The contrast could not be greater: where, twenty-five years ago, border fences between Austria and Hungary were coming down, and the path was being cleared for German reunification and the creation of a new, free Europe in the West and East, we are now seeing the complete opposite. Barbed wire fences are being erected along the Hungarian border, and the 1989/1990 border checkpoints are back in place – not just at the external borders, but between individual European Union member states. Two of the supporting pillars of the EU, the Schengen and Dublin agreements, have collapsed. We are now experiencing the erosion of European unity while member states flex their muscles.

This is a complete contradiction of the historical promises made in 1989/1990, when Mikhail Gorbachev spoke of a “common European home”: a continent free of borders and travel restrictions. Free movement across the whole of Europe, from North to South and East to West, was agreed in the Luxembourg town of Schengen in 1985 and put into practice ten years later. But now, Europe is becoming divided once more. Germany is no exception: a wholehearted, “Yes we can!” became a more restrained, but much more realistic, “We can’t do it (alone)” in under a week. After Angela Merkel’s declarations that refugees would be welcome in Germany, illustrated by selfies with refugees themselves, were beamed around the world, municipalities and volunteers were overwhelmed. Bringing in border controls in Germany was, if not imperative, at least much needed to ease the load of overburdened officials.

Predictably, there followed an immediate domino effect: as soon as Germany introduced border controls, its neighbours followed suit. There was a bitter recognition that a Schengen Europe of free movement for free citizens cannot exist without strong external borders alongside the need for cooperation, so that the right to asylum can be assured.

What we haven’t seen was the hoped-for pressure on EU States to agree on a solidarity-focused admissions procedure. Instead, images of high numbers of refugees flowing into Germany have strengthened feelings of hostility, particularly in central and Eastern European states. This, though, led to an oath of disclosure of EU asylum policy. Until now, the Mediterranean has separated us from the suffering of African migrants taking the South-to-North route. Now that people are travelling overland from East to West along the Balkan route, the term “Fortress Europe” is no longer a mere apocalyptic hyperbole, but a description of reality. What is worse is that it becomes true for people who would rather keep themselves separated from refugees.

A policy of separation is no solution. Those in need will not be prevented from fleeing by borders, internal or external. This has led to the collapse of the second central agreement: since 2003, the Dublin II agreement (Dublin III since 2013) has stood alongside the Schengen agreement. Under Dublin regulations, one single EU member state is responsible for asylum procedures – the country of initial reception. That is the only place where asylum seekers “enjoy” the right to remain. For too long, Germany, as a third state, has taken advantage of this rule. But in recent times the Dublin agreement has been pushed aside; reception centres in southern states are full to bursting, and Greece and Italy, in particular, have simply been sending refugees on their way, usually to Germany.

Crisis Culmination

It is worth asking what has led to this huge growth in numbers of refugees.

The reason is that the refugee crisis is the culmination of problems that have been building up over the past twenty-five years. The disastrous actions of the West following 11 September 2001, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, led to the disintegration, or rather the destruction, of entire states and to the creation and rapid expansion of an “Islamic State”. Added to this is the terrible situation of the Syrian proxy war that has been ongoing since 2011: as a result of the fall of the murderous Assad regime, the terror of IS and the conflicting interests of superpowers and regional powers, such as the USA, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the country long ago became a failed state, leading to the exodus of millions. [1]Four years after the beginning of the conflict, refugees are accepting that in these circumstances they are not able to return to Syria, which is pushing more and more people to flee – especially as the conditions in overflowing camps in Syria’s neighbouring countries has become increasingly catastrophic. According to the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), between twelve and twenty million Syrians have fled their homes (in the strict sense of the word). Eight million are still travelling within Syria, and four million are seeking refuge in neighbouring countries: 1.9 million are in Turkey, 1.1 million in Lebanon and 600,000 in Jordan, to name the three biggest host countries. [2] This leaves 250,000 Syrian refugees – barely two percent of the total – making their way to Europe, but, given the conditions in refugee camps, these figures may well grow. In July the UN World Food Program (WFP) had to cut back on projects for the umpteenth time due to lack of funding. Refugees in Lebanon currently receive $13.50 US per month in the form of vouchers, which at most allows them to cover half their food requirements. In Jordan, eighty-six percent of Syrian refugees live below the poverty line. [3] This shows that people seeking refuge in Europe cannot be stopped in the short term without tackling the state of emergency in camps – and, in the medium term, without at least partial establishment of peace in Syria.

These are “only” the most recent flashpoints. There is a history of exploitation of the South by the North, previously in the form of colonialism and now in the form of an unfair world trade order. Immense suffering, particularly in Africa, enforced by postcolonial dictatorial regimes, creates an ongoing desire to flee. [4] Civil wars, collapsing states, social deprivation – all of these are causes of migration. It is therefore not enough to put a stop to illegal dinghies crossing the Mediterranean: millions of desperate people are waiting for a chance to leave their old life behind to find a better one in Europe. Also, it remains to be seen how many future waves of migration will be caused by massive environmental destruction caused by climate change.

 The Failure of the North

The reasons people become refugees are largely products of policy in the global North, and yet – and herein lies the rub – the North doesn’t want to deal with it. This global challenge cannot be overcome with intake quotas alone.

There is no doubt that the capacity of a continent as rich as Europe to take in refugees has by no means been reached. To that end, we desperately need a German – or, better, a European – law on migration. However, the idea that the flow of refugees can be managed through regular migration is at best naïve. People not fortunate enough to gain a Green Card (be it American or European) will continue to come on foot or on floating wrecks. Continued irregular migration northwards would lead to huge tensions and conflicts over distribution.

In all of this, it’s clear that Europe, preoccupied with the Euro crisis and events in Greece, has ignored the problem of refugees for years. The countries with the most responsibility to solve the refugee crisis are the ones who caused current global unrest – and I don’t just mean the USA. This is somewhat ironic. Alongside various Eastern European countries (referred to by former US secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld as “New Europe” when talking about their involvement in the Iraq war), the United Kingdom in particular,which, alongside the USA, carries most responsibility for the devastating Iraq war, is rejecting all attempts at a pan-European solution to accepting refugees based on solidarity.

National Sovereignty Trumps European Solidarity

Can the EU demonstrate the solidarity it needs to show? This depends largely on whether it can overcome the rejectionist attitude of Eurosceptics. The need for a coordinated refugee policy is clearer than ever, yet national egoism stands in the way. Even the attempts to distribute refugees fairly by way of a European quota almost ended in a fiasco, though the European Commission does recognise the refugee crisis as a European obligation. Despite this, it was difficult enough for national Ministers of the Interior to agree on redistributing a mere 40,000 refugees. On 22nd September they agreed on a new allocation formula for a further 120,000, but Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania voted against this agreement.

A further problem lies in the fact that EU member states do not have uniform asylum and refugee laws. There is a pressing need for alignment here, but this cannot simply mean dropping standards to the lowest common denominator.

Issues around asylum and refugees highlight the current limitations of the European Project: national sovereignty trumps European solidarity. In contrast to aid for Greece, the issues aren’t abstract as billions of euro, but tangible, with very real refugees, bringing into question two core issues relating to the sovereignty of the nation state. Firstly, who belongs to us? And secondly, who decides what our borders are – and how they are protected?

Clearly, ideas on these issues vary widely across Europe. While western states are at least partly prepared to forfeit some post-national sovereignty, eastern Europeans cling strongly to their national independence, which they regained only in 1989/90. The same is true when it comes to ethnic homogeneity: Poland and Hungary, in particular, refuse to accept Muslims, arguing they have no tradition of multiculturalism. The European anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy with the line “all men shall become brothers” is shown to be an illusion. The line, “all men shall become brothers” in Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as the European anthem is now shown to be an illusion.

Hegemony and the Promised Land: Two Sides of the German Coin

A second contrast is no less irritating: representing Germany, Angela Merkel was recently demonised with swastikas and a Hitler moustache, and is now mockingly portrayed as the Refugees’ Joan of Arc in a popular German broadsheet. [5] In fact, thanks to its culture of acceptance and Merkel’s selfies, Germany has become the Promised Land in the Promised Continent of Europe. However, attraction and repulsion are but two sides of the same coin: Germany is Europe’s hegemon, at least in economic terms, and its crown jewel. A champion exporter, the country has benefited from the cheap euro, while at the same time competing the rest of Europe into crisis with its low wages (measured against work productivity) and huge trade surplus. As a result, national egoism dates back to long before the refugee crisis, and Germany has caused mass migration within Europe as well, particularly from crisis-hit southern countries. [6] Because Germany has benefited from European unity like no-one else, it’s a particularly popular destination for refugees – and at the same time, it’s hated.

Prosperity and hegemony: twenty-five years after reunification, Germany has both. There’s a third ingredient too, in the form of the constitution, and particularly the right to asylum included as a consequence of Nazi human rights violations. These strong human rights laws make Germany particularly attractive to refugees. While Merkel’s open arms have been greeted with both enthusiasm (“Merkel Saves Europe’s Honour”, Liberation, Paris) and derision (“like a hippy-state governed by emotions”, Anthony Glees, London), subsequently, the closing of the borders was received with particular enthusiasm by a particular faction: the European Right. “Schengen can’t survive this,” tweeted UKIP leader Nigel Farage. And Marine Le Pen rejoiced, “Bye-bye EU” on Facebook.

Right-wing populists may soon have reason to celebrate in Germany, too. After a split in the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, some media outlets prematurely pronounced it dead, but now it sees a future of opportunity. Some polls show the party on thirteen percent, level with the Social Democrats. [7] State elections next March will be make or break for AfD. All the signs say that they will take their fourth parliamentary seat in the east of the country in the state of Sachsen-Anhalt, and elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz will show whether, after their successes in Bremen and Hamburg, they can continue to prosper in the west as well. Entering a western state parliament would be a milestone occasion for the right-wing populists.

No-one is more aware of this than the Christian Social Union, who keep pushing the line that the only thing to their right is the wall. This is, in part, why the Minister-President of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer, reacted so strongly to Merkel’s open-door policy, and his objections paid off: as Merkel reviewed her position and ordered border controls, Seehofer could claim that the protection of national interests within the EU is still in good hands – this is a trade-off that has benefitted the Chancellor.

Left Populism: Temptation and Danger

So, in this extremely risky situation, how is the political Left reacting?

More than a few people have tried to answer right-wing populism with left-wing populism in recent times. “I’m convinced that in the next few years we’ll see a far-reaching change to the political boundaries that once dominated Europe, and that there will be a confrontation between left and right-wing populism,” writes Chantal Mouffe, who is perhaps the most important radical-left thinker of current times. In a “populist situation”, she says, we can observe a, “clear division between the establishment elites (la casta) and the ‘people’.” [8]

In her seminal essay, “On the Political” in 2007, Mouffe gives a clearer description of how these political borders were defined. [9] In it, she breaks with the idea that left-wing politicians seek a sensible compromise, saying that such a culture of consensus overestimates the chances of rational argument. Rather than rationality and consensus, Mouffe focuses on emotion and confrontation. In doing so she – quite deliberately – borrows from the constitutional lawyer and Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, who is by far the most controversial of political theorists. He defined the political as the confrontation between friend and foe, a fight to the death if need be. [10] Mouffe wants to civilize this model: what Schmitt called foes, she calls opponents struggling with cultural hegemony and political supremacy.

Mouffe’s strategy of radical confrontation rejects any common political platform with left-liberal or social democratic parties; she says that the latter, “are too complicit in the mechanisms of neoliberal hegemony to offer an alternative”. [11] Instead, she calls for a new left populism to create a homogenous, ‘we’ – “one people”. [12] “Here, the true, good people; there, the evil elites exploiting them” is the new rallying cry of the European radical Left. In Greece, you could almost watch this policy in action with a microscope – and see the huge risks it brings.

The Example of Greece

In fact, Alexis Tsipras almost fell victim to his own populist strategy. Here, in sharp relief, we could see how difficult – perhaps even impossible – it is to really make populism civilised, particularly when Tsipras called a referendum and released a national outpouring of emotion. This was aggravated by brutal austerity policies, a dramatic recession and the unspeakable derision of the “lazy Greeks” (this was the headline in the German tabloid “Bild”), while in Athens the government spoke of Greek “dignity”, national “pride” and of being “humiliated”. Opponents of “Oxi”, those against saying No to the austerity measures, were called traitors and enemies of the people – enemies of the Greek people, that is – the helpless victims of disgraceful neoliberal Euro-elites.

Before long, the irate population was no longer thinking of opponents but of enemies, be they domestic or foreign. When some placards featuring the German finance minister were graffitied with the slogan, “He has been drinking your blood for five years” or “Wanted: Dead or Alive”, the line of enmity had clearly been crossed. The fatal consequence for Tsipras was that his subsequent agreement to harsh EU savings measures placed him on the wrong side. The people’s beloved representative had become a traitor to his people – at least in the eyes of some former members of his own party, who went on to form Popular Unity (LAE). Now this group claims to embody the “true people” – although the scarcely three percent vote they got in the elections somewhat contradicts that claim.

“If the conflict between them and us is formulated as a moral conflict between good and bad rather than a political conflict between ‘opponents’, then your opponent can only be perceived as an enemy to be annihilated.” Mouffe recognises the risks of her theory [13] – giving into temptation. If you want – as the populist Left wants – to be bound to the (allegedly true) people, you have to only ever be on the right side and, accordingly, accept the moral devaluation of your opponent.

All of this strongly recalls the rhetoric of 1920’s Germany, when the Right denounced the “disgraced Treaty of Versailles” as the humiliation of a whole people, and mobilised the masses. In the end the enemies of the Weimar Republic, on the Left and Right alike, turned their fire on the all-too-little-convinced democrats, leading to the destruction of the first republic on German soil.

Those on the radical Left promoting the rising of political emotions are playing with fire. The radical Left and Right form a devastating symbiosis, sticking to their motto that the blame always lies with the other – and always, always with the Eurocrats in Brussels. We can see this in the current refugee crisis, with the EU collapsing not in Brussels but rather around the egoism of the member states. The populist chants of the Left – these are the evil elites, those are the humiliated people – is always supported by the European right wing and by Marine Le Pen, and for good reason: history shows us who always wins in a time of crisis like this one – the radical Right. Left-wing populism, once it has been created, will eat its own children.

Victory of the Right: “Coalition of Fear” and New Third Alternative

In reality, when put under pressure, the supposedly ‘good’ people don’t gravitate to the left by any means. Even Karl Marx had an unromantic view of humanity, particularly of its lower echelons: “The “dangerous class”, the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.”[14] This is precisely what we are witnessing today when refugee centres in Freital and Heidenau, in Luebeck and Reichertshofen, are set alight. Behind this inhumane “vigilante justice” stands not only a mob, but also a part of the increasingly precarious middle class who make up a “coalition of fear” (Heinz Bude) with the service proletariat. [15]

The left wing populist aim of “creating a progressive collective will with the aim of ‘one People’” (Mouffe) glosses over an extremely dangerous tendency within a population, since it imagines the population as homogenous and, as a whole, good. The idea of a unified popular will means ultimately rejecting the pluralism which stands at the heart of Western democratic culture. In doing this, left wing populism – although presumably unwillingly – does the propaganda work of a dubious Third Alternative and the New Right for them.

One-time leftist and current national chauvinist Juergen Elsaesser uses this rhetoric in an attempt to bring together anti-West thinkers, left and right alike, in opposition to the EU “system”: “After the Eastern Bloc collapsed, all the negative aspects of the USSR have been transferred to the EUSSR: the politburo and its all-powerful commission no longer sits in Moscow, but in Brussels.” [16] Exactly the same populist (and conspiratorial) arguments are given against the “economic and political dominance by the European oligarchy… hiding behind the German government and happy to have Ms Merkel do their dirty work,” in the plea for a, “Plan B For Europe” from Oskar Lafontaine, Yanis Varoufakis and others: “What we are dealing with is the neoliberal variation of ‘limited sovereignty’, as Soviet leader Brezhnev called it in 1968. At that time the Soviets flattened the Prague Spring with tanks; this summer, the EU flattened the Athens Spring with banks.” [17]

In all valid criticisms of the EU’s devastating austerity policies, such an ahistorical comparison of completely different systems removes the barriers between left and right. What’s left is a crude “internationalist” nationalism against the European Union. We have already shown how all populism, with its proclivity for discriminatory, ostracising friend-foe distinctions, belongs to the Right. Even now the only winners of the left-populist escalation strategy are the right-wing populists, who have seen the EU and its institutions as the source of all evil for a long time.

Consistent Europeanisation Instead of Populist Polarisation

The main focus of an enlightened Left should instead be on returning to a strategy of clever alliances without abandoning its own convictions and principles. In the history of Germany, and in that of the EU, social progress has always happened through a combination of workers and enlightened middle class. This tradition is manifest today in the volunteers coming from all social classes.

Make no mistake – the coming years will be decisive for Europe’s future. They will show whether this Europe is at all able to provide real solidarity and constructive consensus, or whether we will slide further towards enmity. Europe is at a crossroads: at worst, we will see an ideological civil war across Europe, with radical polarisation between countries in various political situations. European solidarity or national egoism is now the pivotal question – for the European Left. The European Right has already found its call to arms for the next few years in the refugee crisis.

Can Europe respond with solidarity to this humanitarian problem, ensuring fair distribution across member states? Or will individual countries selfishly turn away from this huge challenge? Fighting fatal regionalism is the historic task of a progressive, liberal Left. Today, Europe stands faced with a historic choice: either a united Europe will succeed, or we will become a patchwork continent of the old nation states. The latter would mean the collapse of the EU, Europe giving up on global dialogue, and the new global order of the twenty-first century being left to the new (and old) superpowers and their imperial ambitions.

The last twenty-five years have shown that a purely monetary neoliberalist Europe, which is what Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble are pushing for, cannot respond to the fundamental crisis of Europe. On the contrary, it stirs nationalism and leads to ever greater divisions. The Left’s alternative cannot be a national one; only consistent Europeanisation can make the continent free, fair and sustainable.

Populist polarisation is not the right way to do this. We cannot only aim, as some on the Left suggest, for simple redistribution from rich to poor; rather, we need a thorough transformation of the capitalist system, a fundamental change to our model of living. This would really tackle the true reasons for people becoming refugees; it is the only way to truly solve the humanitarian crisis of global refuge-seeking. After all, the real reason for the business model of tugboats crossing the ocean is the immense wealth gap between the North and South, West and East. As long as this exists – and as long as the chasm between rich and poor continues to grow – there will be no end to those seeking refuge.

In the short term, we need dignified accommodation and care for refugees; in the medium term, safety zones must be created in areas of civil war, in Syria in particular. But in the long term, we need a fair and sustainable global economic system.

For that, we would need precisely the peaceful and fair world order that people hoped for, albeit in vain, in Europe and elsewhere, in 1989/90. To be sure, such an aim, after all the disappointments of the last twenty-five years, would seem Utopian. But a unified Europe can and must at least begin to work towards it.



[1] See. Björn Blaschke, The New Middle Beast. Saudi-Arabien vs. Iran: Der Kampf um die Vorherrschaft im Mittleren Osten, in: “Blätter“, 9/2015, pp. 45-53.

[2] A further 250 000 Syrian refugees in Iraq and 130 000 in Egypt,, see Issio Ehrich, Wie viele Flüchtlinge kommen noch? Exodus hat Europa noch kaum erreicht,, 11.9.2015 and Kristin Helberg, “Ich nähme das nächste Flugzeug nach Syrien“, in: “Die Tageszeitung“ (taz), 15.9.2015.

[3] Ehrich, ibid.

[4] See. Thomas Gebauer, Hoffen und Sterben. Flucht und Abschottung in Zeiten globaler Krisen, in: “Blätter“, 6/2015, Pp. 41-50.

[5] Berthold Kohler, Im nationalen Freudentaumel, in: “ Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung“ (FAZ), 8.9.2015.

[6] In July 2015 German businesses exported goods to the value of over 107 billion Euro, once again a considerable increase on the previous year.

[7] In August 2014 the AfD entered the Dresden Parliament with 9.7 percent of the vote, shortly followed by entry into the parliaments of Thuringia and Brandenburg, and in 2015 into the councils of Bremen and Hamburg.

[8] Chantal Mouffe, Für einen linken Populismus,, 30.3.2015; approving Robert Misik, Populismus? Ja, bitte!, in: taz, 1./2.8.2015, and Jakob Augstein, Demonstriert lieber gegen die Banken,, 27.8.2015; critical: Jan-Werner Müller, Populismus: Theorie und Praxis, in: “Merkur“, 8/2015, S. 28-37; Karin Priester, Die Stunde der Entscheidung. Radikale Linke im Geiste Carl Schmitts, in: “Blätter”, 6/2012, Pp. 108-119.

[9] Chantal Mouffe, Über das Politische, Frankfurt a. M. 2007.

[10] Carl Schmitt, Der Begriff des Politischen, Hamburg 1932.

[11] Chantal Mouffe, Für einen linken Populismus, Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Mouffe, Über das Politische, ibid., S. 12.

[14] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Berlin 1959.

[15] Heinz Bude, Die Koalition der Angst, in: “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung“, 17.9.2015.

[16] Jürgen Elsässer, Querfront in Europa, in: “Compact“, 6/2014.

[17] Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Stefano Fassina, Zoe Konstantopoulou, Oskar Lafontaine and Yanis Varoufakis, A Plan B For Europe,, 12.9.2015.

(from: “Blätter” 10/2015, Pages 45-54)

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.