Back to Europe

By Olga Hajflerová 1

One of the main slogans of the Czechoslovakia´s „Velvet revolution“ might be a fitting label when one thinks of the current crisis in European unity and the challenges for its integrity. When one steps back and looks at the current immigration crisis from a greater distance and context, it is possible to discern some general principles that characterize the EU which also suggest possible remedies.

Those principles and ideas are not unfamiliar; indeed, they are highly relevant to all three main crises confronting the EU: (1) the Greek and Eurozone crisis and the ensuing questions of further economic integration; (2) the apparent impotence of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) most notably on Europe’s eastern borders; and (3) the immigration crisis that has escalated over the past year. All three represent core components of the EU´s 3 pillars structure which didn´t evaporate the day the Lisbon Treaty abolished it (2009) and remains an in-built bearing construction element of the whole EU. A reflection on the current immigration crisis might thus also serve to highlight problems central to the other two areas.

Rule of Law and legality

Confronted with the current immigration crisis, the EU and its Member States seem to be totally perplexed and shattered to the extent that they have forgone the unity, solidarity and the Rule of Law, on which the EU was founded. It´s up to the Member States to struggle with the situation. The carefully crafted main Union´s mechanism for dealing with migration, the Dublin Regulation (DR), has become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. According to DR´s criteria, the greatest portion of the asylum claims would have to be examined by the countries of entry (Italy and Greece leading in numbers). However, because of the overpressure in these countries and sometimes for their personal preference or family connections, migrants often move further within the EU. They might be locked up in overcrowded detention (not refugee) centres with detention regimes (as in the Czech Republic) and, without any perspective to have their claim examined, wait there for their highly improbable return to the initial EU country of first entry which is overflown with more and more migrants in the meantime. Sometimes they survive in appalling conditions in improvised camps (as those in the Calais “jungle”) trying desperately to continue their journey with no other alternative than returning where they fled from. An apparent case of Catch 22, incurring unfortunately various international law violations on EU´s soil ranging from inadequate conditions in refugee facilities to arbitrary restriction of freedom of movement. This ambiguity of rules is all the more unnecessary as according to the DR itself any Member State may decide to take up an asylum claim and examine it even if it is not its responsibility (Chapter IV, Article 17). So, the opportunity for solidarity and unity as well as for respecting the rules is wide open.

Another aspect of the immigration crisis worth reflecting on is the illegality of the migrants, something the media and politicians often stress. But how do they become illegal? The refugees´ home country is typically in internal or external conflict or/and the state structures are dysfunctional. Given all the direct physical dangers they are facing, the impossibility or at best serious difficulty to obtain proper documents is the refugees´ least pressing problems. Highly relevant is also the fact that the asylum claim can be made only on the soil or at the border of the EU. In order to get there, the refugees often use the “services” of illegal traffickers and are willing to pay them a lot from what they still possess, sometimes tragically paying the highest price.

Is there a feasible legal option for the refugees and how can it be created? One way could be going further afield with the asylum procedure: if there was an opportunity for the refugees to make the asylum claim in transit countries and get at least a preliminary decision on their status, it would enable the EU to have better information, better control and keep out the feared potential criminals, terror suspects, and economic migrants. Even more importantly, it could reduce the dangers of the illegal journey and take the profit from the hands of illegal smugglers and put it in the hands of legal transporters; it might also entail reduction of and the cost of the EU´s naval efforts to combat the illegal smugglers in the Mediterranean. It could be handled by special teams operating in the areas where the migrants typically start on their way to Europe (or in the nearest safe country), with the cooperation of the EU embassies in the transit countries. It would have to be obviously complemented with a sound information campaign explaining eligibility and procedures to the potential asylum seekers and it would have to be a part of a comprehensive common EU strategy. Providing a legal option to the refugees could be counterbalanced by a tougher approach to those who will still be coming illegally. Of course, such a proposal sounds daring; but studies could be conducted to carefully assess it for the costs, risks, benefits and efficacy. Without addressing the legality of the immigration and its abovementioned aspects, the EU is likely to keep struggling with mending its policies vis à vis very dynamic and slippery problem.

Security and stability

The fear incurred in Europe by the migration wave is palpable. It reaches often hysterical and repulsive forms ranging from hate speech and discrimination to open violence against the migrants and anti-Muslim sentiment. However, to dismiss the security concerns altogether would be preaching the other extreme. There is no way to predict now how many of the hundreds of thousands of migrants pose a potential danger for the security of the Europeans; it could well be that that proportion is similar to the fraction of criminals and extremists in the European population (borrowing the Gaussian normal distribution from the statistics). There is no doubt the management of the immigration and the security screening process of the asylum seekers must be very careful and thorough. The growing numbers of immigrants are very high but – amounting to around 1 per mille of the European population – still not catastrophic, if the EU employs the existing system and unites in dealing with the problem.

Stability is a tricky concept. It´s often misinterpreted for permanency, immobility, rigidity. The concept has been overused in the immigration debate with various voices in the media claiming that massive immigration can destabilise the EU, the society or the social system. I might be too cautious about the vehemence on stability simply because I grew up in a perfectly stable communist Czechoslovakia of the 70´s and 80´s. And indeed, the greatest emphasis on stability comes now from Central and Eastern Europe as if it was more used to it and more experienced with asserting it. In the West this notorious security/liberty dichotomy began after 9/11. There is no way to be perfectly safe and completely free, as the renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wisely puts it.

While the aspiration for stability is understandable, it would be helpful to see it rather as a dynamic balance, not only between stability and freedom. Especially in multifaceted (and inherently unstable) Europe, such interpretation enables not only to contain all Europe´s historical richness and political differences but it can contain also those who are willing to share it, respect it and take part in its (never ending) democratic process.

Evasion or isolation behind high walls in the highly networked hi-tec world can hardly keep Europe stable and out of all dangers anyway. It might be precisely the current dehumanisation of immigrants and the mobilisation of extremists with their Nazi-like hate speech and discriminating campaigns that kindle the fears of the population what can tilt Europe´s society out of stability. The Europeans would like to believe they have learned good lessons from its modern history; the immigration wave seems to be a tough test.

Unity and integration

So far, it has been the Member States who have been facing the immigration impact more or less on their own, trying as best as they can to play their cards distributed by the mere chance of their geographical position in Europe and perhaps also their economic fitness. The present experience and common sense clearly imply that the only way out of the crisis is united action and common strategy. The obvious basis for unity here is solidarity and the key element is integration.

The integration in policy planning and implementation has already been cultivated since 2004 in the framework of Frontex, the EU´s external borders agency. Collective political commitment could make it a solid operational basis for a reinforced comprehensive policy. Such upgrading of Union´s abilities will be instrumental in distinguishing between genuine refugees, i. e. true asylum seekers, and economic migrants, a task central to the process.

Those who obtain the asylum can then be integrated; the Union can take advantage of its Members´ rich combined experience. The prospective level of their integration depends to a great extent on the way we treat the refugees from the day they arrive. It is equally important to assert and enforce the law as it is crucial to treat the refugees with respect if they are to become a genuine part of our society. It is often assumed that the immigrants only seek to profit from our social systems, but if well integrated, they can also contribute to it. With an aging European population, the influx of new inhabitants might invigorate the economy and stem some of the predicted pension issues.

It´s encouraging seeing the NGO´s, some private companies and local authorities already helping the immigrants but it would be much more effective if these activities too were integrated into or at least linked to a comprehensive structure and framed by a common strategy.

Identity and propaganda

There seems to be great confusion about European identity. It´s not only the national identities that stubbornly belittle the European identity even after almost 60 years of European integration – quite understandably, considering the continents’ complicated history. The identification with the EU can admittedly be complicated also because the EU structure, mechanisms and policies are incredibly complex and still not enough transparent for most people to embrace. The founding fathers have wisely laid core values – democracy, rule of law, human rights, solidarity – in the foundation stones of the united Europe. The unity and identity is thus based on shared values and ideals – just as it is the case with the United States. Everyone can identify with the values and that´s essential not only for identity, but subsequently also for internal integrity and potential external power of the EU.

The ideals are too often confused with illusions, typically nurtured by a big part of the media and some politicians. Illusions that there is a viable option to a united, coherent Europe, be it the ostensibly serious debate about “Grexit” and “Brexit”, or believing that the EU can stay somehow enclosed and aside the upsetting world. In case of the immigration crisis, one can guess how the picture of the situation offered to the general public is realistic from the number of genuine interviews and debates with the actual immigrants.

The identity of immigrants is another key element – they don´t have a collective identity, they are not a homogenous group. They are individual people and their plight must be examined individually and carefully if we are to respect the precondition of Europe´s liberal democratic tradition. The equating of immigrants, Islamic terrorists and Islam itself is absurd, not merely because a great share of immigrants are non-Muslim. Though from the Middle East, many are Coptic Christians, for example. Furthermore, it’s clear that many of the Muslims that are seeking refuge are seeking to escape Islamic extremism, not export it. Actually, identifying Islam with Islamic fundamentalists is falling for the latter´s ruthless propaganda.

Rather than a matter of religious faith the immigration crisis and the way we deal with it is a matter of our faith in our values, in our common European identity. The earnest of our faith and the way we promote it – and being promoted it badly needs, through positive political propaganda and consistent education – will induce the self-confidence, integrity and power of the EU. And that will give us a chance to integrate the immigrants without fearing their particular identities might overpower ours. They, after all, have enough faith in Europe to go through great troubles to plead to live here; a privilege that many Europeans don´t fully appreciate.

Leadership and governing mechanisms

Since the Lisbon treaty, there is no more a question who represents Europe. But we can still ask ourselves who leads Europe. The stereotypical greyness of Brussels technocrats might be explicable by the lack of real political leaders even in Europe´s national politics. Only few politicians resist the pressures of opinion polls that are in turn driven by the media who increasingly sell emotions along with advertisement. Pursuing a political agenda and answering to the electorate is one thing, being swept from side to side by public opinion is quite another.

So far, the political and public resonance on the immigration crisis was incredibly illustrative on the difference between democratic and populist; and I have the impression that the vocabulary of many politicians regarding immigrants now moderates mostly because of the mobilisation of a considerable part of civil society and public in support of immigrants. Good, democratic practice, one might say. Undoubtedly, but what if the negative emotions and darkest fears overtake the public more next time? Will there be enough democratic leaders who push the moral spiral up, not down?

In my last years´ reflection on values in the EU´s external policy I have mentioned the need to analyse and review the effectivity of the EU decision making mechanisms and work mode. It is valid throughout the EU structure. The cloudiness about who is responsible for any particular decision and the widely recognised democratic deficit affect the level of identification with Europe and it´s power. The expenditure management, especially in the administrative chapter, needs a deep review as well. It´s unsustainable to maintain the monthly European Parliament´s Strasbourg week that wastes an estimated € 180 million a year and claim that Europe has not enough money to help refugees.

As mentioned above, the elements discussed here are relevant also for the other 2 EU policy areas that are currently in trouble and constitute together with the migration and crime control the core of the EU: the CFSP and the Eurozone. It is obvious that they are interconnected and it´s crucial to maintain that bonding both in strategic thinking and everyday work.

Europe must return back to Europe. The strategy it needs on most of the pressing issues including the immigration wave must be based on unity. EU should be firmly identified with its values being aware of their benefits and costs too. There is no evasion from the responsibility Europe has to enforce these values if it wants not only to resist the current tremendous external and internal pressures but to recover its strength and get where it should and can be, among the global leaders.

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  1. Olga Hajflerová (Čechurová) is a former civil and political activist and a Czech diplomat. A civil activist since before the Czechoslovak “Velvet Revolution” of 1989, then an activist of the non-violent Transnational Radical Party which she also represented at the UN in Geneva. After joining the Czech Foreign Service in 1999, she dealt with the human rights and democracy support agenda in different positions including at the Czech EU Representation in Brussels. Currently on a temporary leave.

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