External Affairs

Demystifying the Refugee Crisis, or Why Europe Needs a New Renaissance

Syrian refugees in Vienna, Austria. Credit: Josh Zakary/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Syrian refugees in Vienna, Austria. Credit: Josh Zakary/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Europe does not exactly look good at the moment. In fact it looks like a greedy old man who sits on his money and refuses to notice that his time has passed.

The Danish parliament seriously believes that confiscating all valuables from refugees exceeding an amount of 400 Euro is a good idea. The so called Visegrad countries (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) are refusing to take in any more refugees and are currently discussing how to secure their borders.

In Germany, whose chancellor Angela Merkel has been praised for her humane refugee policy, 789 violent attacks on refugee shelters were registered by the Federal Criminal Police Office in 2015. A prominent politician of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany suggested refugees be shot if they try to enter the country illegally.

The list of embarrassing acts and suggestion that betray the humanistic self-perception of Europeans can be continued with hair-raising examples from every country of the EU. What is wrong with the old continent?

A short look at the figures related to the refugee crisis shows that the issue itself is solvable and does not justify the excesses of the current retrograde discourse.

Denmark, for example received only 21,000 asylum seekers in 2015. Out of a population of 5.6 million, this makes only 0.375%. Another Scandinavian country, Norway has a population of 5.15 million and received 30,000 refugees in 2015, which makes 0.58%.

Norway, which is not a member of the EU but of the Schengen agreement and is one of the richest countries in the world, currently has the right-wing populist Progress Party as part of a minority government. This is one of the reasons why it has hardened its stance on refugees. The Progress Party once counted Anders Breivik among its members: a man who killed 77 youngsters at a social-democratic summer camp in Oslo in 2011, which is probably a hint of the larger crisis that Europe is facing.

But let’s also have a look at the countries that receive most of the refugees: Sweden took in 160,000 in 2015 or 1.66% of its 9.59 million people. Germany, which has 81.5 million inhabitants, had 1.09 million applications for asylum in 2015, which equals 1.33%

By comparison: In 1950, when Germany still suffered heavily from the destruction of World War II, 12 million refugees entered the country from lost territories in Eastern Europe, mainly Poland and Russia. At that time, Germany had a population of 68.72 million and had to absorb 17.46% of internally displaced persons.

European culture is unlikely to be at risk from the number of refugees, nor is it unaffordable to integrate them.

What the refugee crisis is really about

The German economist Sebastian Dullien from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) argues that worries about the costs are “totally exaggerated”. According to Dullien, Germany can afford subsidising the refugees even if there will be an additional one million in the next two years, because the creation of infrastructure and jobs for them will also result in a boost for the economy and a higher tax income.

Dullien expects expenses of about 40 million euros for Germany until 2018 and contrasts them with the costs of integration of the Eastern German economy after the fall of the Berlin Wall: Between 1990 and today, West-Germany alone paid a whooping 1,500 to 2,000 billion euros and the unified country came out economically stronger than ever.

So what is this crisis all about? It is not money but it is also not Islam, although the religion has been deemed by some as the elephant in the room. According to figures by the PEW Research Center from 2010, about 6% of the European population is currently Muslim, while only 3.8% live in the European Union. Most of the Eastern European countries have a much smaller share of Muslims, for example Poland 0.1% and Hungary 0.3%.

Given the fact that most of them are perfectly integrated, law abiding citizens of their countries, discussion about a threat to European values from them is either politically motivated scare-mongering or a sign of the weakness of European culture.

This brings us closer to the origins of the hysterical discussion that the continent faces at the moment. For a long time, the discontent of a certain segment of the European population remained under the radar of the leading political parties.

The three consecutive crises of the European Union – the Ukraine crisis, the Greek sovereign depth crisis and now the refugee crisis – have raised doubts about the European project and the ability of the European political class to solve the existing problems.

They are partly justified because these crises are part of the fragmentation of a world order that was dominated and guaranteed by the United States and the Bretton Woods institutions. In Western Europe, a strong welfare state added to the social cohesion of the system, that was mirrored by different forms of social security provided by the Communist states.

All of this has been eroding in the past 20 years. And nobody knows yet what will replace it. In Europe, the fear of a loss is greater than anywhere else in the world because of its shrinking population and relative decline of influence. Currently the EU has 7% of the world’s population and a 23% share of its GDP. By 2060, the EU, according to its own statistics, will account for only 5% of the world population.

These developments have given rise to extremist discourses, both on the far right and the far left of the political spectrum that went unnoticed for some time. While the Ukraine crisis highlighted the political and military weakness of the EU, the Greek sovereign depth crisis brought forward an anti-capitalist discourse that is essentially not new but that questions the legitimacy of the EU’s economic integration based on questions about social justice and equity.

Personified by the swashbuckling former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, these leftist nationalists tap deeply into the fear and confusion of the rather social-democratic middle class, that has been observing the erosion of their economic basis and influence as a result of growing inequalities at home and the shift of economic power to countries such as China and India.

The refugee crisis, on the other hand has given the far right the long awaited tool for renewing a xenophobic agenda that has been lingering on the margins of Europe for a long time and that is now making a comeback with a vengeance. The success of parties such as the Front National in France sent shock waves through Europe, because mainstream parties and their voters believed that the political system in Europe had become immune to this kind of extremism.

It is not, as we know now. Therefore, complacency cannot be an answer any longer. Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer recently wrote that “the possibility of a European suicide” could be realistic. This is surely the worst case scenario and it needs to be avoided.

Useless discussions on ‘European values’

There is already a multitude of efforts going on by think-tanks, intellectuals, policy-makers and other European citizens who are working on plans, papers and proposals on how to reform the EU and how to get beyond the current quagmire. This is all very important.

More important, however is that all these efforts come together under a common umbrella that could be called a European Renaissance. While political discussions along ideological and party-lines will keep on going, Europe must combat the extremist forces of self-destruction that led to two wars in the 20th century. And the only way to do this is to re-focus on the idea of Europe itself.

This must not be confused with rather useless discussions about European values and how they should be taught to refugees (and the rest of the world, for that matter). These discussions found not many takers outside Europe even before the refugee crisis and it rings hollow now altogether. It is common knowledge among teachers and parents that you mainly teach by example and the example that Europe gives at the moment is pretty bad, by all standards.

The European Renaissance cannot be a repetition of the past but has to be an actualisation of the very attitude that made Europe successful. The starting point has to be a curiosity for the new and the will to shape the future based on an open mind that is able to integrate other cultures and generate new ideas for a European Union that remains prosperous and attractive in the 21st century. The last thing we need is the destructive ideologies of the 20th century in a new garb.

Britta Petersen is a German author and journalist. She is currently a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi.