Don’t believe the upbeat headlines. The summit of European Union leaders held in Brussels a couple of weeks ago has not ended the acrimonious quarrelling among the bloc’s 28 leaders over Europe’s refugee crisis. The divisions are deep. Yes, some cracks have been papered over. Make no mistake, however, Europe has changed and may never be the same again.
The summer and autumn of 2015 will be remembered as an important defining moment for a continent which has itself suffered the horrors of war, and persecution but which now, despite the economic slowdown, is still a largely comfortable and prosperous place. And with comfort have come complacency, self-righteousness and, yes, a certain degree of selfishness. Mixed with this is fear of foreigners, especially those who also happen to be Muslim.
So why is this such an important watershed moment? Quite simply, because this is when Europe has to decide whether it turns inwards, enjoying its many assets and charms while shunning the rest of the world or whether it truly embraces the 21st century. The sudden arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees has shaken Europe to the core, revealing and highlighting still-deep-seated differences among nations and people and throwing cold water on the EU’s endless talk of shared “common values” among the 28 countries.
For years, Europeans have known that they have an ageing population and need foreign labour — both skilled and unskilled. And for just as many years, Europe has tried to ignore this reality. There are no legal channels for those seeking to migrate to Europe. Piecemeal efforts like ‘blue card’ schemes end up in tatters.
That’s not unique. Like many other countries and regions, Europe and Europeans are undecided about who they are and what they want to be. They vacillate between good and bad, open and closed. And the refugee crisis has made these uncertainties and internal rifts visible to the world. Suddenly, there is no more time for discussion, no time to fudge and vacillate.
The “Islamic invasion”, the “Muslim hordes”, the “swarms of migrants” from poor nations are not just a nightmare, they are a reality. There is no place to hide. The wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan have ensured that Europe is now face to face with what it fears most: the arrival of thousands of “Muslims” who want refuge, shelter, asylum in Europe.
Not surprisingly, the EU has been taken by surprise. Divisions within the EU are not new. It’s not easy for 28 sovereign nations to work together, pool resources and sometimes even pool their sovereignty in the name of European integration. But so far the infighting has been relatively civilised and calm. It’s been about the sharing of money, trade policy and whether to bomb or not to bomb foreign nations.
In the case of the Eurozone crisis, especially as regards Greece, it did become ugly at moments. The Germans were demonised for forcing austerity on the poor suffering Greeks. The Greeks in turn were accused of being lazy and corrupt. Now it’s about much, much more. It’s about history, humanity, about Europe’s place in the world and about those cherished European “values”, namely tolerance, respect for others, compassion, etc.
As they grapple with the reality of hundreds of thousands of refugees on their territory, those values have been neatly discarded by most of the EU’s new members from eastern and central Europe. And even the “old” EU nations are beginning to waver. The decision by EU leaders to give one billion euros in aid to Syria’s neighbouring countries which are sheltering the majority of the refugees may have temporarily stopped some of the embarrassingly public wrangling. Agreement to shore up the bloc’s external borders has also led to a collective sigh of relief among those who fear being engulfed by the world’s “poor and huddled masses”.
Now is also the time for anguished soul-searching, mea culpas and backtracking. The EU’s Polish president of the council, Donald Tusk, has warned that it is time to “correct our policy of open doors and windows” towards the refugees. Significantly, Tusk did not mention the policy of barbed wire fences, prisons and “jungles” implemented by most of his counterparts in eastern Europe. Tusk’s criticism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to let in Syrian refugees did not go unnoticed. But Tusk is not alone.
The Slovak, Czech and Hungarian leaders are also up in arms against the EU decision to reallocate 120,000 refugees across most of the 28 member states. The EU’s most robust anti-immigration hardliner, Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, warned Merkel, against any “moral imperialism”.
Significantly, however, economists at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have said that the short-term strain on Europe posed by the refugees is outweighed by the long-term opportunity the newcomers present for a continent struggling with sluggish growth and home to an ageing population.
Many European businesses have already said they are ready to offer jobs to the refugees who they believe can help bolster the bloc’s economies. In Germany, employers’ organisations have issued an appeal to accelerate training for refugees, including German language training so that they can be employed as soon as possible.
So yes, Europe today is confused, undecided and uncertain. Europeans know they need foreign labour and many recognise that the Syrian and other refugees, given their youth, talents and professional skills are a godsend for an ageing continent. But many are also likely to say: what a pity that so many are Muslims.