Aleko Stoyanov analyses perceptions of the refugee crisis across Eastern Europe and the resulting East-West political schism on the issue of migration
United in Diversity is the official motto of the European Union. It unites various historical backgrounds, peoples, languages and cultures, with the shared aim of building a stronger and unified Europe. The recent migrant crisis has fundamentally challenged the application of the EU slogan, however. The latest debates concerning the EU’s best approach on the issue reveal cyclical disagreement across its member-states, aggravating the existing East-West divide in Europe.
The plan of the European Commission, chiefly supported by France and Germany, to impose mandatory quotas for allocation of 160,000 migrants across EU member states encountered considerable opposition from the Central and Eastern European countries. The Visegrad group, namely Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and the Baltic States – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia openly refused to accept the imposition of quotas. Bulgaria and Romania considered an intake of migrants potentially related to accession to the Schengen zone. From a geopolitical perspective, the migrant crisis is drawing new division lines in Europe.
The rift between the East and West in Europe was highlighted through a statement made by the German chancellor, who declared that all Syrian asylum-seekers are to be given free passage through German borders. Effectively, the decision has led to waves of migrants whose final destination, (and in some instances a transitory one as some migrants intended to reach Sweden) failed to target ‘safe countries’ such as Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary or even Austria. Hence Berlin practically suspended the Dublin protocol, stipulating that asylum-seekers should be registered in the first EU country they enter. The consequence is that migrants will keep settling down around the borders of Serbia, Hungary and Croatia, with the hope of being granted passage into Germany. Despite the federal republic’s intention to relieve southern countries such as Italy and Greece from the economic burden of migration, Germany’s intake of asylum seekers may, in fact, worsen the existing crisis.
Firstly, opening up German borders is likely to incentivise migrants from poor and problem-ridden regions to embark on an expensive and dangerous route to Europe. Secondly, precedent of human trafficking on Turkish shores is indicative of a link between migration and the human trafficking industry. Finally, a substantial amount of human and financial resources will be required to maintain the intake of immigrants.
Early predictions showed that the German budget will operate on the basis of a surplus of 5 billion euro, figure which will be allocated towards covering the 6 billion euro, set aside by Berlin as expenditure on migrants (according to some estimations the Federal Republic will receive some 800 000 migrants this year). However, as a result of the higher influx the German government now expects up to 1.5 million asylum seekers while another study suggests that the financial costs to Berlin may reach 25 billion euro.
The move strained the relations between Germany and its Eastern neighbours too. The decision to opening up German borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants triggered a domino effect, whereby other EU member states have to abide by immigration quotas, on a mandatory basis. A recent example of foreign policy strains is reflected in the Hungarian Prime Minister, Victor Orban, calling the crisis a German problem. Though media outlets already wrote about lack of empathy in Eastern Europeans, they misunderstand the backbone of their governments’ decisions. It is an imposition of a mandatory quota, which Eastern European countries cannot support financially, nor wish to subscribe to. An insight into Lithuania reveals a scenario, whereby officials contend that the European Commission’s plan is faulty and fails to envisage final numbers of refugees. According to the Lithuanian government, the European plan lacks financial precision and fails to take into account further steps for preventing a migrant crisis.
Widespread perceptions of the migrant crisis should be considered in the context of the East-West divide. New member-states have undergone a complex web of social, economic and political reforms, before joining the EU. This was achieved at a time when restrictions related to travelling, studying, working and living in the prosperous Western European countries applied. Following the A10 countries’ integration into the EU, former member-states restricted their job markets for workers originating from Eastern Europe. Such discriminatory policies raise issues of stigmatization and inferiority for A10 country immigrants, based in Western Europe. Once the largest European economy opens its doors up to people from radically different religious and cultural backgrounds, who sporadically cross national borders without documentation, this is likely to cause antagonism within the Eastern European region. Statements such as Angela Merkel’s fuel the discontent with the migrant crisis, whereby migrants are basically granted status, as future German citizens.Eastern Europeans hence think of migrants as economically determined agents, incentivised by the welfare systems of Western European countries.
Presently, there is a lack of a concrete decision-making mechanism in the EU on resolving the migrant crisis. The German “open door” policy can potentially trigger an influx of migrants, rushing to settle on German territory, before the change of policy takes place.
The European Commission has drafted a piecemeal proposal, including a common return handbook for migrants and potential solutions for the military conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Scattering refugees among member states temporarily treats the symptoms, instead of addressing the root of the matter. A step in the right direction might be the envisaged Trust Fund for Africa, which hopes to address the issue of irregular migration flows in Sahel and other regions in Africa. With an allocated budget of 1.8 billion euro, the Fund can operate until the end of 2020 and will be entirely managed by the Commission.
The Visegrad Group proposal includes more consistent measures – namely strengthening the EU’s external border control, aiding vulnerable groups, providing financial and material assistance to countries with significant refugee populations (e.g. Turkey, Jordan, Iraq/Kurdistan, Lebanon, including refugee camps and the transit countries of the Western Balkans). In addition, the Visegrad Group has highlighted the need for political, military and humanitarian support for the international coalition fighting Da’esh. The Group is adamant that EU member states’ adherence to the Asylum Acquis is detrimental to the refugee crisis: ”any proposal leading to introduction of mandatory and permanent quota for solidarity measures would be unacceptable.”
The decision of the Justice and Home Affairs Council in late September to relocate 160 000 refugees, adding some 120 000 to the previously agreed number of 40 000 people has been a step forward in resolving the crisis. However, the strong opposition from several EU countries – the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania who voted against the decision underlined once again the growing division lines between Eastern and Western Europe.
* According to the UN definition a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” While migrants are people who make a deliberate choice to leave their home and look for better prospects to another place – city or country, refugees, “…have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom”. Hence, refugees and migrants are treated under different regulations. While the first ones are protected by the UN Refugee Convention and enjoy certain rights, the second group of people is a subject to the immigration laws of the recipient country.
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Joint Statement of the Heads of Government of the Visegrad Group Countries, Prague, 4 September 2015,
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 Joint Statement of the Heads of Government of the Visegrad Group Countries, Prague, 4 September 2015,