Refugee crisis: The best and the worst of Europe

8 September 2015 – VoxEurop

It may have seemed as though Europe had shown us its very worst during the depths of the Greek crisis. In simplified terms, the rift between supporters of orthodoxy and those calling for solidarity threatened to destroy the eurozone, made Europeans rise up against each other and shook the foundations of the European edifice.

The tension eased with the adoption of the third aid plan for Greece. The Union seemed ready to move on when another crisis, also long in the making, dealt it further blows. The wave of refugees arriving on Europe’s south-eastern borders surged in the spring, particularly because fighting had intensified in Syria. The tragedies caused by this crisis – almost 2,500 deaths (most from drowning) in the first eight months of the year, and more than 320,000 people arriving in Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration – have tested the capacity of EU member states to welcome new arrivals. But the crisis has above all revealed the contradictions of the EU’s asylum policy and a lack of courage and compassion from some of its leaders. They have been paralysed by its scale and are more inclined to pander to populist fears by emphasising the situation’s security aspects than to do the right thing. And, above all, it has brought to light another fracture within the EU, deeper and more dangerous for the European project than the Greek crisis.

Countries in Europe’s south east – primarily Greece, Italy and Hungary – are under pressure as they struggle to cope with the arrival of many hundreds, sometimes thousands, of refugees each day. While some countries in western Europe, Germany first and foremost, have finally decided to open their gates, others, notably within the Visegrad Group, have refused either to welcome any more refugees or to participate in a binding quota system, which amounts to the same thing. Certain countries have even declared themselves willing to accept exclusively Christian refugees, seeing them as more “easily integrated” than Muslims – an argument also deployed by populist and xenophobic movements in western Europe.

This attitude betrays an a priori distinction between “good” and “bad” refugees, which runs contrary to the letter and the spirit of the right to asylum. But it also reveals a misrecognition (or is it simply bad faith?) of the people seeking refuge in Europe. For in the most part they are not jihadis, but middle-class families fleeing war and repressive regimes. They are very similar to the people who fled Communist regimes in central and eastern Europe and which western Europe welcomed with open arms. The fear of seeing relatively ethnically homogenous countries open up to multiculturalism as it is peddled in the media, with its riots, factionalism, even terrorism, seems to justify in many people’s eyes this hostility to any form of openness.

Even worse is that this crisis reveals a fracture within the Union regarding the very vision of what it represents and where its future lies. Is the Union destined to remain a community of essentially economic interests, or do we hope to move towards a genuinely shared destiny based on the values – solidarity, openness, secularism, tolerance, liberty – that we share?

Faced with silence from Europe’s elite, which Berlin has courageously broken in its exemplary response to the crisis, civil society has stepped in to welcome refugees with dignity. All around Europe, mayors, associations, individual citizens have mobilised to bring material and moral support to refugees. It reminds us that Europe is capable of the worst, but also of the best.

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