in such abuses, however, was a tiny proportion of the refugee population, while Syrian Muslim men in the crowd, recently arrived as refugees, intervened to stop attacks on that night in Cologne. Several Muslims showed heroic bravery during the Paris attacks. Unfortunately, nuanced analysis was another casualty on those nights.

European disunion

As mentioned, the response to the refugee crisis has been varied, both between and within countries in Western Europe. A brief overview of the effects in some of these countries provides an illustration.

Germany: Perhaps the most striking example of the swings in attitudes toward refugees is in the country that has taken in more refugees than any other in the EU. Chancellor Merkel announced that Germany would accommodate a million refugees, a breathtaking figure (compared with the United Kingdom’s pledge to take in 20,000). What appeared to be compassion has now, in the wake of the Cologne attacks, become politically problematic. Merkel is under pressure, not just from a resurgent far Right, but even from some of her own colleagues. She has left herself open to the charge of naivety, and can ill-afford further negative refugee stories. However, it is the Muslim community in Germany, suffering an increase in hate crimes, which most urgently needs the resettlement process to be a success.

Germany’s generosity has been a bold move, an answer to those who claimed that a disunited EU is allowing Southern Europe to bear the brunt of the catastrophe without solidarity from the richer North and West. The size of the gamble taken, however, means that Merkel could become the most powerful political casualty of the current crisis. Merkel has proposed tougher laws to allow asylum-seekers to be deported for crimes such as those committed in Cologne — a sensible provision that might reduce tension. However, the problems arising because a large number of men have arrived from conservative patriarchal societies to relatively permissive societies should not be ignored, especially with regard to women’s rights. The apparent victim-blaming by the mayor of Cologne, who urged women to keep men at arms’ length and to stay away from certain areas, handed more propaganda to those who wish to spread hatred. A refusal to recognize that a large influx of refugees will inevitably bring in saints and scoundrels together will not help solve the problems which necessarily arise during such an unprecedented phenomenon.

Scandinavia: Sweden has since the 1950s embraced a liberal open-door approach to asylum-seekers, and initially did so in the current crisis. With a population of 9.8 million, Sweden took in 160,000 refugees in 2015, more per capita than any other European country. In November, however, Sweden’s government announced border restrictions, citing housing, school and jobs shortages. Denmark then imposed identity checks on its land border with Germany (which itself had previously imposed border restrictions with Austria). Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen said that Denmark had no choice after Sweden’s decision, and urged the EU to take collective action to deal with the tide of immigrants.

This domino effect on border policy has reinforced what appears to be the disintegration of the Schengen agreement (whereby signatory countries allow unmolested movement throughout the large swathe of Europe participating, from Iceland to Greece, including non-EU Switzerland and Norway, but not the UK and Ireland). There have also been complaints that other European countries, such as France and the UK, have not been taking a “fair share” of the one million or more refugees who arrived in Europe in 2015.

France: France has had longstanding problems arising from difficulties integrating Muslim communities, particularly those with origins in parts of the former French Empire. Riots by young men from ethnic minorities, including Muslims, living in depressed and unemployment-ridden suburbs of cities such as Paris and Marseille, exposed a failure of the French principle of laicité (a doctrine of secular blindness to religious or ethnic identity in the name of a uniform citizenship). This principle served to hide the discrimination and barriers faced by some minorities in France. The murders by jihadi extremists of 11 members of the staff of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, as well as five elsewhere in Paris, in January 2015, brought the place of radical Islam in a secular liberal French society into focus as never before.

In the midst of these problems arose the issue of how France should contribute to the European response to the refugee crisis. As the overwhelming majority of the refugees are Muslim, a country profoundly divided over how to assimilate minorities proved equally divided as to whether France should accept large numbers of Muslim asylum- seekers, many coming from lands which had become the crucible for violent extremism. French policy has been much more conservative than Germany’s, a reflection of these ingrained cultural problems as well as, perhaps, the sluggish performance of the French economy. The fear of a resurgent far Right Front Nationale under Marine Le Pen also influenced the reluctance to take in a larger number. France initially committed to taking in 24,000 refugees over the two years from 2015.

Then came the shocking terrorist attacks in Paris of November 2015. The slaughter of 130 people, the majority young people attending a rock concert at the Bataclan theatre, has been described as “Paris’s 9/11.” The discovery of what appeared to be a Syrian passport near the body of one of the attackers, and the perception that two of the nine confirmed perpetrators arrived in Europe alongside refugees, prompted a debate about French refugee policy. The Front Nationale used the attacks to present a “We told you so!” message to the French electorate. Prime Minister Manuel Valls spoke of Europe being unable to take in so many refugees. Yet Socialist President François Hollande made the risky gesture, in the days following the attacks, of announcing that France would increase the number of refugees accommodated to 30,000.

In December’s regional elections, despite the heightened tension, anticipated gains for the Front Nationale did not materialize, with Le Pen’s party failing to capture a single region. A victory for tolerance and inclusivity? Not quite. The Front Nationale made huge gains in the penultimate round of elections, and only lost in the final round due to tactical voting by left wing voters. It still secured a record high of 6.6 million votes, around 27% of the vote, which places Le Pen in a strong position for the 2017 Presidential elections. Meanwhile, France’s historical problem with regard to the integration of Muslims in a stubbornly secular society remains unresolved, while refugees arrive into a country which is at odds over their very presence.

United Kingdom: There are huge numbers of refugees and migrants who have no interest in remaining in France and who are permanently camped at the port of Calais, hoping to get to what they perceive as the better economic opportunities and generous welfare safety net offered by the United Kingdom. There is also pressure on the UK to accept many more of those refugees fleeing terror in Syria and Iraq. British Prime Minister David Cameron attracted criticism and protests for his decision to allow in only 20,000 refugees over a period of five years from 2015 — this despite the fact that the British economy weathered the aftermath of the financial crisis better than many countries in Europe due to a strong financial services sector and a booming London property market. Cameron also made clear that those refugees accepted will not be those in Calais, but rather those currently in emergency camps in Lebanon and elsewhere nearer the war zones. Politically, Cameron knows that he has more to lose by being overly generous on refugee numbers than he has from being too restrictive. The electoral threat from the anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) seems to have been neutralized by their poor performance during the 2015 General Election, but Cameron’s own Conservative Party is divided on the immigration issue, and Cameron has failed to meet his own pledge of reducing immigration figures.

The United Kingdom is, in contrast to France, an avowedly multicultural society in which cultural diversity is officially encouraged. The problem that arises in relation to one or two communities, however, is ghettoization, with sections of the minority group culturally cut off from the host society, leading to mutual suspicion and distrust. Certain Muslim communities have had problems integrating into mainstream British society, and this in turn has led to both a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment and hate crimes as well as the radicalization of a small minority of young, alienated British-born Muslims. The consequences include terrorist attacks such as the bombings of London’s transport system in July 2005, which led to 55 deaths. British involvement in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, as well as the recent decision to carry out air strikes in Syria, have given recruitment boosts to those seeking to convert others to the cause of jihad. It is this background, in combination with a suspicion that a proportion of the asylum-seekers are “only economic migrants” which informs much opposition to large-scale acceptance of Muslim refugees. A sizeable body of opinion remains supportive of a more open approach to refugees, but it is a body less sure of its voice in the wake of events in Paris and Cologne.

Cameron is looking to hold a referendum, perhaps as early as the summer of 2016, on British membership of the European Union. One of the major causes of Eurosceptic sentiment in “Middle England” (the Scottish and Welsh populations are firmly in the pro-EU camp) is the inability, due to EU free movement rules, to control the influx of people from other parts of the European Union. The refugee crisis indirectly feeds into this hostility because once refugees are permanently settled in other EU countries they gain the right to live and work in the United Kingdom. The likelihood is that, with the political establishment and business community largely together on the issue, the UK will vote to stay inside the EU. However, an anticipated economic downturn and possible terrorist atrocities might prove politically transformative, and the ability to manage borders might become a crucial issue in such circumstances. The refugee crisis could thus play a role in the future relationship of the UK and the EU.

Europe’s future

The European ideal, propounded by the likes of Jean Monnet in the 1940s, was one of a borderless continent working cohesively toward an “ever closer union.” The ideal was one of inclusivity, tolerance and an end to conflict, but in 2016 those ideals look under threat as never before. Eastern Europe is ploughing its own furrow on the refugee crisis — largely unsympathetic, sometimes violent and unwilling to accept large numbers. Western Europe is divided, with borders going back up, the Schengen agreement apparently unravelling, and accusations of others not “pulling their weight.” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has warned of an end to the internal market and even the Euro currency.

The concept of European “solidarity” has been damaged, and a sense grows that there are now three or four Europes, each looking to its own interests or complaining about others doing so. The current crisis could play a role in deciding whether one of the largest net contributors to EU coffers, the United Kingdom, decides to permanently leave the Union. The far Right is receiving an electoral tailwind in certain jurisdictions, mostly from people who are fearful of change and who see the current influx as a threat to their cultural identities. The refugee crisis is a challenge to the European project like none we have ever seen.

How Europe responds now will shape the course of European history for the next century. It will also inform how Europe deals with future refugee crises, such as the one predicted to result from climate change. Europe is flailing indecisively, allowing extremists of all stripes to thrive at the expense of what used to be the dominant ideology of inclusive progressive liberalism. Proposals such as that by the Danish government to strip refugees of all valuables bar wedding rings and personal effects would have been unthinkable five years ago. What once seemed to be the unstoppable momentum of political integration has halted.

Political leadership from “Old Europe,” meaning relatively prosperous Western and Northern Europe, has been sorely lacking. At present we see a Europe rudderless and unsure of itself. Meanwhile, it is likely that 2016 will witness many more like Aylan Kurdi washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean.