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Fortress Europe under Siege: The Ongoing Refugee Crisis

Fortress Europe under Siege: The Ongoing Refugee Crisis

The term “Fortress Europe” was used during World War II to denote European territories occupied by Nazi forces, as well as military operations conducted by the British military against mainland targets in Germany. It was also used by Britain’s enemy, Nazi Germany, to refer to its goal of conquering the entirety of Europe so as to create an impenetrable powerbase. After the war ended, the term was used in the context of the European Union’s policies on immigration, border control and trade matters, with positive connotations for conservative factions opposing migration and negative for the more open factions. 

Apple of discord 

Since 2015, Europe has been confronted with a humanitarian crisis brought about by civil wars in the Middle East and the military actions of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh), which have displaced many people from the affected regions to seek refuge and, increasingly, a new life in Europe. Their migration and its nature have been the subject of much controversy and many hectic debates among European states regarding the situation and immediate risks, in the short term, and the future of Europe’s project for unity, in the longer term. This has led to increased stridency in European politics, as well as among European societies on the whole, with wedges growing wider between conservative groups and their more liberal counterparts, between countries favouring an open attitude towards the plight of the refugees or the aspirations of the immigrants and others fearing the risks they entail, and even between member states of the European Union and the European Union itself.

This has led to increased stridency in European politics, as well as among European societies on the whole, with wedges growing wider between conservative groups and their more liberal counterparts, between countries favouring an open attitude towards the plight of the refugees or the aspirations of the immigrants and others fearing the risks they entail, and even between member states of the European Union and the European Union itself.

Migration has always been a bone of contention for the EU member states, and it is generally associated with a host of challenges: accommodating the migrants, settling their status, the ensuing competition for fiscal resources, housing, healthcare and jobs between them and the local population; the macroeconomic issues of finding the best mix of policies to counteract the increase unemployment, inflation and changes in the aggregate demand; the societal problems of rising crime rates, animosities between migrants and the locals, migrant self-segregation and enclavisation, potentially accentuated by ethno-cultural differences and the access to social aid for migrants that would be otherwise unavailable to the local citizens. On the other hand, immigration is also associated with a range of benefits, though they vary on a case by case basis: the skills and assets they bring may contribute greatly to the economic development of the local community; the host country can be granted substantial international aid to integrate immigrants, which can lead to long-lasting improvements (for instance, in infrastructure) that would benefit the local population as well; public expenditure which would stimulate entrepreneurship and investments, creating opportunities for employment; the integration of a young workforce that in the long run would pay taxes and thus contribute to the public budget. In short, immigrants are both a challenge in the short term, but a potential strategic benefit in a broader span of time. 

Going separate ways? 

Starting with 2015, however, the large wave of migrants stood out starkly in terms of scale and consequences, both immediate and far-reaching. It was no longer just an issue of a constant, predictable and controllable inflow of people; it was a wave of over 1.2 million people migrating to European countries, most of them of Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi origin, but also with numerous migrants from underdeveloped nations trying to blend in as refugees, with most of them heading towards the most developed and generous countries such as Germany and Sweden. Aside from the issue of the trampling of intermediary states on their way to the “promised land”, the migrant wave left the EU member states wishing to extend European solidarity to the refugees in a quandary to define an equitable solution to accommodate and process the incoming asylum seekers. The Union’s decision makers then resolved to apply quotas for each Member State in order to evenly distribute the pressure among them. This idea has been met with highly polarised responses. Whereas Germany, the main target of the flow and unilateral dismantler of the Dublin Regulation regulating refugee movements, agreed to receive a high number of migrants, in part based on its domestic legislation, other countries, such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, vocally rejected it, some gaining notoriety for their swift movements to seal of borders through barriers. Part of their rationale for refusing to comply was the unilateral nature of Germany’s gesture of invitation to the migrants which was heedless to the risks for the transit countries, as well as to established law. Others fretted that the nature of the quotas implied also severe financial penalties for migrants registered in one part of Europe showing up in another, implying the need for a control of their movement (and their natural desire to reach the best welfare states) which would be both resource consuming and confining in such a way as to generate hostility from the migrants themselves, who would come to see their host countries as prisons. Still others doubted the benefit to be had from the migrants, with many of them being illiterate in their own languages and lacking marketable skills for advanced economies, an issue also highlighted by German dissidents.

The migrant wave left the EU member states wishing to extend European solidarity to the refugees in a quandary to define an equitable solution to accommodate and process the incoming asylum seekers.

These differences sparked several spats between EU members at the time, with France issuing a thinly veiled threat towards the states that opposed the plan that they should reconsider their place in the EU if they did not share its values; not only that, tense debates took place among the varying factions within the EU Member States themselves, as well as among their citizens, with factions rapidly coalescing into two broad camps: those who advocated for accepting refugees, obviating a refugee’s duty to return to his country and transforming him into a permanent immigrant which they would help integrate into their respective societies, and those who vehemently opposed the very idea on grounds of the threats the migrants posed to European security, cultural identity and values and even economic well-being, contradicting the conventional wisdom being imparted on the matter by mainstream elites. The tensions were caused by several migrant-related incidents that occurred, as well as the perceived failings of authorities not only in addressing them, but also in acknowledging them: reports of mass sexual assaults committed by immigrants on New Year’s Eve in December 2015; the Paris terrorist attacks on November 13, 2015; the Brussels bombings on March 22, 2016; the Berlin attack on December 19, 2016 – all of these events involved Muslim immigrants and asylum seekers, and all of them have added fuel to the fire, including a discussion of the issues of the disaffected/radicalized children of previous migrants. 

Political consequences 

Although it appears that, for the moment, the popularity of right-wing factions is waning, this crisis has highlighted a few great challenges for the European Union.

Apart from the demonstrations that have taken place in several European countries, occasional reports of vigilantism in countries with a high concentration of immigrants, most notably Muslims, as well as news of crimes committed by the latter tend to spark intense and virulent discussions; social media has also become a battleground for these polarised confrontations and a showcase for a heavy-handed state approach to quelling dissent which only stokes the discontent. Furthermore, the most striking political consequences of the migrant crisis were its contribution on the eventual success of Britain’s referendum on leaving the European Union, as well as the rise in Euroscepticism and the popularity of supposedly far right-wing, conservative political factions, with political discourse having taken on more and more of a nationalistic, populist tone. In France, for instance, the Front National spearheaded by Marine Le Pen has become one of France’s largest political and most popular parties; its leader reached the second round of 2017 presidential elections in France, losing against current president Emmanuel Macron, with commentators arguing that Macron’s victory was ironically due to voters deeming him the lesser of two evils. In Austria, both the presidential and parliamentary elections proved the power of the migrant issue in mobilizing voters, which narrowly lost the Presidency but gained the Prime Minister position. In Germany, Angela Merkel’s public ratings registered a steep decrease from 77% in July 2014 to 44% in December 2017, while the far-right Alternative for Germany finished 3rd in Germany’s 2017 federal elections, having grown from below 5% in 2013 to nearly 13% in 2017 and displacing Merkel’s CDU in its own home state, in a staggering turn of events. In Sweden, the nationalist Sweden Democrats have covered a lot of ground in terms of public approval in a span of 7 years, going from 4% in 2010 to 13% in 2014 to an all-time high of over 25% in 2015 before falling back to 18% in January 2018.

Although it appears that, for the moment, the popularity of right-wing factions is waning, this crisis has highlighted a few great challenges for the European Union: one related to achieving and maintaining political stability, dealing with security threats and quelling popular discontent; one having to do with the maintaining the unity and feasibility of the European Union model and the existing multicultural framework in some countries; and others for each Member State’s internal political scene. It has been argued that the crisis has led to deepening divisions between European states, but there is another way to view the picture: that the crisis has revealed already existing divisions between European states and that they have only become coarser and more sharply defined against the background of the current situation. The EU has always sported unity in diversity as its motto, yet this crisis has put it to harsh tests. The polarised attitudes towards migrants can be explained through two lenses: an economic lens and a socio-cultural lens. Economically speaking, the countries most willing to receive immigrants stand to gain the most from it: various studies at the time the crisis emerged projected an average GDP increase of 0.25% by 2020 in an ideal scenario, with higher gains for the countries that have accepted more immigrants, namely Austria, Germany and Sweden. Moreover, immigrants could also counteract the negative demographic trend in Western countries.

There is also no shortage of doomsayers who believe that over time the increase of the population of Muslims in European countries and the accentuation of the multicultural model will lead to the death of Europe’s cultural values and identity.

On the other hand, whereas Western countries have developed, through immigration, large and visible ethnic and religious minorities, Eastern and Central European countries tend to be more homogeneous in this regard, though no less diverse from a historical perspective; local citizens therefore tend to be much more reluctant to accept substantial numbers of Muslims, some provocatively expressing a preference for Christian Middle-Eastern immigrants among their society, highlighting their ignored plight in the EU. Forced integration plans would, in turn, result in increased political instability along with its consequences (legislative deadlocks, ethnic block politics, etc.) and internal discord as the largely Christian majorities will have to coexist alongside a growing Muslim minority, potentially leading to conflicts, not to mention that the population would fear their country becoming a softer target for terrorist groups such as the Islamic State. There is also no shortage of doomsayers who believe that over time the increase of the population of Muslims in European countries and the accentuation of the multicultural model will lead to the death of Europe’s cultural values and identity. 

Some more equal than others 

This uneven distribution of economic benefits and risks, Britain’s prospective withdrawal from the EU and the bitter recriminations taking the place of debates have also highlighted another division in Europe: that between the more economically developed Western states who are seen as running the show and steering the boat, and the other member states from Central and Eastern Europe, especially former members of the Eastern Bloc, whose discourse at the time the crisis had picked up speed revealed a perception that they are “second-class citizens” in the European society and that the more developed member states were trying to strong-arm them into doing their bidding. This division is relevant both to show how Europe’s diversity can act against it (i.e., an uneven capacity – and willingness – across its member states to react to such a phenomenon, and therefore a decreased ability to work together, in unity), and also casts a shadow on the image of the EU, portraying it as a fragile project that threatens to unravel due to pressure from the outside.

This division is relevant both to show how Europe’s diversity can act against it, and also casts a shadow on the image of the EU, portraying it as a fragile project that threatens to unravel due to pressure from the outside.

Finally, given the results of elections in several European states, it is worth noting that there were many instances, such as France, where votes were cast not so much in favour of a certain candidate, but against other candidates who were seen as worse alternatives. A similar situation took place in the 2016 US elections, where a polarised America placed its hopes in Donald Trump in no small part because Hillary Clinton failed to produce a better option for the American electorate. This points to another problem European countries (and the world, in general) need to deal with – namely a leadership crisis. In the absence of proper leadership at the level of individual states and, especially, its more powerful states, the EU remains vulnerable to such divisive tendencies which in the long term may undermine the EU internally (e.g., cementing integration among members, establishing common policies in key areas) and externally (expanding the EU, responding to certain geopolitical trends and challenges, etc.). 

Conclusion 

The fortress has been breached; one of its captains has announced his desertion, and the remaining residents have trouble working together; if the fortress is to stand, the greatest mistake would be for its leaders to carve pieces of it for themselves and break it into several fiefdoms. They must pull themselves together.

 
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OEconomica No. 1, 2016