By Britta Petersen*
Eastern European countries have been in the headlines since the beginning of the refugee crisis for a variety of reasons. The controversy about burden sharing and the question how to distribute the more than 850.000 people, who have applied for political asylum in 2015 so far in the European Union, has split the continent.
A talk by Dr. Igor Luksic, Professor for Political Science at the University of Ljubljana and a former Minister and Chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Slovenia here at ORF in Delhi, offered an opportunity to discuss the different perspectives in Europe on how to deal with the problem.
After a controversial decision by EU ministers to set up a quota system for the distribution of refugees, countries that opposed the plan such as Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic threatened to challenge the EU at the European Court of Justice. However, some of them abandoned the idea in order to deescalate tensions. But also the UK opted out.
Professor Luksic explained that many of the former communist countries in the EU are afraid that they would not be able to deal with a large number of migrants. Some of them are “discontent about their economic situation after the fall of communism” and most of them “are ethnically very homogenous” after decades behind the iron curtain – unlike Britain, France and Germany. ” Poland, for example, is 98 % white and 94 % Catholic”, said Luksic.
Warsaw, however, initially supported the quota system. Luksic’s own country, Slovenia has comparatively little relevance in the discussion since it has only 2 million people and received not more than 86 asylum seekers, but the political scientist emphasized that it has been welcoming.
The countries at the Southern and Eastern periphery of Europe are getting the lion’s share of refugees (who are in their majority from Syria) through the Mediterranean or the Balkan. But many of them actually do not want to stay there but are headed for Germany and Scandinavia. The surge of people arriving in Hungary made it the country with the highest number of asylum applications in proportion to its population (1450 refugees per 100,000 in Hungary compared with 323 in Germany and 30 in the UK).
The national-conservative government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and parts of the Hungarian media have been very vocal about it – and partly xenophobic, as a result. Marta Horvath, Second Secretary at the Embassy of Hungary in Delhi, admitted, that the “language has been a bit harsh” but she emphasized that “Hungary did not close the borders!”
Although a fence has been erected at the “green border” between Hungary and Serbia (and similar ones are being built between Hungary and Croatia and Romania, that are both not part of the Schengen area in Europe, that allows passport free travel), refugees still “can enter through the official border crossing points”. According to Horvath, the reason for the drastic step was that “most refugees were not cooperative, they wanted to go to some other European countries”.
Hungary, that already had one of the lowest acceptance rates of asylum seekers in Europe (only 9 percent of asylum applications had been granted in 2014, compared to an average of 45 percent in the entire EU) recently amended its asylum legislation. “According to the law everyone who flees from war is not a refugee”, said Marta Horvath – which is a deviation from the UN Refugee Convention from 1951.
Dr. Partha Gosh, who is currently a Fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis (IDSA) in Delhi recalled that “South Asia handled 50 Mio refugees without signing the UN refugee convention”. But he also pointed out that there was a “civilisational connect” between the people uprooted during partition.
The political, legal and humanitarian complexity of the situation explains why Dr. Christian Wagner, Senior Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin described the situation as “Europe’s deepest crisis”.
While the Eurozone crisis according to Wagner was “only about money”, the refugee crisis is questioning the very identity of the European Union. While its member states are still negotiating about a fair formula for burden sharing, populists are reaping the benefits from an emotionalized discussion. “While the Eurozone crisis saw the ascent of a new left wing movement, the refugee crisis has strengthened right wing populism”, explained Wagner.
However he warned from using the word “fascism” in this context. “Not everyone who takes on a right-wing position in this regard is a fascist”, he said. Many a critic of the German government, that has been welcoming refugees under Chancellor Angela Merkel have been “Euro-sceptics” for a long time. Wagner pointed out that, Merkel’s “We will manage”-attitude towards refugees has become an even greater political risk for her after the Paris attacks. “It only needs one terrorist attack by refugee and the days of Angela Merkel would be numbered”, he said.
Ironically her politics will also have an adverse effect on the Maastricht criteria for financial stability within the Eurozone, that the German government defended so fiercely during the Greek crisis because few countries within the EU will be able to shoulder the financial burdens of the refugee influx as easily as Germany. Igor Luksic therefore quoted the late former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who warned that Germany could “exploit the countries at the European periphery”.
*This report was prepared by Britta Petersen, Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi