While data signals that the peak of the refugee crisis is over, thanks mostly to shady deals with third countries and evolutions on the Syrian battlefields, EU governments continue to treat migration with heightened emotion and political grandstanding. The latest EU Council’s conclusions in June 2018 indicate Europe’s next step for integration will be borne on the backs of those seeking a better future in the EU, confirming Ivan Krastev’s declaration in his latest book, After Europe, that migration is now an “existential issue” for the EU.
This article is also available in audio as part of the Green Wave podcast.
“Only member states are able to tackle the migration crisis effectively. The EU’s role is to offer its full support in all possible ways.” It was with this statement at the winter summit of 2017, a year already full of political polemic, that European Council President Donald Tusk sparked one of the mini storms that is a specialty, if not a monopoly, of the Brussels bubble. For over two years, the row over the notorious “mandatory quotas” for sharing out recently arrived refugees across the EU has poisoned the European political conversation. Many political parties have made electoral hay from it, denouncing “the authoritarianism of Brussels” or “the blind recklessness of Angela Merkel” and shamelessly playing on fantasies of diseases or terrorists being washed ashore with this wave of desperate people.
In the past few weeks, the tragic wandering of the Aquarius from port to Mediterranean port has once again given European governments a chance to shine in the world cup of inhumanity. Of course, in this sordid competition, the Trump administration has shown that Europe does not have a monopoly on outrage, but on this side of the Atlantic, the prize goes to the new Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who did not hesitate to close the country’s ports to prevent the disembarkation of the Aquarius’s 629 passengers, including 7 pregnant women and 11 very young children.
Meanwhile, in Vienna, the Austrian chancellor announced the formation of a new European “axis” against “illegal immigration”. Words have history, and the history of “axis” is not a happy one. The Italian government dominated by the Lega and an Austrian government that includes the FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria) are birds of a feather. But when the Bavarian interior minister breaks with Merkel and decides to join them, it simply hastens Europe’s moral decay.
The great replacement
However, Salvini’s iniquitous antics simply highlight the cynicism of most of his European counterparts. When the hollow rhetoric and complete absence of solidarity between so-called pro-European leaders is laid bare by the vile audacity of a far-right minister, we add political tragedy to human tragedy. What we are seeing is an ideological victory for Viktor Orbán, who has been at the forefront of these new forms of reactionary democracy since 2010. Since 2015, when Budapest’s Keleti railway station was turned into a huge camp for refugees fleeing Syria, the strong man of central Europe has rolled out barbed wire along Hungary’s borders with Croatia and Serbia, justified police violence towards refugees and organised a phoney referendum to show that Hungarians do not want migrants. But, above all, he has evoked the fall of Rome to exaggerate migratory pressure by rebaptising it Völkerwanderung – “migration of peoples”. In French, traditional historiography refers to this as grandes invasions, an expression born of late 19th-century anti-German revanchism and a very Western view of a Romanised Gaul terrorised by repeated incursions of “barbarian” Germanic tribes.
the refugee crisis is fast becoming a crisis in democracy
There is a certain irony in hearing talk of a besieged fortress come out of the mouths of the last great invaders to settle for good in Europe, when the Magyar cavalry swapped the vast expanses of central Asia to colonise the edge of the Holy Roman Empire. Since then, on the frontiers Christendom, it has been the Catholic Hungarians in the centre – and the orthodox Serbs in the Balkans – who have claimed the dubious honour of being the pernickety ushers for a Europe that is still the final destination and not yet a departure point.
This rhetoric of “true Europeans” defending civilisation against hordes of barbarians is the classic thin veil thrown over a modern racist fantasy cultivated by reactionary intellectuals and their conspiracy-theorist surrogates: the “great replacement”, or the gradual substitution of the native white and culturally Christian European population by people from Africa and the Middle East, who conceal their dark colonialist designs under the tear-jerking disguise of the refugee or destitute migrant escaping poverty.
Orbán’s sentiments have enjoyed remarkable success in both online and offline circles that like to whip up identity-based panics about declining economies and birth rates, the rise of Islam, migration, terrorism, the moral decadence of the West, and so on, all of which are orchestrated by the cosmopolitan liberal elites of global finance capitalism. The most glaring example of this hate is the Hungarian prime minister’s depiction of George Soros as public enemy number one. It’s a propaganda exercise worthy of a totalitarian regime, topped off with a smattering of barely concealed antisemitism.
The migration crisis: a true existential crisis
It is against this dark and ugly backdrop that Ivan Krastev reflects on the fate of the continent in After Europe. Through the book runs a common thread: it is not the poor management of the Eurozone or the much-discussed democratic deficit, nor Putin or Brexit but “the east-west divide that re-emerged after the refugee crisis that threatens the future survival of the union itself.” Quickly outlining the legal distinction between migrants and refugees, Krastev deliberately chooses to use the terms interchangeably, because in Europeans’ imaginations, and political discourse, whether populist or mainstream, they have come to mean the same thing, even encompassing internal EU migration, from the Polish plumber to Roma beggars: the other is never the same but always other.
The crux of the matter is this: in the wake of the migrant influx, we are witnessing a crisis in liberalism, democracy, and Europe. Because, as Krastev argues, these three concepts are intimately linked. “The inability and unwillingness of liberal elites to discuss migration and contend with its consequences, and the insistence that existing policies are always positive sum (i.e., win-win), are what make liberalism for so many synonymous with hypocrisy.”
The refugee crisis is the last drop that makes a cup full of profound identity anxiety run over, something that affects every country in Europe. The anxiety felt about the scale of the problem far exceeds the reality of the statistics: the overall number compared to the European population is derisory, but high concentrations in certain places in Europe can be spectacular, whether Lesbos, Lampedusa, or Harmanli. And it is these images, from Victoria Square in Athens to the Calais jungle and columns of people in the Alps or on the Balkan route, that stick in the mind and fuel the feeling of invasion. This “refugee crisis has dramatically changed the nature of democratic politics on the national level and that what we are witnessing in Europe is not simply a populist riot against the establishment but a voters’ rebellion against the meritocratic elites.” It has “not only shifted the Left-Right balance in European politics and undermined the liberal consensus governing Europe for decades but also provoked an identity crisis on both the left and the right and upended the very arguments the European Union has used to justify its existence.” The EU’s legitimacy and political project is founded on liberal democracy: it is not just a project for shared peace and prosperity, but one of converging preoccupations, structures, procedures, and perspectives between countries who have liberal democracy in common.
Without a legitimate and shared frame of reference, only the expression of the majority counts. An illiberal democracy.
And it is this “common” that the migration crisis is shattering to reveal an East-West divide that we thought had disappeared. This is the “Central European paradox” in which peoples we would not expect to be Eurosceptic voting enthusiastically for populist parties who paint Brussels as the new Moscow of an empire they pretend they never chose to join. “The refugee crisis has made it clear that eastern Europe views the very cosmopolitan values on which the European Union is based as a threat.” Aspiring to stability and the possibility of social mobility in an open economy, the middle classes traditionally form the sociological bedrock of democracies. But the middle classes of central Europe have a distinctive feature – they emerged from historical catastrophe: “it was the destruction and expulsion of Jews and Germans that enabled the formation of national middle classes in central Europe.” From the Vosges to the Volga, the Mitteleuropa so well described by Jacques Droz was founded on these two cultural binders, binders that would become antagonists from the building of nation states in the 19th century to the infernal conflict of National Socialism. Today, without a shared historical experience other than that of totalitarian communism and its fall, these middle classes – which are over 90 per cent ethnically homogenous – face anxiety about their decline and an inability to think of themselves beyond a rigid national context because the multicultural elements that once bound them together have disappeared. In this way, the refugee crisis is fast becoming a crisis in democracy.
The nature of democracy has changed, says Krastev: it is no longer a tool for the inclusion and protection of the minority. In other words, the democratic pact that guarantees losers do not find their heads on pikes, or exiled while their property is pillaged and their family massacred, is under threat. As Krastev explains: “Demand for real victory is a key element in the appeal of the populist parties.” If these movements are reactionary, it’s in their belief that they are a majority bullied by the minority. When, for example, the Polish foreign minister declares in his first few days in office that it is time to break with the “new mixture of cultures and races, a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians” you really wonder which government he is referring to. “Threatened majorities” are making their voices heard and bringing the Trumps, Kaczynskis, and Straches of this world to power. They are taking democracy and voting back to its origins in the Roman Republic: a violent confrontation between sides where with victory comes the right to hunt down and crush the enemy. It is democracy in the Schmittian sense of the term. A democracy in which political victory justifies any and all attacks on the separation of powers principle. A democracy in which everything is politicised and polarised and no idea is legitimate if not held by the majority. So, for instance, the rights of Polish women over their own bodies are no longer fundamental rights but a political opposition between traditional values and liberal values. Without a legitimate and shared frame of reference, only the expression of the majority counts. An illiberal democracy.
No, “‘The end of history’ that Francis Fukuyama promised” has not arrived because “migrants […] are history’s actors who will define the fate of European liberalism.” Krastev references, among others, Gaspar Miklos Tamas, the Hungarian philosopher and former dissent who highlighted an insurmountable paradox for the European project and its ideal of universal citizenship: the gap between our universal rights as inhabitants of the planet and the irrefutable cultural, economic and social inequalities that continue to divide humanity. Yet, there is no need to summon the ghost of Carl Schmitt to see how the world works and liberal impotence faced with the resurgence of “us” and “them” politics. Democracy is based on a sense of belonging to a community of shared values. Hence the national nature that allows democracy to construct itself as distinct from, or even in violent opposition to, another community. This sense of togetherness, of a community of values, is what populist movements claim to stand for. It is about restoring meaning and cohesion to a collective called “the people”, built around shared codes and common markers, like the rejection of pluralism’s diluting effects, which means a “revolt against the principles and institutions of constitutional liberalism.”
Renationalising the elites
Yet this revolt implies the rejection of the European project’s very essence. The crisis in the EU is the crisis in liberal democracy and vice versa. It is here that we see the divide between “us Europeans” and “them people”. The divide when it comes to the European project is increasingly significant. The traditional divide between progressives and conservatives centred on the role of the state and the extent of redistributive policies. This opposition has not disappeared. But the last two decades has seen it overlaid with a divide around identity and the acceptance of an open society. There are “people from Anywhere” and “people from Somewhere”, a distinction made by David Goodhart and used by Krastev to contrast “globalists and nativists”. Or globalists against patriots, as put by Marine Le Pen, the emblematic figure of this new generation of far-right populist leaders who have thrived for more than decade by denouncing both Islam and the EU.
Europe deserves more, and deserves better than our doubts. It remains a chapter in history to be written.
In fact, more generally, the divide opposes those who feel they are free to move and those who feel they are prisoners, those who are from somewhere and those who could be from anywhere. As you might say: “It’s the sociology, stupid!” Furthermore, as what Krastev calls the “Brussels Paradox” illustrates, meritocracy faces a backlash. The Brexit debate saw the fierce and contemptuous condemnation of “experts”, national and especially European administrations have been demoted to the rank of illegitimate technocracies and the denunciation of elites has become the favourite pastime of the European political classes, even if it means performing spectacular acts of contortionism to avoid appearing like people throwing stones in glass houses.
As the political scientist Gael Brustier underlined, the major problem with the sociological process of European integration is this: it has become a process for the empowerment of elites who are ever more detached from their national and social origins and the solidarity that these roots suppose and impose. Yet, as Krastev points out: “People fear that in times of trouble, the meritocrats will opt to leave instead of sharing the cost of staying.” It is no coincidence that the issue of tax evasion has become so prominent in recent years as it shows the loathsome ability of the powerful to use their freedom to shirk their responsibilities. What “people” want, what the populists propose, is in some way to “nationalise their elites”, not get rid of them.
It is the same sense of distance felt by workers whose factories are set to close due to offshoring; the same reaction of: “why don’t you put them up at your place?” given in childish defiance to leaders who support generous migration policies.
But is Europe doomed to fall apart? The pessimism of the intellect, and Krastev has plenty of both, suggests that “the disintegration train has left Brussels’s station”. But the destination remains unknown. Because although they may be understandable and necessary, Europe deserves more, and deserves better than our doubts. It remains a chapter in history to be written. It is a still distant horizon, a human process that very much depends on those who make the effort to conceive and implement it. In reality, the union’s various crises, much more so than any of Brussels’s “cohesion policies,” have contributed to the sense that we Europeans are all part of the same political community. The weak signs of Europe’s “community of fate” are perhaps still not strong enough to mask the strong signs that threaten its survival. But “survival is a little like writing a poem: not even the poet knows how it’s going to end before it does.” The best definitions of politics include its poetic, creative side. With this wide-open conclusion, Krastev embraces the only thing that can save us: the unknown – and poetry.