Global Policy Studies & International Security Immigration Policy Politics and Governance

Divided Union: Europe, Refugee Crisis, and the Need for Solidarity

Photo Credit: Huck Magazine

Over half a century ago, Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport was at the center of the Berlin Airlift, a U.S.-led effort to supply the western half of the city when the Soviets tried unsuccessfully to cut it off from West Germany.

The airport, now closed and converted into a public park, recently served as the venue for another gesture of solidarity, this time initiated by Berlin’s own citizens. In September, the airport field hosted a picnic for the thousands of the Syrian refugees who in the past few months have flooded to Europe’s borders. And now the airport’s empty buildings house a small portion of the refugees that Germany has accepted.

The refugee crisis in Europe has intensified in the past several months, particularly after the burst of public outrage in response to the now infamous image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi — the Syrian boy whose body washed up on Turkey’s shore following his family’s unsuccessful attempt to flee to Europe. Previously hesitant to open its doors to the influx of immigrants, Germany has been under incredible pressure to revise its position. And it has capitulated. Merkel announced in September that there is no limit to how many refugees Germany can accept; and that number could plausibly swell up to a million by the end of the year.

Germany is in the spotlight during the refugee crisis not only because its robust economy makes it the most attractive final destination for the majority of asylum seekers, but also because it has emerged as the unspoken leader of the European Union, especially following the debt crisis. By opening Germany’s doors to the refugees earlier this fall, Merkel set the tone for the rest of Europe. Whether they follow suit remains to be seen.

The German public response to the refugees has overwhelmingly been positive, a glimmering sign of hope for humanity. Living in Berlin for this semester, I have witnessed some of the examples of human solidarity that we don’t often hear about in the news. The citizen-organized picnic at Tempelhof helped Berliners visualize the crisis by meeting the refugees and hearing their stories. When Hungary shut down its borders and left thousands of refugees stranded at Budapest’s Central Station with no basic services, Germans organized car pools to bring Syrians across the border. Students across the country, including at the Hertie School of Governance, have created working groups that provide translation, legal services, and humanitarian assistance to the incoming refugees.

However, as heartwarming as the examples of human solidarity may be, the refugee crisis exposes the institutional unpreparedness and some of the underlying cracks in German as well as broader European societies. If the European Union does not find an appropriate and unified response to the crisis, it could threaten the Union’s political future.

The refugee situation has stirred nationalistic and outright xenophobic sentiments throughout Germany, a country still very mindful of its past. Since the summer, asylum homes in Bavaria and near Frankfurt (both are among the richest regions in Germany and the world) were set ablaze. Nationalists have become more vocal to their opposition to the refugees. In the winter, the xenophobic and Islamophobic PEGIDA party held weekly protests calling for the restriction of Muslim immigration in Germany. Last month, a mayoral candidate in the western city of Cologne was stabbed in her neck for her liberal position towards the refugees.

The rise of nationalism in both Germany and the rest of Europe is the single most troubling outcome of the refugee crisis for the Old Continent because it threatens its unity. The significance of the immigration issue dwarfs the Euro debt crisis and the much-discussed Grexit. Indeed, it is the primary existential threat to the European Union.

The refugees will likely have a negligible effect on Germany and the economies of other developed countries. Some even argue that the refugees who are often younger and well educated will bring a breath of fresh air to aging and stagnating economies and held fund rather than overwhelm the welfare system.

The rise of nationalistic rhetoric, however, is fueling the sense of disunion. PEGIDA and its ideology is not unique to Germany. Incarnations of the movement have sprung up in France, Scandinavia, Central, and Southern Europe. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has become the informal leader of the anti-refugee sentiment.

In September, Hungary finished building a wall along its border with Serbia, and earlier this year Bulgaria built one with Turkey in an attempt to stop the flood of refugees. Chancellor Merkel did the unthinkable by reversing her commitment to open borders by announcing restitution of border controls to the south of the country following immense political pressure to curb the “scramble for Germany.”

By attacking immigration and the freedom of movement, nationalism imperils the very essence of the European project. Open borders have been the “sacred cow” of the European Union. By building walls and reinstating internal border controls, European leaders are weakening the spirit of free movement and their commitment to the unified future of Europe.

The debt crisis shook the public trust in the effectiveness of E.U. institutions, casting a shadow over the future of the union. To resolve it, Berlin was able to strong-arm the rest of Europe to follow a uniform strategy that may just have narrowly averted the full-on collapse of the union.

Whether there is enough political will remaining in Europe to avoid this happening during the ongoing refugee crisis remains to be seen. The current policy in place is ineffective and fuels discontentment and nationalist rhetoric. The Dublin Regulation, as it is known, dictates that the asylum seekers are the responsibility of the country where they first register. The policy puts tremendous pressure on transit countries, especially to the south, like Italy and Greece.  Currently, E.U. ministers are discussing a new strategy that hopefully will better address the refugee situation.

The thousands of immigrants pouring into Europe have stirred up a panic across the continent. That panic is widening the fault lines between E.U. member states and putting the entire European project in question. Unilateral actions are ineffective and only exacerbate the crisis. To preserve the Union, E.U. leaders must devise a comprehensive strategy.

There will be no easy answers: many European countries are already struggling to keep their own populations employed. Even in Germany, where the economy is strong, asylum-seekers are overwhelming the country’s infrastructure and putting the German government’s commitment to open borders in question. At the same time, the stagnating European economies may well benefit from a population burst. And Hungary’s refusal to care for the refugees is both inhumane and counterproductive to the crisis response.

Whatever the union’s response, it must be humane and realistic in equal measure. If it is to secure the future of the European Union itself, it must distribute the burden of accepting refugees fairly across member states. But if it is to secure the identity and integrity of Europe – as a coalition of nations resolutely committed to upholding the rights and dignity of human beings — it must not give in to the temptation to callously ignore the humanitarian needs of those who arrive on its shores seeking a new life.

Witnessing the refugee crisis from Germany, I’m again reminded of the Berlin Airlift. Politically disenfranchised, seemingly forgotten, and torn by war, West Berliners shared a similar fate with the Syrian refugees today. However, instead of becoming an afterthought, the Allies stood unified against the Soviet Union and pulled a miracle at Tempelhof airport by flying in 2,326,406 tons worth of humanitarian aid for 15 months straight, preventing the communists from annexing that half of Berlin. This strategy paid off at the end. Through a consolidated strategy combined with acts of solidarity and kindness, we can repeat the miracle at Tempelhof.

Edited by Margaret Fox

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