20th Mar 2018


What Central Europe got right about the refugee crisis

  • Hungarian volunteers helping migrants in a Budapest park in September 2015. Easterners have some good arguments that should be listened to. (Photo: Eszter Zalan)

It is fashionable to talk about a new and deep rift in Europe. No longer is it North versus South. As the Greek debt saga receded from the front pages after the summer, Europe now seems to be divided into East and West, again.

Almost as if a new Iron Curtain were rising right in the middle of the European Union separating 'mature' Western democracies that are willing to help people fleeing wars and 'selfish' post-communist countries unused to diversity that care only for the money they get from the EU.

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Lots of this is true. But we should look beyond the xenophobic remarks of some Hungarian, Slovak, Polish or Czech politicians and see that, in a few important aspects of the current crisis, those countries are right.

First, it is misleading to assess the policies of respective EU member states based only on morality. As the great Israeli diplomat Abba Eban wrote: “All governments take their decisions in the name of national interest and then explain them in terms of self-sacrificing altruism.”

This is not to say that cynicism should reign supreme. But it is a reminder that no state bases its policy only upon morality.

Tensions running high

Let us be reminded of the fact that, for years, Germany was flatly refusing Italian demands to distribute quotas of refugees across Europe. Only when hundreds of thousands of them reached Germany all at the same time did Germany change its position.

So now we are stuck with this unfortunate dichotomy between the West that is willing to help and the East that is not. Tensions are running high. How did it come to this?

In the spring, the European Commission took the worst step possible for dealing with the crisis when it proposed mandatory quotas for distributing refugees across Europe. As mentioned, Angela Merkel needed this measure for domestic political reasons but for the EU as a whole it turned out to be a disaster.

Eastern European member states argued that you cannot have quotas without sealing the borders first. For example, the official position of the Czech Republic was that it is fine to distribute refugees based on quotas but as the last, not the first, step.

The system is not working

The Czech government was willing to take in refugees but not automatically without any control or registration. And it offered to accept - voluntarily - roughly the same number of them as proposed by the commission in the quota system. This is hardly a xenophobic policy lacking compassion.

Besides, no one in Brussels or Berlin was able or willing to answer some basic questions about how the quota system was supposed to work when the refugees simply did not want to stay in the Czech Republic, Slovakia or, say, Estonia.

The commission together with the majority of member states disregarded these objections and pushed through the quotas for relocating 160,000 refugees. And what happened? It turned out that those supposedly irresponsible Easterners were right: the system is not working.

The Greeks are not able or willing to detain migrants and refugees in the so called hotspots from where they could be relocated across Europe. And some even refused to go to the super wealthy Luxembourg.

All this is deplorable

All in all, the EU is slowly changing its policy: it is putting the emphasis on securing its external borders. Because, like it or not, Europeans are not willing to accept millions of refugees and migrants and this is not only the case of Czechs or Slovaks: look at what is happening in Sweden, for example.

The German and French interior ministers wrote that “if the security checks at the EU’s external borders will not be significantly expanded, the measures taken in the September decision for relocation could be questioned”. This is something that the Czechs or Slovaks have been saying for months.

This is not to say that Eastern European countries do not deserve any blame; on the contrary. Many of their leading politicians talk publicly, in general, about refugees and Muslims in a totally unacceptable way. They incite hatred and panic. The Czech president Milos Zeman even shared the same podium with well-known [anti-Islamic] extremists at the official celebration of an important Czech national holiday.

All this is deplorable. But it should not obscure the fact that not all politicians in the eastern EU member states are the same and that, in general, the governments that are responsible for the policy (president Zeman, fortunately, is not) have some good arguments that should be listened to by the West and the EU institutions. It is deplorable that this is not the case.

Ondrej Houska ( @OndrejHouska on Twitter) is Brussels correspondent for the Czech public radio.

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