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Why the rift between Eastern and Western Europe on the refugee crisis?

Gérard Roland, E. Morris Cox professor of economics and professor of political science | September 9, 2015

It has been hard not to notice in recent days the difference in attitude between European Union member states on solidarity towards the refugees crisis in Europe. Germany and Sweden have decided to show solidarity. Demonstrations in various European countries have shown a welcoming attitude towards the refugees from war zones in Syria and elsewhere. Even David Cameron is changing his view, because British voters show empathy towards the plight of the refugees.

This strongly contrasts with attitudes in Eastern Europe. Viktor Orban, the shameful Hungarian Prime Minister, is boasting of building a wall to let refugees out. Richard Fico, the Slovak Prime Minster, claims refugees are in fact nearly all economic immigrants seeking a better life in Europe. Central European leaders are quite opposed to EU countries receiving  quotas to share the burden of taking care of refugees.

How do we explain this attitude between “old” Europe  and “new Europe,” i.e. Western and Eastern Europe?

Western European countries have the historical memory of nazism and big exodes of population in the beginning or end of the war, and they can relate to it. Since nazism, anti-racism has been part of the core values of EU countries, with the exception of the extreme right that is being vilified for not adhering to those values. Eastern European countries suffered even more from nazism with the extermination of Jews, gypsies and millions and millions of civilians from what Snyder calls the “Bloodlands.” The nazi trauma was replaced right away by the communist experience and decades of Soviet oppression.

After the collapse of communism, two distinct political currents have emerged with different interpretations of the recent history. On one hand, there is a democratic current that aspired to introduce democratic institutions and to be freed from the shackles of Soviet oppression and become a modern nation respecting human rights, democracy and the rule of law. On the other hand, there is a strong nationalist current that saw the breakup of communism as an opportunity for national reawakening. This nationalist movement aspires to ethnic homogeneity within the national boundaries so that the national culture and the national community may prosper.

This form of nationalism is not bellicist, but strongly believes in the defense of the national community. It is not opposed to democracy, but views it as a tool for the nation to bloom, not as a goal in itself. On the other hand, this form of nationalism is strongly intolerant to national minorities. People are not ashamed of being racist towards the gypsies. The latter are seen as obstacles to the nation’s development. The attitude towards refugees is the same. They are seen as a threat by nationalists.

We do not realize enough that nationalist forces of this kind in Eastern Europe are much more powerful than in Western Europe. They do not suffer from the stigma of the extreme-right in Western Europe associated to nazism and collaboration with the nazis. These nationalists were anti-Soviet during the cold war, but for different reasons than the democratic dissidents. In the recent Maidan revolution in Ukraine, for example, rightist nationalists fought side by side with the democrats and are allied in the fight to preserve Ukrainian independence from Russian aggression.

Why did the nationalists in Eastern Europe support European integration? Because EU integration represented a promotion for their nation, from the status of satellite country of the USSR to member of a first world club. This does not mean that they shared all the European values to the same extent.

It is true that a fight is now taking place inside the European polity for what constitute the hardcore European values. This fight cannot be avoided, but it is an opportunity to strengthen the core values of Europe; it is a fight for what constitutes the heart of European identity. The same kind of nationalism exists in all European countries, and the challenges of integrating large groups of refugees should not be underestimated. How well we manage this challenge, and how broadly a debate takes place around these values will determine the fate of Europe. Nationalism should not be suppressed, but its expression should only take place in an atmosphere of tolerance of other cultures and nations, in an atmosphere of solidarity with the victims of war and all sorts of catastrophes, in an atmosphere of respect and learning from other cultures.

I am glad and proud that Angela Merkel has started to speak out exactly in this sense. I hope many others will follow her lead.

Comments to “Why the rift between Eastern and Western Europe on the refugee crisis?

  1. This has nothing to do with $ – only Westerners think like that because that is all they understand. Our countries are for us and our children – not foreigners. The EU is a failure and must die – the sooner the better.

  2. This goes back much farther than World War II and the Cold War. Southeastern European countries fought back invasions by the Ottoman empire for hundreds of years. Eastern Europeans tend to remember the past longer and more vividly than western Europeans.

    • (please don’t take this as sarcastic) what are some sources on this topic? I am developing research on integration and community mental health interventions and am trying to gain some historic insight.

  3. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European commission, has called for:

    “The relocation would be done according to a mandatory distribution key using objective and quantifiable criteria (40% of the size of the population, 40% of the GDP, 10% of the average number of past asylum applications, 10% of the unemployment rate).”


    “The European Union is a leading donor in the response to the Syria crisis with over €3.9 billion of total budget mobilised by the Commission and Member States collectively in humanitarian, development, economic and stabilisation assistance since the beginning of the crisis.”

    And the EU is threatening to cut off aid to members who refuse to take migrants.

    And so clearly money is a significant factor….apparently a translation problem exists between my post(s) that money is a significant factor in the European refugee crisis and Supatra’s ad hominem “using the same excuse Dave is promoting.”
    Religion is also a factor, as are the conflicting reports as to whether Muslim nations are rejecting Syrian refugees.
    The immensity of the damage done in Syria by the fanatical “religious” hate group ISIS and the highly questionable roles being played by Iran and Russia to prop up the abysmal Assad are also a factor.
    Another factor is that the European countries that welcome refugees would benefit from an increase in diversity.
    Apparently German soccer players are wearing symbols that support accepting/helping refugees.
    Certainly this complex topic would benefit from nonfingerpointing, reasoned blog posts by Cal professors.

  4. Hungary and Slovakia may be less wealthy than Germany and UK, but they are by no means “poor” compared to most countries in the world. Greece, a country at the brink of bankruptcy, has not built walls. Much poorer Rwanda has been receiving refugees from the war-torn socialist Democratic Republic of Congo for decades. Thailand and Malaysia has received millions of refugees from repressive regimes of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, after the communists took power, and more recently from Mianmar. Once in a while, Thailand pushed the refugees back to sea to perish, using the same excuse Dave is promoting.

    Western social scientists should be culturally sensitive. But it goes too far to always jump to defend non-western governments for their practices of intolerance, bigotry, and cruelty. Buying in to the ruling class’s excuse is not cultural competency, but instead a condoning of their oppression of the people. Instead we should press for increasing tolerance and generosity from non-western governments, as we do western governments, while agreeing to share the burden in proportion to the means, as we have always done in refugee crisis.

  5. A huge rift in gdp per capita exists between Eastern and Western European countries and should be included in any social science evaluation of the refugee issue … because attitudes are often a reflection of one’s relative and actual financial well being.

    Hungary ($24k per capita) and Slovakia ($28k per capita) are in much tighter financial situations than Germany ($46k per capita) and the UK ($39k per capita) … which would significantly characterize their differing attitudes towards refugees.

    Blaming relatively poor people is a nonproductive, polarizing game.

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