20th Mar 2018


EU refugee crisis: the morality, stupid!

  • Sedlacek: 'We laid all our ideological eggs in one basket: the economy' (Photo: TEDx Thessaloniki)

The mass arrival of refugees in Europe has prompted various reactions.

On the right, people say: the huge numbers are a drain on resources; they won’t fit in because they’re Muslims; or, in voices amplified by the Paris atrocity, that they might be terrorists.

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  • 'If a person is dying next to you, do you go back and ask an economist whether it pays to be good?' (Photo: UNHCR/O.Laban-Mattei)

In left and liberal circles, one long-standing argument in favour of immigration is that it’s good for the economy.

Wise men and women do the maths on the EU’s ageing population, on migrants’ contribution to GDP, and on tax income versus welfare cost.

But it’s failed to convince sceptics, with support for anti-immigrant parties ever increasing.

For Tomas Sedlacek, a Czech economist who wrote the book Economics of Good and Evil and who is a senior strategist at Czech bank CSOB, the wise men failed because their argument missed the whole point of the crisis.

“It’s an illicit argument. It’s first and foremost a moral question,” he told EUobserver in an interview at the Prague European Summit, a conference in the Czech capital last week.

“The morality is quite clear. This is a war-torn country and even if it’s economically disadvantageous for us, we must help them. Just imagine: If a person is dying next to you, do you go back and ask an economist whether it pays to be good or not?”, he said.

“These are questions for philosophers. But we ask economists, because they’ve become the high priests of our age.”

He noted that Europe does need the migrants from both an economic and a security point of view.

He described the mass arrivals as a form of “spontaneous EU enlargement.”

“It’s not country by country, following technical criteria. It’s not the German way … but in the past, enlargement has always been celebrated and it has brought prosperity, so why not look at it this way?” he said.

He compared the security dimension to the TV show, Game of Thrones.

In the show, the people of the Seven Kingdoms are shielded by a wall from other people whom they call Wildlings, but also from a supernatural race, called White Walkers, which kills humans and turns them into “wights,” or zombies.

“We have to let the Wildlings [Syrian refugees] in so we can fight together against White Walkers [Islamic State]. If we fail, the White Walkers will turn them into wights,” he said.

“They [refugees] are running from this form of radical Islam … I’m sure they hate it even more than we do. We can’t leave them behind the wall.”

Love at arm's length

The Czech Republic, and other central European nations, which have strong Christian cultures, are among the most wary of hosting Muslims.

For Sedlacek, the abstract nature of Christian compassion is written in its DNA.

He said the Bible teaches people to love their neighbour, but also to keep them at arm’s length.

He noted that the Good Samaritan helped the robber’s victim, but he left him at an inn instead of taking him home. He said the fact that Jesus, his apostles, and, later, Christian priests never married is in a similar vein.

“They have no wives or children of their own. So they love people from a certain distance,” he said.

“The problem with the refugee crisis is that our neighbour has suddenly come to us.”

Economic soul

For the Czech writer, another part of the problem is that, in Europe, economics has captured ethics.

“There is a strong ethical school of: only do what’s good for the economy. Our economies have become our souls,” Sedlacek said.

Recent EU crises include: the financial crisis; the Greek crisis; the Ukraine crisis; and refugees.

Sedlacek said the EU tried to solve the first three by purely economic means, including Ukraine, where its main response is Russia economic sanctions.

It’s also framing the refugee crisis in economic terms, by sifting people into those fleeing poverty and those fleeing war.

But the dominance of economic discourse is a threat, Sedlacek indicated.

“We’ve reduced the European Union to being one big economy. That’s why the financial crisis was so brutal,” he said.

Economic project

“When it erupted nobody in the US began talk of dismantling the US. No one in the US fears the US. Russians don’t fear Russia. But Europe’s biggest enemies are inside,” he added.

“Why? Because we laid all our ideological eggs in one basket: the economy.”

“Europe has become a purely economic project. So when the economy breaks down, the European idea breaks down with it.”

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Why has central Europe turned so eurosceptic?

Faced with poorer infrastructure, dual food standards and what can seem like hectoring from western Europe it is not surprising some central and eastern European member states are rebelling.

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