Central Europe has to open its mind to migrants. #whatarewewaitingfor

Central Europe’s track record in making Europe part of the solution to the migrant tragedies is pitiful. While a number of scholars, activists and journalists are screaming ‘wake up,’ officials are simply suggesting that any talk of humanism in this case is just plain naiveté. If “EU values” mean anything, we need to get over this cynicism and once again bring down the wall.

Photo: Bundesarchiv


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After yet another boat drowned on Europe’s shore, Donald Tusk, the president of the EU Council tweeted: “We cannot solve the problem today. Europe is not the cause of the problem: its real causes are war, instability & poverty.” 1

But Europe is no stranger to the “war, instability and poverty” in the regions from which people are presently escaping. No, it’s not only because of Europe’s colonial legacy, but also because of practices in place at this very moment. Europeans deserve to have a more honest debate on what is it that went wrong in their countries’ policies towards the South – for example, why their aid money pales in comparison to money that “escapes” from Africa, or why structural adjustment delivered dubious results by undermining the states’ ability to provide basic services and the citizens’ opportunity to have their voices heard. 2

Europe does not have to “fix the whole world”; however, it should face the consequences partly of its own making. Changing its approach towards migrants is no “white man’s burden,” as it is sometimes cynically suggested in conference rooms even today. It is the burden of integrity.

Yet, rather than reversing the consequences of neoliberal policies, the EU has been trying to “manage” the inflow of immigrants via a number of security operations. In fact, “security” has been gaining prominence in the EU’s partnership with the Middle East and North Africa in the last years, and yet, this approach did not make us more “secure”.

Today it is very convenient to suggest that all these people are coming here only because smugglers are lying to them, and have made this a good business; that once we catch the smugglers, or deter migrants by underfunding rescue operations, all will be fine. It will not. The approach based mainly on security policies has not even dealt with the symptoms, let alone the causes.

A less convenient, but certainly more workable solution is to have a more sincere debate on why so many people are willing to risk everything they have and embark on a journey that can potentially cost them their lives. Let’s for example think about why the EU founders early on in the Schuman Declaration, a crucial document of European integration, committed to “the development of the African continent.” 3

For many Europeans worried about the dangers coming from the South, it might actually be reassuring to discover that this is not about war between “migrants” and “Europeans.” The majority of us are in the same boat: who wants to be driven from their homes? Who wants to be an unwelcome guest in another country?

Yet, while the debate is essential, it might take a while. In the short-term, we need to open our doors and show more solidarity. The current call is not for Germany or Sweden, countries that so far have led the way in receiving refugees. The call is for the laggards – yes, the Eastern and Central Europeans.

There is no excuse for Central European ignorance

The Czechs, the Hungarians, the Slovaks and the Poles cannot pretend that this is something far away that does not concern them, and is not of their own making. They are proudly carrying their EU badges and they should take responsibility. The demonstration of responsibility has to go beyond supporting and funding security operations. Opening the door to migrants in the short term is a necessary first step. And no one is suggesting that tomorrow, millions will come.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, the V4 governments committed their “support for transformation processes in the region.” 4 Unfortunately, this commitment materialized mainly in the funding of a few NGO-led projects; it seems the governments were more interested in spreading PR for the “V4 brand,” reminding the world of the success of their ’89 revolutions, than in coming up with any real change. 5

The public authorities have invested a negligible amount of energy into trying to understand what moves the politics in EU’s southern neighborhood. Thus, it should come as no surprise that they are not offering many solutions.

A number of activists and authors have brought testimonies, produced research, organized debates. They are always on the lookout for creative, appealing and impactful ways of getting their message across. And they are often desperately asking “how much more evidence do we need to bring?”

Their calls are often dismissed as lacking political realism or are mocked outright as a hippie naiveté. And sometimes it is said that those NGOs and journalists are just talking. But what else should they do? Isn’t it their job to talk and keep power-holders accountable? Isn’t “strong civil society” something CEE wanted after 1989? Isn’t strong civil society something CEE politicians often highlight in their speeches and proudly present to their counterparts as one of CEE’s biggest successes?

Newspaper articles and Facebook status updates can mobilize support, but they are unlikely to change policy. Only elected representatives can do that. After all, in a democracy they have been entrusted with the power and responsibility to act in the best interests of voters.

In the next few days, the V4Revue will deliver articles about how Czechs, Hungarians, Slovaks and Poles have coped with migration in the past two decades. It does not make for happy reading – a look at how few people we have actually allowed in since the revolution is sad. It seems that the tragedy of Central Europe today is both its continued wallowing in the narratives of victimhood, and its expectation that while others should help us, we owe nothing in return – this, in a region from which many fled Nazi and Communist persecutions.

The most troublesome is our reluctance to perceive migration as something than can enrich our societies. Not even simple pragmatic observations have made it into migration talks in CEE: that is, the fact that migrants create jobs. In the end, much of the money spent so far at home for various services for asylum seekers has not actually ended up in their “pockets,” so to speak. The asylum seekers need language teachers, translators, social workers etc. Doesn’t this mean something every elected politician strives to provide – jobs?

Europe has to act, and hopefully it will. A number of things changed in the weeks since the Tweet quoted earlier – tomorrow the European Commission will propose more intra-EU solidarity in opening doors to migrants. 6 The Central/Eastern European leaders are now writing history. Their response to the urgent question of the day will make their voters proud, or humiliated. What will we celebrate in fifty years? The anniversary of the moment when the EU did not adopt a joint policy because of a Central/Eastern European veto? Or the anniversary of the moment when the EU adopted a joint policy, but against the Easterners’ will? Or the anniversary of the moment when they caught the train last minute and humbly embarked on a more responsible Europeanness?

Notes:

  1. @eucopresident 23.4.2015 – https://twitter.com/eucopresident 
  2. See e.g.: Abrahamsen, Rita. Disciplining Democracy. London: Zed Books, 2000. Mosselmans, Isabella, Tax evasion: the main cause of global poverty; Owens, Jeffrey and Parry, Richard. Why Tax Matters for Development. OECD Observer,  No 273 June 2009; Anderson, Mark, Africa Losing Billions from Fraud and Tax Avoidance, The Guardian 2.2.2015; Kar, Dev and Spanjers, Joseph. Illicit Financial Flows from Developing Countries 2003 – 2012. Global Financial Integrity, 2014; High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows from Africa, Report of the High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows from Africa.
  3. Schuman declaration
  4. Common Declaration of Germany and the Visegrad Group on EU Southern Neighborhood Policy, 2011. 
  5. Already in 2012 the hopes were rather low – Lost Illusions or new Hopes – Central Europe and the Arab Spring. 
  6. Traynor, Ian. Immigration to Become More Poisonous Issue as EU Backs Quota System, The Guardian, May 11, 2015.
Lucia Najšlová

Lucia Najšlová

is the editor in chief of the V4 Revue. She is a lecturer at the Charles University in Prague and at UPCES CERGE-EI and associate fellow at the IIR in Prague.