Europe’s new iron curtains

The continent is ‘falling apart’ just when a cohesive strategy is needed to manage an unprecedented refugee crisis

Migrants and refugees wait in the rain as they wait to enter Slovenia, at the Croatian-Slovenian border in Trnovec, on October 19, 2015. (AFP)
Migrants and refugees wait in the rain as they wait to enter Slovenia, at the Croatian-Slovenian border in Trnovec, on October 19, 2015. (AFP)

The recent Islamic terrorist attacks took place, symbolically enough, in Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union and the headquarters of NATO. Like other major European cities, Brussels has a Muslim minority that is not well integrated into the host country’s life — poor educational opportunities, a lack of jobs, and disdain by some of the very population which often invited the Muslims to come in the first place to do the work the locals would not do. Such social problems often lead to crime, and in the case of the Muslim minorities in Europe, to terrorism — many terrorists turn out to have criminal records as well.

Over the last 18 months or so, there has been, in addition to the millions of Muslims already residing in Europe, a tremendous flow of additional co-religionists, specifically Syrian refugees and some others, into Europe. Germany alone saw over one million refugees cross its borders in 2015. It should be noted that once a Syrian refugee has found safe haven in a third country such as Turkey, for instance, he is no longer really a “refugee” under international law, but few make this distinction.

This situation has further increased already existing pressures on the EU. An organization which has been in the making since at least 1949 and whose agreed-on goal has always been a United Europe, similar to the federally structured United States, the EU has in the last two years or so been shaken to its core. Even before recent events, Europeans have chafed at what have often seemed to be unreasonable regulations ground out in Brussels by unelected bureaucrats.

And the fight over the euro, the “European” currency (though not used by the United Kingdom and some other European Community countries), almost led to a “Grexit,” a departure from the EU by a Greece which felt itself put upon greatly by Germany, personified by its Chancellor Angela Merkel. Greece did stay in the EU for now, accepting the stringent financial/economic requirements that the Chancellor laid on it — and it now finds itself in the unenviable position of being the point of entry into the EU for all those Syrian refugees, along with many Afghans, Iraqis, and others, who leave Turkey and travel by boat just a few miles to such Greek islands as Lesbos.

To make things worse for both the Greeks and the refugees, the other EU countries are, in some cases literally, building new iron (or steel) curtains along their borders to keep the refugees out. Four Eastern European countries known as the Visegrad Group, namely Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, have made clear that they will not accept any Syrian refugee quotas which the EU might try to impose on them. And Hungary, which once had a very effective “Iron Curtain” along its western border with Austria, has now built an equally effective iron curtain along its southern border with Croatia.

More generally, countries throughout Europe have begun to impose border controls which had been largely done away with by the Schengen Agreement. Even Germany itself, the ultimate destination of most migrants, has reimposed border controls of various types. Germany’s Chancellor Merkel seems wedded to a very generous refugee policy, which is largely the reason for her party’s recent losses in three state elections. Perhaps because of those losses, the German Interior Minister is planning to enact a law requiring refugees already in the country to make an effort to integrate into German life. Either they learn the German language and accept reasonable job offers, or they risk losing social benefits and housing, and after three years their settlement permits as well. Interestingly, the head of the center-left Social Democratic Party has also welcomed the draft law. Other Western European countries are, like the Visegrad states, not thrilled by the idea of refugee-acceptance quotas being imposed on them, further examples of new, if rather low, iron curtains.

What amounts to an Iron Curtain for Syrian refugees around all of the European Union went into effect April 4: after months of negotiations between the EU and Turkey, most Syrians will be forced to return to their first country of refuge, Turkey, which already hosts some three million Syrian refugees. Turkey will accept those Syrians and others who crossed into Greece after March 19. The plan is to allow one Syrian refugee to move from a Turkish camp to enter the EU legally for each refugee returned to Turkey from the EU. Whether such a complex system will actually work is an open question. As a trade-off, Turkey will receive as much as $6 billion from the EU, its citizens will be able to travel visa-free in Europe, and negotiations about Turkey’s eventually joining the EU will recommence.

Perhaps even more dangerous to the idea of “Europe” than dealing with the flood of refugees is the referendum scheduled for June 23 of this year in the United Kingdom, to decide whether the UK should simply leave the EU all together, a so-called “Brexit.” A total exit from the EU by Britain, such a significant member, would be a devastating blow to the idea of an overall European state. Britain has always had a rather suspicious arms-length attitude toward Europe, as exemplified by the fact that it is the only major European country not to use the euro. The refugee crisis itself has given greater momentum to a British departure from the EU: the UK is loath to accept almost any refugees at all. A yes vote in the referendum would cause a very high Iron Curtain to be built, figuratively at least, right down the middle of the English Channel. As of early April it appears that the referendum will lose, but not by very much — and that fact might be enough to keep the pressure on for a Brexit some years hence.

All of this brings to mind the famous quote from the Anglo-Irish poet W.B. Yeats, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold . . . .” Europe is in greater danger of “falling apart” than at any other time in the eighty years since the end of World War II. It will take a great deal of statesmanship to work through the next few years to rebuild, or at least prevent greater damage to, a community of European ideals, of a truly United Europe.

In the short-term, however, in the wake of the Paris and Brussels attacks, it is critical for member states to develop comprehensive strategies to prevent radicalization and recruitment of their citizens by terrorists networks such as the so-called Islamic State (Daesh) and al-Qa’ida. Undoubtedly, the European Parliament is best suited to provide leadership in implementing this challenging mission in concert with the legislative bodies in the 28 countries. Perhaps then Europe can continue to be Europe.

Yonah Alexander and Patrick Murphy are co-directors of an academic project on European Security Concerns at the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies, administered by the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Virginia.

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