Thinking Aloud: To Welcome or Not to Welcome?

Sept. 3, 2015 by Darius 

In Europe, a battle is playing out that could have ramifications for the continent for decades: how to respond to the huge flows of migrants crossing into Europe, fleeing conflicts and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. There are two main sides in Europe. These are on display in Hungary and Germany, respectively.

In Hungary, trains carrying migrants were stopped, leaving thousands of migrants stranded outside a railway station. Police initially refused to let migrants leave the trains, then kept them penned inside the station itself. Speaking to the media, Hungary’s right-wing populist prime minister, Viktor Orban, said that the nations of Europe have a duty to tell migrants not to come. Orban also dismissed the entire migrant issue as a “German problem,” since Germany, with its relatively strong economy, is the preferred destination for most migrants.

Germany, the actual destination for most migrants, is taking a far different approach. Despite the fact that Germany expects to receive more than a million refugees this year, most Germans, from Angela Merkel down, have proven extremely welcoming of refugees. Case in point: when a train carrying thousands of migrants arrived in Munich this week, German citizens sent so many donations that the overwhelmed authorities asked them to stop. The national government has increased its assistance to state and local governments to deal with incoming refugees. Perhaps most importantly, with the exception of a few small parties, the entire German political spectrum has acknowledged that welcoming migrants is the best policy for the future.

Within the EU, there have already been major tensions between northern Europe, where migrants hope to end up, and southern Europe, which must deal with the immediate arrival of migrants. Hungarian prime minister Orban’s claim that the migrants are a “German problem” adds another element of discord as Hungary is not a destination country, nor is it an arrival point. Nevertheless, the mere transit of migrants through Hungary is now perceived as an enormous problem. Both Germany and Hungary are full members of the European Union, and open borders remain a major part of the EU’s raison d’être. While Orban received a rebuke from EU officials for his comments, more will likely follow.

While no one can expect all EU member countries’ citizens and political leaders to see eye to eye on everything, the current migrant crisis, like the Greek economic crisis, is forcing some of the inevitable differences in perspective to the fore, where they may be sharpened in the games of domestic politics. Longstanding rifts, papered over, may reopen and deepen.

Yet a return to a fragmented Europe, with leaders hurling recriminations at one another and governments refusing transit, would represent a fundamental failure of Europe’s experiment in unity. In 2012, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for making war unimaginable on a continent that brought us World Wars I and II. Let’s hold to that vision.

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