Following World War II, Europe was beset by a flood of refugees of its own making. The fact that the refugees were Europeans themselves pulled the continent together, setting it on the road to integration and the European Union. These refugees gave Europe an overarching reason to put aside national differences and come together. And for 70 years, it by and large worked.
This time is different. The flood of refugees is not of Europe’s own making. There is no sense of ownership; as such, there is no sense of responsibility for the problem. The world sees refugees from the Middle East and North Africa streaming into Europe and thinks of this as a continental problem. If only Europe agreed.
The problem begins at the national level. Across EU member states, populist parties—few of which were able to gain much traction until the Eurozone crisis took hold in 2010—have risen on the back of legitimate concerns for Europe’s future: economic, social and cultural. And because these parties remained on the political fringes for so long, they’ve been able to frame themselves as outsiders whose opposition to greater European integration was prophetic rather than politically expedient. Rather than trying to work with other countries to improve Europe’s fortunes, they’ve found political popularity by threatening to tear it all down.
No one wants to be on the losing side of the migration crisis, and governments are taking steps to seal themselves off both politically and physically. That makes cooperation on policy and solving the current migration crisis that much harder.
And because Europe lacks this sense of “ownership,” the migration crisis is not something to be solved together, but something to be weathered individually by countries. Migration has become a zero-sum proposition, where fewer refugees for Hungary means more refugees for Austria (for example). This is the legacy of the ongoing Eurozone crisis, which was couched in terms of unity and solidarity but resulted in clear losers that stumble along to this day (like Greece). No one wants to be on the losing side of the migration crisis, and governments are taking steps to seal themselves off both politically and physically. That makes cooperation on policy and solving the current migration crisis that much harder.
These nationalist, separatist elements have always existed in European countries, just like they exist in countries around the world. There will always be people who believe that if they were given more autonomy, more sense of control over the future, any and all problems can and will be solved. If only it were that easy.
We now live in an era of globalization, and our problems are global ones. There is no country in the world that can single-handedly handle the influx of 4.8 million Syrian refugees, the number of Syrians that have fled their home country according to UNHCR. No country can single-handedly handle the threat of Islamic terrorism that faces the world, a wholly separate issue from migration that often gets conflated with the migration crisis for political reasons. And this is only getting worse; there will always be people who see political gain in railing against the “other,” whether they be terrorist or refugees, harkening back to a simpler, happier and imaginary time when people’s problems and threats were smaller and more manageable.
The flood of refugees is not of Europe’s own making. There is no sense of ownership; as such, there is no sense of responsibility for the problem. The world sees refugees from the Middle East and North Africa streaming into Europe and thinks of this as a continental problem. If only Europe agreed.
The world today is a decidedly better place than it was 70 years ago, even if it feels more threatening. For the first time ever, the number of people living in “extreme poverty” has fallen below 10 percent according to the World Bank. Terrorism figures in the West have fallen significantly compared to the 1970’s and 1980’s. Wars no longer engulf half the planet. Yet half the planet turns on their television and smartphones and feel that they’re just a short hop away from being on the front-lines themselves. The human mind has not evolved quickly enough to make sense of this overload of new information. The amount of technological change of the last 70 years requires thousands of years of evolution to properly equip the human mind to process all this information, to properly assess what’s an actual threat to them and what isn’t. The result is often paranoia and sometimes panic.
But it’s more than just technology. It’s globalization itself. Globalization has been a net positive for the world, even if it often doesn’t feel like it, especially for Europeans, who along with Americans have made up the bulk of the world’s “global middle class” for the last half-century. Those who have seen the most immediate returns from globalization are those that started at the bottom rung of the global economy, the hundreds of millions of Brazilians, Chinese and Indians (for example) lifted out of absolute poverty. It’s also disproportionately benefited the already-wealthy, which is a whole other problem.
For people who had nothing, now having something is an obvious sign of improvement. But for those in the middle, the improvements appear minimal. Milk and basic goods are cheaper, yes, but that matters little when you have no job to pay for these staples. This has little to do with the current migration crisis, but it has much to do with globalization, where a crash in the US economy in 2008 reverberated across the world and exposed the weak links of the EU economic system. These fault lines had always existed, but were papered over by a global economy that was roaring in the beginning part of the 21st century.
Now Europe is forced to reckon with these realities, exacerbated by the migration crisis coming from the east and south. And because the problem is so deeply grounded in the politics of economics and labor, the sudden infusion of 2.7 million Syrian refugees currently being housed in Turkey is a frightening prospect; there will be fewer jobs and benefits to go around. But Europe was in serious trouble long before ISIS reared its ugly head. Even if ISIS were to disappear tomorrow and the refugees were to return home, the same underlying weaknesses of the European economy would persist.
adly, the migrant crisis is a diversion from Europe’s more serious problems, and ending it won’t solve them. This migrant crisis detracts from the legitimate criticism of the EU and its institutions, namely that a monetary union without a fiscal union is a recipe for disaster. There will always be an element of society that believes “others” are to blame; look at the rise of Donald Trump in the United States. America’s saving grace in this instance is a two-party system, and the threat his particular brand of populism poses will be defeated along with him in November. Parliamentary systems don’t have that luxury; these populist parties will continue to make waves in their national parliaments, and the continuous threat they pose to established political forces will make working with other European countries that much more difficult.
Resolving the migrant crisis can’t, by itself, address the deeper problems that gave rise to populism or resolve the dilemmas it creates. Plenty of Europeans have good reason to be skeptical of Europe’s unified future going forward, but rather than pointing fingers at the institutional inadequacies of the Union, many politicians point their finger at migrants. And while that may be a satisfying political pitch, it won’t cure what really ails Europe.