Europe barely survived the debt crisis and the near sovereign default in Greece when the next issue has now been thrust upon central authorities. The deluge of refugees arriving from the Middle East and North Africa is threatening to undo what has taken a generation or two to achieve. Analysts are already questioning if European Union institutions are sturdy enough to confront what is proving to be the largest movement of people in Europe, since the Balkan crisis in the 1990’s.
There are two immediate issues that need to be confronted in dealing with the migrants. Where to settle the refugees who have already arrived on European shores and how to forestall the millions who will come in the months ahead? The idea that you can allow large groups of people to be huddled next to hastily installed barriers to prevent their movement, is totally nonsensical. It is a problem that will need to be resolved, as winter weather fast approaches.
The immediate question is how to distribute the exiles who are to be found in several border area bottlenecks, that have been created. European nations who have just recently emerged from a debt crisis, may well feel that absorbing arrivals coming from the east and south, is not affordable at this time. Ireland, Portugal and Spain are all in this category. One could include Greece and maybe even Italy in this hesitation, but the refugees are already there in large numbers.
Political leaders from Eastern Europe have been quite vocal in expressing their reservations in taking in large numbers of people. They base this assessment on two major points. The first is that the individual economies in the region are not vibrant enough, to provide the resources necessary to accomplish the task. It is expensive to take in large numbers of people, over a relatively short period of time.
The second factor is how to assimilate people who are quite different from local residents. Unlike Western Europe which on the whole has large minorities of people from outside the region, the eastern portion of the continent has not dealt with this issue much since the aftermath of World War II. In fact there has been a net migration out of the area, as young people move west looking for better economic opportunities.
Eastern Europe would actually benefit economically, if there was immigration to the area. There is going to be a skilled labor shortage in the region, as the population ages rapidly. The problem is the new arrivals will be harder to assimilate and are coming in larger numbers than can easily be accommodated.
The open borders of the European Union (EU) as a result of the Schengen agreement, would allow the newcomers the ability to easily move for better prospects further west. That is part of the problem with the suggestion that the rush of immigrants, should be dispersed throughout the continent. How do you get them to stay, when they would prefer to move further west or north?
The end of the summer rush of refugees, simply arrived in numbers too large to be accommodated by the traditional laws enacted by the European Union to deal with such matters. The official early welcome that Germany made in late August and early September was soon reversed. German Chancellor Angela Merkel who had previously advertised that the country would somehow manage, found out that there were numerous voices in her own government that thought otherwise.
On September 13th, Germany reimposed controls along the common border with Austria. This immediately escalated the crisis because Hungary was allowing the refugees access through their country, only as long as Germany was willing to accept them on the other end.
Once this was no longer true, the Hungarians soon constructed a barrier and began to patrol their common border with Serbia. As the migrants move east to Romania and west to Croatia (not yet part of the Schengen Agreement) in an effort to get around the bottleneck, the Hungarians threatened to extend the new hastily constructed wire fencing.
Austria, Slovakia and the Netherlands soon followed suit in reimposing border control. As members of the Schengen Agreement, these nations insisted that the new measures were temporary and therefore perfectly legal. However, it is creating a domino effect as more nations in Europe are feeling threatened with the mostly open border policy. It puts additional strain on those countries on the outside periphery where the migrants have already occupied.
The earlier announcement by Germany that the country would accept up to 800,000 refugees was now insisting there had to be a European summit to come up with a fair way to distribute the new arrivals.
The German government may of felt forced to do this once it became clear that not only was Germany the main destination of the migrants, but there were regions inside the country itself, that were becoming resistant to the idea of accommodating the huge influx.
By the middle of September, there was an effort to come up with a quota system that would force member nations to accept a certain number of refugees. The reaction of protest was most vociferous from the officials representing countries from Eastern Europe.
The threat made by the German interior minister that EU subsidies should be cut off to those countries that refuse to accept refugees, has only heightened the sense of crisis.
Another measure Germany could well adopt, is to extend border controls from Austria north to the Czech Republic and Poland. This would force the registration of refugee applicants to the border areas creating new choke points. This would have a detrimental effect on the free movement of goods, services and people on these common borders. It would end up being a major economic blow to the nations of Eastern Europe.
Such actions by Germany would also signal the reversal of ever closer cooperation and integration of individual member states. It is unlikely that dramatic moves on this level,could be isolated from the overall political relationship among the various countries inside the European Union. It could easily spill over into other spheres of interest, as nations resort to more nationalistic tendencies.
There is a rising chorus both inside and outside of Germany, that the earlier welcome made by the government has actually made the situation worse. The warm reception that was granted to the first round of refugees that were allowed to come from Hungary to Germany, only encouraged more to begin the trek towards Europe. The first welcoming of the German people with flowers and sweets in hand, was no doubt translated back to their original homelands.
Chancellor Merkel who has just emerged from the debt crisis mostly unscathed at home, finds her political alliance with the Bavarian based Christian Social Union somewhat frayed. It is likely to only get worse as the refugee situation escalates. The normally cautious Merkel has made herself both a champion of the exiles and a lightning rod for the opposition.
The political resistance that has seen the rise of further European integration, as a threat to individual national sovereignty are already celebrating the dilemma faced by Mrs. Merkel and those who follow her lead. The anti-union National Front in France and the UK Independence Party are already predicting the permanent end to Schengen and further European integration.
Nationalist parties in a number of countries in Eastern Europe are echoing the sentiment. The stress that will be placed on individual nations in assimilating large numbers of refugees, will only add credibility to these voices.
Anti immigrant parties are gaining political traction in the present circumstances. This is most evident in the nations of Denmark, France, Greece, the Netherlands and Sweden. A number of countries like Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia do not wish to become multicultural societies like France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
The large number of immigrants that will be arriving and the urgency that it will place on the central authority of the European Union as well as individual national governments, cannot be under estimated. It will soon create a political juncture that will bring about the fall of a number of governments much like what had previously occurred during the sovereign debt crisis.
The arrival of 3 million refugees to European shores at the latest estimate, will put an undue burden on those nations that form the outside boundary of the Union. Under current immigration rules, migrants must apply for asylum in the first country that they land in.
Often these are the very nations least able to process and provide them temporary accommodations. Plus many of the migrants do not wish to remain there, but would prefer to move to the richer and more inviting core area of Europe.
Assimilation of these new arrivals will not be easy and will be far more difficult in nations that are culturally more uniform. Poland for example, is 98% white and 94% Roman Catholic. Slovakia has already publicly stated that if they are to accept any refugees at all, they must be Christian in faith. It is a sentiment share by many across the continent.
One thing is certain in the present growing crisis, it will be difficult for the EU to deal with this latest human catastrophe, without creating a political backlash among indigenous populations in many countries in Europe. The increasing desperation of the migrants and the response to it, ensures the spread of disorder and violence in a number of border areas. There is also a growing fear that terrorists are embedded among the new arrivals. The question on many minds is will the European Union survive the rapid settlement and assimilation of so many ethically and religious diverse newcomers, in the months and years ahead?