The Syrian Refugee Crisis & The Two Europes

In the early September days of 2015, for the second time in a quarter century, Hungary became the site of a European refugee drama.

In 1989, during the months preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall, hundreds of East Germans trying to flee their “Workers and Peasants State” had besieged the West German embassy in Budapest, and tens of thousands eventually made it across the green border to Austria as Hungary rolled back its barbed wires. This was the beginning of the end of communism, not only in Eastern Europe. Hungary was then known as the country of “Goulash Communism”, the most liberal and prosperous of communist Eastern Europe.

Syrian refugees cross into Hungary underneath the border fence. Photo: Freedom House / Flickr

By 2015, now under the right-wing government of Viktor Orban that does not question Hungary’s (financially lucrative) European Union membership yet prides itself on building an “illiberal state on national foundations”, with Turkey and Russia as models, border fences were rebuilt, now along the border to Serbia.

This was to prevent the “Muslim hordes” from overrunning “Christian Europe”. But tens of thousands of Syrians and other refugees from places as far away as Afghanistan, the former escaping the double atrocities of the Assad regime and the henchmen of the advancing Islamic State, still managed to make it, after perilous journey via Turkey, Greece and Serbia, into Budapest train station. They were intent on moving on from there to Austria and further north.

When the numbers swell to unmanageable proportions, the drama began. Hungarian police sealed the country`s major train station, halting all Vienna-bound trains. When the blockade was lifted, the trains were filled to the roof with desperate refugees. They had refused to register as asylum seekers with Hungarian authorities, what they were in principle required to under the European Union’s so-called Dublin Agreement, which is the dysfunctional cornerstone of its asylum regime.

Orban, of course, did not mind the refugees’ unwillingness to stay In Hungary. At an emergency meeting of European Union leaders in Brussels, he declared that the refugees were not his, not even a “European”, but a “German problem”, because this is where they wanted to go.

Orban really should have said: these refugees are an “American problem”, because the current instability in the Middle East had started with George W. Bush’s campaign against Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” in 2003, not to mention that Bush had been put in his seat by a conservative Supreme Court that had stolen the election victory from his Democratic contender in 2000 — without it the world would look different today.

Indeed, the Syrian and further-away-refugees bullied by Hungarian police could be heard shouting “Germany! Germany!”. For the first time in its history, Germany was the land of the huddled masses.

Moved by the fact that her country, for a change, was associated not with “Holocaust” but with “hope”, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel (like her Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban, a child of communism), for a few days at least, lifted the Dublin Agreement and let some 200.000 refugees enter freely over the southern border with Austria. By the end of the year one million (and probably more) are expected. A British observer amusingly branded Germany a “Hippie-state being led by emotions”[1]. But for years already, Germany had shed the image of a “non-immigration country” (more on this below). With the events of September 2015, its Willkommenskultur (Welcoming Culture) is set to make it into the English vocabulary like previously Blitzkrieg and Kindergarten.

The remarkably different German and Hungarian reactions to the current refugee crisis invite a reflection. Two very different images of Europe appear in it. Remember Donald Rumsfeld`s nasty distinction between New and Old Europe?

We know which Europe the former US Foreign Secretary preferred. Today, the New Europe, which once may have been liked for its pro-Americanism, stubbornly refuses the rather moderate, and most certainly insufficient, “solution” to the Syrian refugee crisis suggested (and eventually imposed) by European Union leaders. This solution is to resettle the trifle of 120.000 refugees from Greece and Italy according to a quota system across European member states.

This was over the decisive “No” by Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania; only Poland gave in at the last moment — they all don’t want a single of them. It is not “their problem”. To understand it, consider these astonishing figures: 96 percent of Germans in principle agree with accepting refugees, while 71 percent of Czechs are against taking any.[2]

How to explain this discrepancy? The plot thickens because Eastern Europe itself has been massively refugee-producing over the past century, especially during the Soviets’ brutal ruptures of the Hungarian and Czechoslovak reform experiments in 1956 and 1968, respectively.

However, Communism, with its proverbial Iron Curtain, also sealed the East from the human rights revolution and accompanying liberalizations that the luckier part of the Continent underwent, particularly since the 1960s. The current Hungarian Prime Minister may be fluent in English, but two-thirds of Hungarians do not speak a foreign language. There is little contact with people of other races or ethnic background (not to mention that Gypsies are the proverbial underclass). Poland is 98 percent white and 94 catholic, the most homogenous ethnic nation-state of all of Europe.

But more importantly, Communism had bred an insular and suspicion-prone mentality, in which at best family could be trusted. East Germans had a word for it: they lived in a “niche society” (Nischengesellschaft), and often not that badly (if one brackets the absence of freedom). But the Iron Curtain effectively kept away the great social reform movements of the West, feminism, anti-racism, gay rights, anti-authoritarianism. Orban’s antics of avowedly “illiberal” Christian nationalism are no outlier in the region. A Hungarian academic-turned-politician observes: “The assumption in the West that post-communist societies would seamlessly absorb Western liberal mores on immigration and multiculturalism was profoundly wrong. These countries are still defining their identities. They don’t want to adopt the Western approach”.[3]

Now let’s move to the New Europe. At the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis, on 3 September 2015, German Chancellor Merkel visited the University of Bern, to pick up an honorary doctorate that had been awarded to her a few years before (things move even slower in Bern than in the slow rest of Switzerland). After a short hour of polite questioning by a mostly student audience, many of them dealing with the current refugee crisis and Germany’s unexpectedly humanitarian stance in it, Mrs. Merkel asked for a “woman” (finally…) to be her last questioner. A neatly groomed blond with smart glasses politely thanked the Frau Bundeskanzlerin for the privilege. Then she called up the elephant in the room. Were the Syrian refugees not “Muslims”? And was it not the responsibility of political leaders to protect “not only refugees” but also “Europe and our culture”?

How would the German Chancellor respond to the student’s question? Remember that not too long ago, in late 2010, Mrs. Merkel had made headlines for declaring that “multiculturalism has utterly failed”, then trying to placard public and conservative elite resentment over apparent deficits of Muslim and Islam integration. This had always been a deceptive statement, because at the same time the German government entertained conciliatory Integration Summits and Islam Conferences with representatives of the 4-million-strong Muslim community in Germany, and a new scheme of funding costly Islam chairs at several German state universities, with an eye on training German imams, had just been announced.

This is how the German Chancellor answered the question over the “Islamic Threat” in Bern 2015: Coolly and, well, in a multicultural mode. First, the Syrian “fighters” for the Islamic States — not addressed in the question but clearly implied when Islam was depicted as a threat — were “partially very young people who have grown up in our countries, and we are responsible for them”. Secondly, “anxiety has never been a good advisor”. And thirdly, in the face of four million Muslims living in Germany, it was pointless to bicker about Islam being “a part of Germany or not”, it obviously is. “We all have the right here to practice and commit ourselves to our religion. Why do we get upset if Muslims practice and commit themselves to theirs?” The presence of Islam might even be a chance to “find back our own roots as Christians, and to become a bit more bibelfest (knowledgeable of the Bible)”. Mrs. Merkel found it “strange” (komisch) that many of her “Christian” compatriots no longer knew what “Pentecost” meant, while they are also “complaining about Muslims who know the Koran better”. Finally, she pointed out, “our European history is so full of dramatic and horrible (gruselige) struggles that we should be very careful to complain when elsewhere bad things are happening”. There was “no reason to be haughty (hochmütig)”. “I am saying this now as the German Chancellor”. Her statement was followed by long applause.

This exchange between the leader of Europe’s biggest and most powerful country and a student, who was brave enough to talk her mind, was still eerily inverted, would one expect the optimistic, the youthful, the humanity-invoking stance more on the side of the youngster. The key phrase in Merkel’s rebuttal of the “Islamic threat” was the “right to practice religion”. She grounded on it the legitimacy of Muslims to be committed to Islam, and the possibility of notional “Christians” to perhaps rediscover their religious roots, on an equal level of shared (religious) humanity. “Christianity”, interestingly, figures prominently in both post-communist leaders’ discourses, that of Merkel and that of Orban, but in rather opposite keys, defensive v. multicultural, one could say. While not using the “multiculturalism” word, the German Chancellor was obviously endorsing a variant of it, one that I would call a “multiculturalism of the individual”.[4]

If one contrasts the responses of the Hungarian and German political leaders to the Syrian refugee crisis, the picture of two Europes emerges very clearly, one that is Christian-nationalist (in the East) and another that is liberal-multiculturalist (in the West). No wonder where the refugees prefer to go.

But still, why Germany, not, say, Britain, or why not stay in Austria after long-and-dangerous-enough a journey? We don’t really know.

There are two main pull-factors that drive human migration: social networks, most importantly, but also the (economic, political, cultural etc.) attractiveness of receiving countries.

As there are no significant Syrian or Afghan ethnic diasporas in Germany, the network factor is likely to be weaker than the fact that Germany is today the world-known economic powerhouse of Europe, with low unemployment and a huge need for labor power and demographic replenishment. And the recognition rate for Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan asylum-seekers is close to a perfect 100 percent, which is obviously known to those who incanted “Germany, Germany” in Budapest and elsewhere on their northbound journey.

Interestingly, a French parliamentarian and member of the governing Socialist Party, attacked Chancellor Merkel for her “egoistic demographic motives” in letting in the Syrian refugees, some 200.000 in the early September days (until border controls with Austria were reintroduced, in a dramatic rupture of the Schengen Agreement of unhindered movement across Europe’s internal borders). The laissez-passer, which in more controlled form continues, only helped Marine Le Pen’s National Front, fathomed the French Socialist Deputy.[5]

An utilitarian motif on part of the German government’s astonishing display of Willkommenskultur is not far-fetched. Germany is by far the oldest country in Europe, with an average age of almost 45 years — the rest of a generally aging European continent stands at a relatively better 40 years. The birthrate of German women is at 1.3, also one of the lowest in Europe. This bodes darkly not just for Germany’s economy, but for the future of its pension system that might well become unsustainable within the next two decades when the majority that is around 45 now will enter retirement.

And the Syrians may be Muslims, yes, but about a fourth of them are highly-skilled professionals and still more of them are middle-class, more interested in practicing their profession and procuring a future for their children than visiting a mosque on Friday and veiling their wives and daughters (the sad truth is that the real victims of Assad and the Islamic State don’t have the means to make it to Europe). “We will manage this” (Wir werden das schaffen), said a make-do Chancellor when the refugee trains kept arriving at Munich’s train station. Within weeks, a new asylum law was passed that is sterner to those without a claim (mostly those originating from south-east Europe, which has now been declared a “safe” zone that by definition cannot generate a legitimate asylum-claim), but that is more generous to those whose claims are accepted, seeking to get them into work faster and helping them to get quickly integrated through state-paid language courses.

Notably, rejected asylum-seekers are not really to be sent back, but to be redirected into Germany’s modernized regime for labor migrants. The Canadian reader should know that Germany now has one of the most modern and inclusive immigration laws for labor migrants and their families, which rivals the Canadian. In fact, the two immigration systems, the Canadian and the German, have increasingly moved closer to one another in the past few years — the Canadian system quietly moving away from its fabled yet overtly rigid point system, toward adopting some “European” elements of courting temporary labor migrants (with their residence status consolidating over time), and admitting only people in sectors with labor scarcity; and the German system, while not adopting the Canadian point system (though calls for it occasionally flare up), accepting high- (and even some lower-) skilled migrants without a prior job offer, and seeking to retain the fast-growing scores of foreign students graduating at German universities with expanded residence permits to facilitate their job search. With respect to the thorny issue of recognizing foreign degrees, long a major deficit of the Canadian system, the flexibility of the German recognition practice is now even superior to the Canadian. The renowned Berlin-based Expert Council for Migration (Sachverständigenrat), which assembles some leading academics to advise the government on migration policy, noted in its Annual Report of 2015 that “in the area of labor migration Germany now counts among the most liberal immigration countries in the world”.[6] So perplexed were the expert pens about the German Migration Cinderella that the major deficit is now deemed to be in the “packaging” of this miraculous transformation, which still happens to be “unknown to the rest of the world”.

Make no mistake. The tragedy in the Mediterranean, which by now should be called the Sea of Death, continues, with scores of refugee (or rather: traffickers’) boats arriving on the southern shores of Italy each day, if they are lucky enough. On September 3, the day of Merkel’s visit in Bern, the most popular (and distinctly populist) German tabloid Bild Zeitung, over its entire back page, printed the disturbing picture of 3-year Aylan Kurdi lying dead on an Italian beach (not playing there like a child should), his face directed toward the sea that had taken his life. His Syrian parents, notably, had tried to make it illegally to Canada, after their asylum-request had been denied by Ottawa. The little boy`s death is the responsibility of Canada, of Europe, of America, of the entire civilized world.

Footnotes & References

  1. See Joachim Güntner, “Das gute Fühlen“, Neue Zürcher Zeitung 24 September 2015, p.14.
  2. “Orban the archetype“, The Economist 19 September 2015, p.25.
  3. George Schöpflin, a former professor of politics at the University of London, and now a member of European Parliament for Fidesz, which is the governing party of Prime Minister Orban, quoted in “Orban the archetype”, p.26.
  4. See for this my forthcoming book, Is Multiculturalism Dead? Crisis and Persistence in the Constitutional State. Cambridge: Polity 2016.
  5. Malek Boutih, quoted in Nikos Tzermias, “Abweisende Heimat der Menschenrechte“, Neue Zürcher Zeitung 1 October 2015, p.14.
  6. Sachverständigenrat deutscher Stiftungen für Integration und Migration, Unter Einwanderungsländern: Deutschland im internationalen Vergleich. Jahresgutachten 2015. Berlin: SVR 2015, p.163. This highly informative compendium of comparative immigration and integration policies in a select number of OECD countries will soon appear in English, and will be downloadable from the SVR website (
  • This text was originally published December 1, 2015 by The Critique
Share this: