Friday, 4 September 2015

The Refugee Crisis and Central Europe

The Czech police are reportedly pulling people from trains and labelling them with blue ink as the number of migrants crossing into the country jumps. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban says he's defending Europe from a "Muslim influx" by shutting down train stations and detaining refugees in camps. Hungary puts up a wire fence to stop migrants entering from Serbia. In turn Serbia steps up its patrols of its border with Macedonia.

Across Central and Eastern Europe a wave of government-sponsored immigration controls are putting a de facto end to the Schengen dream of open internal borders. Maintaining that dream has always required extraordinary police measures at Europe's limits. As those limits are overwhelmed, underlying tensions within the European Union are facilitating the creation of new internal borders.

Take Hungary. As the philosopher and former dissident Gaspar Tamas recently told Tariq Ali in an interview, "Today Hungary is a very quiet society." He explained: all social and political opposition had been defeated by the EU's most seriously authoritarian regime. The media was under strict controls. Civil society was quashed. Cultural production had reached a nadir. 

Orban is a Magyarising fantasist of the old school, a burly nationalist intent on defending Hungary from western cosmopolitanism as well as Muslim fanatics. The mystery is not his belligerence, which he has been sharpening for years, but the EU's quiet tolerance of him.  

“Everything which is now taking place before our eyes threatens to have explosive consequences for the whole of Europe,” Orb├ín wrote in Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “Europe’s response is madness. We must acknowledge that the European Union’s misguided immigration policy is responsible for this situation."

Orban's extremes are, however, just the sharp end of the wedge. Central Europe has been dominated by Islamophobes and anti-migrant zealots of the right and centre-right for years. Czech President Milos Zeman has called for a battle against “[a] growing wave of so-called international terrorism, that I always say [is] Islamic terrorism.” Obviously he's wrong to assume all terrorism is Islamic or even somehow "caused" by Islam. He has also barked about Roma people and "illegal" immigrants lacking respect for the Czech Republic. In Poland, meanwhile, the Guardian reports that 69% of Poles do not want non-white people living in Poland.

Whatever is to blame for this upsurge of anti-immigrant and racist feeling, it is by no means limited to "backwards" Central or Eastern Europe. Some form of it can be found in the British government's own fear-mongering about migrant "swarms." However, the particular spur of the sentiment can be traced to Central and Eastern Europe's contradictory, tenuous and painfully maintained integration into the Union. The result is in most cases a state form that mirrors the west without quite matching its liberal tone.

Germany, France and Italy are seeking to introduce balanced quotas of refugees across the EU, while many of the smaller states are in outright rebellion. Despite the geopolitical manifestation - between an intolerant east and a more circumspect west - the split is more properly conceived as one internal to European ruling ideology. Orban is no more extreme than le Pen or Farage. The only difference is Hungary now finds itself on the frontline, with the authoritarian right in power and a neo-fascist party (Jobbik) snapping at its heels.

The EU has tolerated Orban's authoritarian xenophobia, Tamas argued, because it pays its debts, keeps taxes low, has decimated social welfare, and disciplines labour.  Migration and/or asylum controls, usually understood as demands of native working populations, are also means to control the labour-force. Up to a point all these things are quite tolerable for mainstream European opinion. It is only when Orban bangs his fist on various Brussels tables that his aggression really becomes a problem.

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