With Paris attacks, Europe’s identity crisis deepens

World media attempted to put a human face on refugees, but now, with recent terror attacks, ISIL is pitting ‘foreigners’ against Europeans. Can the EU emerge from this united?  

By: /
November 18, 2015
A child looks at a map of Europe inside a make-shift tent at a refugee camp close to a registration centre on the Greek island of Lesbos, Nov. 18, 2015. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

The greatest migration crisis since World War II is testing the European Union’s resiliency, some say its survivability. The civil war in Syria is only part of the problem. Even if Russia-U.S. talks finally do reach a mutual accommodation on whether Assad goes or stays, permitting a ceasefire in the civil war, the fight with ISIL that is generating huge numbers of refugees has no clear end in sight.

The staggering number of displaced people in the world – 60 million – is the greatest since the end of World War II. Irene Nemirovsky described in her wartime novel Suite Francaise how those fleeing Paris before the German army formed an “exodus disconnected from logic or reason,” “a migration that obeyed its own natural laws.” So it is for today’s great migration to Europe.

Refugees and economic migrants pour into Europe from war zones and from Africa because of the magnetic attraction of the EU economy, the generosity of its provisions, and because they can reach it. For about $2,500 each, refugees undertake voyages of terrible hardship and danger, breaching an EU front-line too extensive to control effectively, across the Mediterranean to Italy from Libya in perilous vessels (4,000 have died this past summer), or over land to the Turkish coast to Greece, and through Macedonia to central Europe. International efforts to smash the smugglers’ networks are stymied by the anarchy reigning in Libya and by ambivalence over the effectiveness and cost of robust protection of Europe’s coasts.

Once they reach the EU, their claims to asylum from life-threatening danger at home are weighed by EU member state authorities. Young male economic migrants who are increasingly denied entry are tenacious and to Europeans, curiously entitled in belief, their quest for lives in the EU represents a human right.

Syrian refugees drawn from 6 million displaced Syrians mostly residing in refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon now account for 40 percent of asylum seekers and over 80 percent are accepted. But the ability and willingness of Europeans to accept Syrian refugees may be undermined by last week’s horrific terrorist operation by Islamic State (ISIL) militants in Paris. Indication, probably fabricated by ISIL, that one of the killers had entered the EU among refugees, destabilizes Europeans (and even some Canadians) over the integrity of screening, and exacerbates civilizational antipathy to Islam, another ISIS goal. The terrorist connections into Paris from Belgium and Germany exposes “Europe without borders” as a security risk.

In Canada, critics fret over our ability to absorb 25,000 refugees in coming months. Chancellor Angela Merkel insists Germany can settle a million arrivals this year.

In Canada, critics fret over our ability to absorb 25,000 refugees in coming months. Chancellor Angela Merkel insists Germany can settle a million arrivals this year. Just in Hamburg, 400 refugees each day join 30,000 cramming the city’s 100 centres. A resident warns “The boat is full” while a resettlement official promises “We shall manage.”

Germany’s EU partners, reflecting a surge in nativist public pushback, are cautious and Eastern Europeans are increasingly hostile. In 2003, the dangerous Donald Rumsfeld brayed about how the “New Europe” of ex-Iron Curtain states distinguished itself by supporting the disastrous U.S.-UK invasion of Iraq, as opposed to “Old Europe” that had grave reservations about it. That manipulated division of the EU in two has now become a more vivid reality. The cleavage could corrode the whole European Project.

The 21st century has been rough on the Project. The “Europe, whole and free” that emerged in 1989 is fractious, stumbling, and in Ukraine, violent. Publics push back against the voluntarily pooling of sovereignty symbolized by the marquee achievements of a common currency, and a border-free common travel space under the Schengen Accord.

Is it all too much for the EU? Both crises, financial and refugee, have challenged the principle of solidarity that has been the leitmotif of the European project since its beginnings in the rubble of World War II.  

There is a contrary, less alarmist view, one that holds that crises are normal, even necessary, for the never-ending EU work-in-progress. The unprecedented political project seems to reel from crisis to crisis but actually emerges strengthened from each, institutions and dynamics adjusted to ever-changing political complexities of a 28-member union of half a billion disparate inhabitants.

For international media, the Greek debt crisis was a perfect storm of destructive collision on financial, behavioral, political, and even cultural levels that exposed fatal flaws in EU governance. Today, that crisis has subsided. The Greek economy has challenges but Spain, Portugal, and Italy have stabilized. Structural design in the management of the European monetary zone has been improved. The dialectical debate between austerity and Keynesian stimulus goes on, but not as a fatalistic discussion of the EU’s survival.

The new crisis over refugees that now saturates commentary and cable news across the world seems direr because it cuts to pre-existing existential issues of identity and community. While it combines the same conflict pitting national political sovereignty against deference to solidarity and common rules, it is considerably more combustible politically because it is a crisis about people rather than about process. The Paris outrage is a dramatization of an attack on the European way of life that conflates in the minds of European nativists with the influx of refugees. Media everywhere have been straining to put human faces on the refugees. But now, ISIL aims in a grotesque manipulation of reality to pit them against the human faces of murdered European sons and daughters.

At the end of the Second World War, tens of millions of people shifted. Some historically pluralist nation-states became ethnically homogeneous.

Germany acquired a massive vocation for refugee settlement. The German Constitution (the Grundgesetz) stipulates refugee acceptance, an obligation taken up by all European democracies in 1951 for asylum-seekers from Europe itself, and extended to refugees from elsewhere in 1962. (Turkey declined to do so.)

But re-integrating ethnic Germans as collateral outcome of a Germany-launched European war is a vastly less daunting challenge and intuitive responsibility than integrating very different people of other cultures and religions from distant wars and continents. The task is aggravated in countries that lost their vocation as pluralist societies. After the war, Poland and Czechoslovakia were each about 68 percent ethnically Polish or Czecho-Slovak. Today they are almost entirely Polish, Czech, and Slovak.

While German opinion has cooled under the flood of arrivals since, initial polling this summer showed 96 percent of Germans welcomed refugees in principle. Seventy one percent of Czechs opposed them.

Czech anxiety at being “overrun” seems imaginary as Muslims represent only 0.1 percent of the population. But in more immigration-experienced states as Holland and Denmark, people recoil at the notion that hard-won achievements such as gender equality and the separation of religion from public life can be jarred by newcomers with backward and alien beliefs who shroud women in black and hold for Sharia law.

It is ISIL’s purpose to invest that collision of values with vivid fear. ISIL wants further alienation of Europeans from the Muslims in their midst.

The rise of nativist, populist political parties predates this year’s refugee crisis and terrorism.

The rise of nativist, populist political parties predates this year’s refugee crisis and terrorism. Identity-based parties such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National, the Belgian Vlams Blok, the Pim Fortuyn list in Holland, the Danish Peoples’ Party, the True Finns, Austria’s Freedom Party, or UKIP have long claimed two central grievances: domination by a bureaucratic top-down Brussels machine; and being over-run by “others.” In reality, their political fuel is fear of change.  Many believe the EU expanded too far and fast. Economic downturn ushered in corrective austerity that has cut into publicly financed pension programs. New issues of religious clothing and separate cultural facilities rattled old cultural certainties. Jihadist terrorism added to the anxious mix.

Western Europeans tended to dismiss with distaste political leaders in Eastern and Central Europe who, in the style of Donald Trump, appeal to fear and ignorance about “others.”  Authoritarian Hungarian PM Viktor Orban warns “Europe’s Christian identity is under threat.” Promoting “illiberalism” over democratic liberalism, he challenges the inherent democratic vocation of the EU enlargement process. Attachment to the EU of new members from the former Warsaw Pact has frayed. The European family they longed to re-join imposed a process of diligent examination of their credentials for membership they found humiliating and is now mandating internal imperatives of unfamiliar pluralism.

Immigrant integration in EU countries that has generally not gone well now tops voters’ concerns for the first time in 42 years of Eurobarometer polling.

Newcomers are not “immigrants” in the meaning Canadians give to applicants from outside. We recruit potential new Canadians via a dual contract – they accept our society’s terms (the Charter of Rights) and we judge their ability to integrate economically and linguistically. Canada’s annual take of about 25,000 refugees a year acclimatize within a larger pool of 250,000 committed, qualified, or family-based selected entrants in a process that aims at integration. Newcomers are sourced from a dozen states and religions.

EU countries largely stopped recruitment immigration decades ago. Their unsought “immigrants” today are refugees with no prior dual contract, usually concentrated in two or three nationalities per destination. They band together in ghettos and can dominate school districts, inhibiting assimilation.

Alienation has been generations in the making.

Host governments have been slow to promote public visibility of different faces, whether minority police on the beat, or news anchors on TV. Alienation has been generations in the making. French kids from the “Algerian” high-rise ghettos beyond the Paris Boulevard peripherique are French kids, but don’t feel it. Their surroundings and mosques and French prisons are incubators for extremism.

Are elected leaders up to taking on populist adversaries at home?

The emergence of Germany as uncontested European leader is the decisive new EU development. A Merkel-led working circle including Hollande and PM Valls in France, Renzi in Italy, EU Council President Tusk of Poland, and Commission President Junckere drives policy response and program construction. Success will depend on their ability to sustain public confidence in the capacity to process and absorb asylum-seekers, while closing the borders to straightforward economic migrants, while keeping their cities safe.

As in Canada where the Harper government’s divisive attempts to pander to bias against “the other” created a counter-storm, constructive optimism can ring truer with people than radiating fear of a worse future ahead, though terrorism is a trump card that sets the process back.

Constructive optimism has always been the point of the European project, borne from a calamitous past that now is beyond most living memories. It has succeeded, crisis by crisis, in shoring up and fine-tuning the voluntary pooling of interdependent national sovereignties that is the political reality for Europeans.

Of course, major disputes and hurdles always loom, including the threat the historically ambivalent UK will withdraw altogether.

But the project has nourished over time shared reflexes of a contested but ultimately consensual political culture that is the everyday reality of governance in Europe. That there is no common identity among the EU’s historic nationalities is no weakness as long as there is an identity of view that at the end of the day EU members are in this together.

The refugee and terrorism crises in Europe are, of course, global. The G-20 meeting in Turkey brought together leaders from a dozen countries who know these issues well. The EU will have a much better chance to survive the refugee crisis in its midst if there is solid commitment from others, especially North Americans, to do their share.

An earlier version of this article, written before the attacks in Paris on Nov. 13, was published with Policy Magazine. It is the second part of a reflection on a Europe in crisis; the first entry can be read here.