In their handling of the arrival of refugees, Europe’s leaders should be guided by this simple fact, rather than shifting the responsibility to others outside, or on the fringes of, Europe. Yet they must also honestly acknowledge that integration is a long and difficult process. If we are to weather the serious challenges confronting us in this new phase of European construction, we will need not only patience but also imagination.

The return of borders

Tine Danckaers: Some say that Europe is not protecting its external borders. This would run counter to the very idea of a Union. Should national authorities take back control of borders, like what is happening right now with Schengen? 

Daniel Cohn-Bendit: It is true that a European Union means the borders of that Union become its external borders. In the definition of political sovereignty, the sovereignty of borders is a demonstration of that sovereignty. Having said that, if we are going to talk about a political union then the idea of national borders loses all meaning. The Union’s borders are everyone’s borders. Schengen means, by definition, that internal borders cease to exist and therefore external borders must be recognised. If we accept this, shared borders means shared sovereignty and a shared army. This, in turn, means that this sovereignty must be organised around political institutions, a single police force and a single military, both of which are an illustration of this sovereignty and the protection of it. So, Europe must set its borders and consider them shared, and the task of controls and protection must be shared too.

For too long we have forgotten, or have pretended to forget, that Schengen means we must overhaul our concept of sovereignty and that this transfer of sovereignty of national borders to European borders was an important step in the European process.

Then there is Greece and periodical talk of a Grexit. What does this say about solidarity? What does it say about what a union is, when Greece is one of the major points of entry into the European Union? 

The problem with Greece is that the country is talking out of both sides of its mouth since it considers its border with Turkey an issue of national sovereignty. It is not easy to get Greece to consider the border a European border. It is true that today the Greek, Italian and Spanish borders present a number of problems for the Greeks, Italians and Spaniards, but also for the Europeans.  Three years ago, Spain, Italy and Greece made a request for allocation of refugees. Germany and France rejected this request, stating that, pursuant to the Dublin Regulation, each country is responsible for its borders. So, Dublin is at the heart of all the errors. In Dublin, we were not daring enough to put the issue of borders – and thereby the issue of asylum – in radically European terms. We all cheated a bit, especially the Germans and the French. In fact, Dublin boiled down to, essentially, “it’s up to the others to do the work.” Today, Europe wants stringent control of its borders considering the number of refugees coming in, and has therefore asked Greece to become a part of its new European border program. Evidently, Greece has refused saying to Europe “if you want a shared border, pay up.” Seems understandable to me.

Either we all chip in and it’s solidarity for all, or we are going to have to review all funds earmarked for solidarity, inter alia for structural funds and agriculture. Take it or leave it.

Isn’t that essentially what we are doing in Turkey? Passing off the hot potato?

Turkey is a bit different. The problem is that in defining shared borders – with everything they want to place along the borders – Greece feels that it comes down to an essentially European project and that, considering the economic state of the country, Europe will obviously need to foot the bill. I do not really see what kind of an answer you can give to that. In Turkey, you’ll hear a different version: Europeans (especially the Germans) state that there is currently a limit to Europe’s ability to receive, absorb, and integrate refugees. We are hypocrites. We say to the Turks: “You have some 2.5 million refugees for a population roughly the size of Germany, and we’ll give you money to improve the camps etc. so that you can take in another some 500,000 refugees, in addition to those who are going to arrive.” So, basically we claim that Turkey can accept three times as many refugees as Germany, whilst both countries have comparable populations. In fact, that is where the German proposal is not very clear. The Germans would offer the possibility to apply in Turkey for asylum in Germany, meaning they would organise and control the flows. That is what is going on and there is a humanitarian explanation underpinning it, which is not false. If this were to be set up in Lebanon and Jordan, etc., people would not be forced to walk 3,000 – 4,000 kilometres in frightening conditions. So, it shouldn’t be considered mere cruelness because there is a solid explanation for the effort. It would make it possible to apply for asylum whether they are in Turkey or Jordan. After all, once they are in those countries they are no longer in their country of origin.

Refugees and asylum

You’ve mentioned Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Turkey receives money, but Jordan and Lebanon do not. Yet, the situation is the same. The migrants do not have any rights; no civic rights, no access to citizenship.

It is true that they do not have any rights. It is true that UNHCR does not have any money for the camps in Jordan (there are no camps in Lebanon, the refugees are spread throughout the country, without any aid and without any rights). All of this is true. Now, when you put yourself on the European side, a problem persists. Scream all you like, make adamant calls for solidarity, but it is still impossible. We only have one country today: Germany and Merkel. All Greens in Europe today look to Merkel, because if she changes her position, it’s over, borders close. Even the countries closing their borders say they can only keep their borders open so long as Germany takes in all the people they do not want. So, there is incredible hypocrisy, because we establish borders and what do we do to prevent refugees from coming? Dogs, barbed wire, watch towers?! It is not just a border along a road with a kilometre opening in the South and in the North. No, closing borders would look much like a closed East Germany. Those who call for closing borders should explain to us how they intend to do so.

No one really knows the answer. They only real way is to organise reception of refugees and slow the flow. The only way to do that is to propose reception sites and processing centres, like what is being attempted with Turkey. Only a single asylum policy with a quota system will make proper handling of the refugee situation – and subsequent betterment of the refugees’ lives – possible.  And of course, European member states would have to accept this (and Central and Eastern European Countries and Denmark) Again, a French-German initiative is needed whereby they would clearly state: either we all chip in and it’s solidarity for all, or we are going to have to review all funds earmarked for solidarity, inter alia for structural funds and agriculture. Take it or leave it.

Meanwhile, the root causes for these migratory flows must be stemmed. This means ending the war in Syria. Intervention in Syria is needed! Hundreds are flowing out of Raqqa every day. They do not want to live there any longer. Where can they go? Unless we stop the conflict, there will be three, four, five million refugees.

As far as European Union measures are concerned, when it comes to the harmonisation of common border policy, the budget for Frontex, etc., The EU has done much.

When it comes to Frontex, we are paying the price for our inconsistencies. We forced the Italians to put an end to Mare Nostrum, stating that it was a vacuum. Frontex was established to stop the smugglers, and to deter people from coming. There were so many deaths in the Mediterranean and so much media attention that Frontex will now take over for Mare Nostrum. Again, since there is no common asylum policy, the problem is that only Germany can influence the right of asylum. That is Merkel’s problem. She does not want more refugees. But, there is only one position she can take: the right to asylum is not a numbers game. It is impossible to say that it is a right that applies to 10,000 people, but would not apply to the 10,001th. Because it is a right. Merkel says that either Europe upholds a right and this would mean that Europe as a whole must address handling the refugees, or the situation will become untenable. Currently there is no one common policy on right to asylum. There is no constitutional right as the basis for European asylum policy.

Migration and integration

We have spoken of managing the right to asylum. Does the current debate address the issue of managing immigration? It seems as if the debate has been shifted to address solely the issue of refugees, their status, the right to asylum as if immigration were no longer a human right.

I am more specific. The right to asylum is a human right. Immigration is not. It can be necessary, understandable, but it is difficult to maintain in these specific cases. When it comes to refugees, these are people who are at risk of dying and who must be protected. Immigration (I find the use of the term “migrants” ridiculous because it really mixes everything up), considering economic imbalances in the world, is the will of some to establish a life in a rich country. I favour legislating immigration in quantified terms.  That is the big difference between immigration and the right to asylum: each European country (the same can be said about the United States) has the right – whether we agree or disagree – to set a number: for example 200,000 or 300,000. That is not inhumane! The words of the former French Prime Minister, Michel Rocard, come to mind: “We cannot take in all of the world’s suffering, but everyone must determine precisely how much of the whole it can take in”. Legislation on immigration should address the needs of the country.

It seems that handling this immigration flow in a controlled fashion would be helpful, but our language is important too. The current approach has shifted the discourse from “good” migrants to “bad” migrants.

Currently there is historical migration, for example Turkish immigrants to Germany or North African immigrants: they are against Syrians, against Roma… In Germany, Merkel and the German right, have been, understandably, blamed for not having a law on immigration. A law on immigration is important politically and symbolically because it defines a country as a country of immigration. A putative law on European immigration, that defines Europe as a political space of immigration, like the United States, is what is needed. It is true that the United States keeps its border with Mexico closed. However, it is also true that each year they hand out hundreds of thousands of Green Cards. That is what will be needed if our societies are to accept having to handle this regular immigration, which is not, of course, solely asylum seekers.

We must, all of us, accept that culture shock is a part of immigration and it can be extremely violent, resulting in horrible things.

There is another problem with the approach: sooner or later things like Cologne 2 will happen. It will be important to be able to formulate a discourse that states that immigration is difficult and we must not sugar-coat it: “it is wonderful, it is diversity, we are going to love one another and learn from one another…” It is very challenging because there are moments of great change in history that are entirely different. We must, all of us, accept that culture shock is a part of immigration and it can be extremely violent, resulting in horrible things. However, since there is no way of avoiding that, we must, at least, in the way that we talk about things, attempt to describe the problems with immigration in the frankest terms possible.

That is one of the biggest challenges Merkel faces and of course, once again, she is being criticised for it. How is she handling integration?  Many are critical.

Yes, because she made a mistake.

I was deputy mayor of Frankfurt in 1989. At that time, Germany would not take in migrants. The saying went: “WirsindkeinEinwanderungsland”, we are not a country of immigration. The first Green-Social Democrat coalition was in 1989. I proposed establishing the position of deputy mayor in charge of immigration. In the text, we said “Frankfurt is a city of immigration”. The Social Democrats rejected the text. They justified their position by saying that they could not do that to the workers. This is not even the CDU we are talking about… It took us three hours of talks to come up with the final version, “Frankfurt is an increasingly multicultural city”. That was the Social Democrats! After the war, in Germany, in 1950, 12 million refugees came from Russia, from the East. There was a minister in charge. There was a hefty budget for integration! It made perfect sense: 12 million people show up, there are going to be issues all around. Merkel, bogged down in the contradictions of her own party, does not have the courage, clear thinking, and astuteness to appoint a Minister for Immigration – even in each Länder – much like there is a Ministry of Interior. Most importantly, immigration should be removed from the Ministry of Interior’s portfolio. So long as immigration is a part of that ministry, it will be associated with security and police. The problem with immigration is that it is not a police problem: it is really an issue of school reform, integration, social work, etc. Therein lies Merkel’s big issue […] a European Commissioner for Integration is needed with a European budget to work with the member states and the regions to develop initiatives in schools, etc.

The Return to borders

It is not so much the physical borders but the mental borders. In Central and Eastern European countries, there is much generosity and solidarity, yet at times there is also a simplistic – white-Catholic – mind-set, that is emerging in the face of the refugee crisis. Why? 

It is irrational, so I have no idea. There is irrationality to the fear of others, which is inexplicable. The answer is this: in Eastern European countries you have to follow the Pope. If anyone is going to shake up Polish society it is the Pope. He invited 10,000 refugees to his most recent UrbietOrbi: Poland is entering the era of open society. The country did not know what it was. It will be a long time before the tension will be eased.

Each time there is immigration with new behaviours there is tension. Today, we are grappling with the aggressiveness of Islamic-fascism which is frightening, that has an effect. People see Daesh on television. That causes anxiety and an existential crisis in people.

After September 11th, 2001, did ethno-centric language about security and democracy become more strident thereby erecting borders in peoples’ minds and instilling a fear of others? 

Yes, but September 11th showed the depth of the divide. We hadn’t fully understood it. It is the reality of our societies. The problem we now face is how to build bridges to overcome that divide?  With whom? Where?

What does our handling of the refugee crisis and borders both physical and mental say about us, and our opinions?

It teaches us that much remains to be done. It teaches us that “Europe is not God given. We are currently in a new and necessary stage of building History. Europe is built out of a past of war. Today, we are in a phase of European construction that is taking place in the time of globalisation. That requires much building. It is hard. We’ll need a lot more imagination, but we must not be discouraged. Just because it is hard does not mean it is impossible. A Nation-state in the face of globalisation is impossible too. It won’t work. At least, in theory, we can show that it will never work. I, in theory, can show that Europe can work. Now, we must do it. It is as simple as that.

Even simply stating that it is a political problem, and not a cultural problem, changes things.

Yes, it is a political problem if we can comprehend the cultural contradictions. We would be remiss to deny the cultural contradictions.

Cookies on our website allow us to deliver better content by enhancing our understanding of what pages are visited. Data from cookies is stored anonymously and only shared with analytics partners in an anonymised form.

Find out more about our use of cookies in our privacy policy.