Protesters in Berlin; translated, the sign reads "Refugees warmly welcome." Photo courtesy Montecruz Foto.
The superstructure of an integrated Europe has survived the Iron Curtain’s fall, the euro’s ups and downs, two Gulf wars and Russia’s annexation of neighboring Crimea. But will it collapse over the fundamental question of who gets to be considered European, and who gets to decide?
It appears that it could happen. And it very well might.
The tsunami of migrants fleeing extremism, despotism and economic chaos from North Africa to Afghanistan may be more than the European Union and its closely aligned neighbors can withstand. Already, one of its greatest and most visible successes - the checkpoint-free movement of goods and people across a 28-nation area spanning most of the continent - has been compromised, with asylum-seekers confined by the thousands in camps as they await processing. Meanwhile, countries on the periphery are deploying troops and razor wire to keep migrants out, even as nations in the heart of the zone seek to welcome them inside.
Consider the contrast between Greece and Germany. The German vice-chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, said last week that Germany could handle as many as 500,000 refugees each year for “several years.” He also emphasized that other European countries must also accept “their fair share” of the influx of migrants fleeing the Middle East and North Africa.
Greece, on the other hand, is struggling to cope with the tens of thousands of refugees who have already arrived. This should not surprise anyone given the country’s geography and, more importantly, its economy, which has suffered such a brutal, protracted recession. Germany, in fact, led the charge in discussions of a “Grexit” from the common currency not long ago. Greece simply does not have the resources to handle a massive influx of people even poorer and more desperate than its own citizens.
The situation is Greece helped trigger the suspension of the Dublin Regulation, the rule that says refugees should seek asylum in the first EU country they enter. The German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees said as of late August that it would suspend adherence to the rule where Syrians are concerned. Germany has no alternative, if it plans to offer asylum to half a million refugees, considering that almost none of those refugees would have travelled from Middle Eastern or North African countries directly to Germany. (According to NPR, Syrians account for just over half of the migrants who have reached Europe in 2015.) Because the Dublin rule has a “sovereignty clause,” EU member states are allowed to take more asylum seekers than the regulation requires if they choose; for a while, Germany was the only one volunteering.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker last week proposed a plan in which most EU countries, with the exception of the United Kingdom, Demark and Ireland, would be required to take in a collective total of 160,000 of the refugees who have arrived in common EU points of entry like Greece. Though this number is still below Germany’s avowed target, the relatively modest plan has garnered that country’s support, along with support from France, Spain and Italy. The plan will need a qualified majority of EU governments to approve it to move forward.
Presumably, Germany will continue to invite asylum-seekers regardless, especially as the initial German reaction to the plan was that it is not big enough. Even Germany is evidently struggling under the volume of refugees entering its borders. On Sunday, Germany temporarily suspended train service across the Austrian border; limited service resumed this morning. And Germany has instituted border patrols in an effort to slow the pace of arrivals, in an effort to prevent its infrastructure from collapsing under overwhelming demand.
Germany’s generosity, like its ample if not infinite resources, are not widely shared among its EU partners, yet Germany’s decision to accept vast numbers of refugees and other migrants has considerable effect far beyond its borders.
If a person is granted asylum status in Germany, he or she receives a temporary residence permit and entitlements to social welfare and other forms of integration assistance. After three months, the beneficiary can look for work, subject to various restrictions. While Germany’s citizenship process is lengthy, usually requiring a minimum of eight years of residency once asylum is granted, the odds that Syria (or Iraq or Afghanistan) will be deemed stable and safe any time soon are vanishingly slight. Those lucky enough to get a permanent residence permit in Germany are likely to stay put.
In the long term, this could mean that countries like Hungary that have been vocal about wanting to cap the number of migrants arriving in their borders will suddenly face those same people, only now with access to the EU’s borderless zone, in which those with license to live and work in one country are able to travel to, live in and, often, work in any of the others.
Even countries whose governments support the EU’s plan face major internal dissent. In France, far-right leader Marine Le Pen accused Germany of trying to depress wages and to hire “slaves” by encouraging mass immigration. While Le Pen’s party doesn’t hold power at the moment, and President Francois Hollande has backed German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the migrant crisis, a sizeable portion of the French population remains opposed to relaxing immigration rules, according to recent polls.
Denmark’s center-right government, which came into office in June, has already placed restrictions on the right to residency. Like the U.K. and Ireland, Denmark can choose to take part in the EU plan for redistributing refugees, but is not required to do so. Given the current state of its politics, that participation seems unlikely. And Denmark serves as the main route between migrant-friendly territory in Germany and Sweden, which is likely to cause ongoing tension. Britain’s David Cameron, too, has already been vocally critical of Germany.
So who gets to be European? The entire European experiment seems to presume that this question is immaterial, or of so little import that it could be safely left to each national government. But it turns out that this is not true. A continent that needs new blood, but which has not evolved a truly common culture or set of priorities, is producing a fragmented and incoherent response to this basic and crucial question. In the end, Germany and Sweden can control who is considered German or Swedish, but they can go no further without a consensus that does not exist - one which may not arrive in time to save the EU from its own diverging impulses.
Europe’s foundations were built across cultural fissures that are rapidly widening, rather than closing. If not reversed soon, these cracks may bring down the entire structure.