How refugee crisis exposes flaws in EU fundamentals

A young migrant girl cries from the cold and rain as she and her mother make their way through Serbia heading toward a break in the steel and razor fence erected on the border by the Hungarian government.
A young migrant girl cries from the cold and rain as she and her mother make their way through Serbia heading toward a break in the steel and razor fence erected on the border by the Hungarian government. Getty Images

The ongoing refugee crisis poses the greatest threat yet to the European Union. This is due largely to the handful of Eastern European member-states that have rejected shouldering a proportionate or, indeed, any portion of the stream of refugees entering the EU from its southern borders.

The official justification for this refusal, as given by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, is that the Christian identity of Europe is in peril if a large influx of mostly Muslim refugees is allowed. The argument is both untrue and, almost certainly, tendered in bad faith. Europe is by now a thoroughly “neo-pagan” society. Church attendance (including in Hungary) is far below levels in the U.S., and most western Europeans as well as many central Europeans no longer profess themselves to be Christians in word or deed.

Orbán’s argument also flies in the face of the key Christian concept of charity and justice. It is ironic that those countries openly refusing to take in people fleeing their own collapsing civilization are the same countries facing some of the steepest demographic challenges. Poland and Hungary have been struggling with persistent population declines and could actually benefit from an infusion of mostly young people, many of them with solid educational background and eager to recover a measure of peace and collective prosperity.

Orbán’s shameful, disingenuous refusal of assistance also reflects economic anxieties on the part of some of the EU’s more recent member-states. And here his intransigence exposes a more fundamental flaw in the very idea of a European Union. Until now, the EU has overwhelmingly defined itself as an economic and monetary union, shaped by economic interests and a concern with stability and rule of law. It has done so almost to the exclusion of anything else.

As a result, the EU is poorly prepared to deal with a humanitarian crisis of the present sort for a response to the ongoing refugee crisis cannot be informed solely, perhaps not even primarily, by economic considerations. Rather, if it is to be a joint and meaningful response, EU-sponsored relief presupposes a robust moral consensus and a temporary sacrifice of economic advantages in the global marketplace, even a measure of financial risk.

At a practical level, the EU’s lack of shared moral commitments is compounded by the absence of a geo-political endgame. There simply is no reliable assessment of the full scope and duration of the ongoing refugee crisis. Consequently, whatever political responses are being proposed and perhaps adopted will almost certainly have to be continually adjusted as numbers and costs rise.

Few issues would seem to pose a greater threat to the EU’s fundamentally bureaucratic and risk-averse model of governance than a crisis whose urgency and reality can neither be contained nor predicted. The true challenge presented by the harrowed faces and wounded bodies of tens of thousands of people arriving at the borders of Serbia, Montenegro, Hungary, Austria and elsewhere is not to the EU’s ample means but to its faltering political vision and human compassion.

The crisis will almost certainly require some tangible sacrifice, be it in the projected growth of the GDP, of resources and forms of assistance to be distributed to a wider group of those in need, or of other comforts. Yet in the EU, and elsewhere, the idea of having “less” has been all but expunged from the social and political imagination.

Just days ago, German vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel confidently asserted that Germany can absorb 500,000 refugees a year for the foreseeable future. Somewhat less specific, Chancellor Angela Merkel offered her epigrammatic, “We’ll see this through” (Wir schaffen das). Particularly for Merkel, whose approach to governing has often been criticized for being overly cautious, these words constitute something of a transformation. Yet an analogous adjustment of political and material expectations will be required of every citizen in Germany and in the EU, if these statements are to be turned into actual practice.

Where, then, does this leave us? A mix of Realpolitik and vision is needed. The broader international community has to accept that simply resettling the majority population of entire countries within the EU is not a viable strategy. Temporary refuge, however, ought to be granted on the largest scale possible. Should the EU member-states fail to do so, it will end up looking morally and politically bankrupt, at which point it won’t matter much whether its leaders should manage to paper over the EU’s seemingly endless fiscal crises.

Thomas Pfau is a professor of English and Germanic Studies at Duke University.