East vs. West – the Refugee Crisis and the Division of the EU

by Kate Žejdlovà, a second year Czech student reading BA International Relations at the War Studies Department of King’s College London. Kate is a member of the European Youth Parliament (EYP), and regularly attends their workshops and meetings across the continent. 

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There is one crucial aspect to the human tragedy that the current refugee situation sheds a clear light on – the long suppressed sense of disparity and division within the European Union itself. The EU, which prides itself as being built on values of solidarity and human rights, suddenly finds itself struggling when it comes to applying these in practice in times that put these common objectives to the test. Europe keeps failing to find a common solution to a crisis that could otherwise be handled fairly well. Instead, further animosity is being sown between states, as many prove unwilling to take a reasonable approach of solidarity. Nearly every country tries to get rid of refugees arriving to its soil, calling upon the Dublin Regulation as an excuse to pretend it is none of their concern, or worse, attempts to resolve the problem by building walls, 26 years after we thought the last one dividing us had been torn down.

As the division of the once seemingly united continent progresses, many seek to put the blame on the influx of migrants into Europe. They could not be more wrong – the refugees are but an involuntary catalyst to a disparity that has long been under the surface in today’s Europe, and which is only erupting now. This might or might not lead to an inevitable transformation of the EU as we know it, but it is certainly not going to be because of the refugees, but because of the changing European society as a whole.

Much has been written about solidarity with the refugees, and I do not aim to further elaborate on the core issue in the current crisis. Instead, in this article I want to focus on the disparity between the approaches to the refugee crisis in different regions of Europe, and hence the reason why Europe fails to reach a common ground on the issue.

One can notice a certain pattern of division in the differing attitudes of the EU countries, which for the sake of simplicity I will mark as the West (the former Western Bloc) vs. the East (the former Eastern Bloc). Despite the fact that a few exceptions can be found in each ‘bloc,’ and despite the fact the Cold War is over two decades behind us, the subtle division that has long been present has suddenly become more apparent in the crisis. Why is it, that the West (especially Germany or Sweden) are much more open and sympathetic with the refugees than the former East (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia)?

Being from the Czech Republic, I am sad to realise that despite moving to the West economically, my country still has a long way to go in terms of values and openness. We would like to belong to the West, but we don’t quite yet do. The Czech government prides itself when it allows a few hundred refugees to stay, emphasising that it did it ‘voluntarily’, after ‘bravely’ refusing the EU refugee intake quotas. As much as I don’t think quotas are the best of solutions, approaches like the one of our government’s make me genuinely sad. Yet a government usually reflects its people, which is also true in this case. Not only has the Czech general public always been afraid of ‘new’ and ‘foreign’ things. We might be one of the most islamophobic nations, despite the fact that our Muslim population is next to non-existent. We might also be one of the most Eurosceptic EU Member States, despite the fact that we receive more from the EU than we give. The Czech public is nearly in the state of panic, hearing that a few hundred refugees are being temporarily housed in the country.

The even more significantly grave case to my analysis is Hungary with its extremely anti-immigrant government of Viktor Orbán. Not only the unpredictability of the Hungarian refugee policy, where one day Hungary is allowing refugees to pass, next it closes the main train station, arguing that it only upholds EU law, or when it builds fences around its border with Serbia, making us feel like it’s 1961 all over again, are the issues. The main problem can be summarised in Orbán’s recent words, that the refugee crisis is ‘a German problem’. This common attitude, often used by the Eastern countries, refusing to take responsibility and implying that it is ‘someone else’s issue,’ make the commitment to common European values but an empty phrase. Especially given the Eastern Bloc’s history with so many refugees fleeing the communist regime, specifically in the 1950s and in 1968, one would expect more than just empty excuses.

However, let us not put all the blame on the East, as the West should have its fair share too. Following the thesis I have developed so far, one would expect the West to be the solidary part of Europe, welcoming the refugees the East refuses to take. It is surely true for some countries, yet much less true for quite a few, which makes one question whether the values Europe was built on are but a hypocrisy on a paper. With right-wing populism growing in Western Europe (prime examples of UKIP, the National Front, the German extremist parties), surprising elements that have so far been dormant in these societies, are coming to the surface. What is worse, many governments refuse to take a firm solidary stance, and try to turn a blind eye on the crisis, passing the issue to the other (the example of the Calais crisis), and further foster the sense of fear and panic in their own citizens rather than looking for a joint and humane solution (yes, Britain, I am talking about you). Is this really what a united Europe should look like?

What worries me is not only the human dimension of this crisis, which is being aggravated by Europe’s manoeuvring around it. My main other worry is that it has also opened a long-hidden wound in the EU, which comes at the worst possible time and which is surely going to be used and abused in the upcoming in-out referendum in the UK. I believe in the European project and its core values, yet I trust that whilst in some areas it has gone too far, in many it has not gone far enough. It is time to live up to what we proclaim in those ‘fancy’ treaties – it is time for Europe to take a common stance of solidarity and responsibility, which should not be forced onto Member States, but to which the whole of the EU should voluntarily agree on, as all of these states have committed to upholding these values upon entering the EU. This approach could in my view certainly aid the crisis resolution, together with radically stepping up measures against human traffickers and increasing the diplomatic pressure on the international community to at least attempt to stop just being an onlooker in the desperate situation in Syria and (not only) the Middle East (which, I admit, is however a situation of such complexity and difficulty which there is no easy solution for and would require an article of its own). There are no easy solutions and there never will be. Reasonable approaches that are within our capacity and capabilities need to be taken. However, if we truly stand for the core values of the European project, we need to act together, now. Yesterday was already too late.

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