The refugee crisis has hit severely the EU as whole. While people in search of international protection are still dying at sea trying to reach our coasts, the EU is struggling to act as a unitary political actor. The European Council, a notoriously slow-motion institution where decisions are often the result of delicate compromises, is failing in its task to provide the Union with guidelines of action, as showed by the vague meeting in Bratislava that caused the frustrating reaction of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi.
It is undeniable that member states have not experienced the same levels of humanitarian and social pressure. The states located at the southern and eastern borders have been struggling to cope with the tasks they are entrusted with from the Lisbon Treaty, that is to say, the protection of the external frontiers. These states, whose economies are far from stable and well functioning, have dealt with a humanitarian crisis of disproportionate dimension. Other member states, on the other hand, have not been confronted with the same challenges, neither from a humanitarian nor from a societal perspective. Nonetheless, xenophobic and anti-immigration sentiments are gaining momentum and rising consistently all over Europe.
Established as a common platform to further the European integration of Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia, the Visegrad Group is now one the most resolute opponents to the implementation of a common political response to the refugee crisis, embodied by the refugee quotas. The struggle of the V4 countries in regards to the migration crisis is considerably limited, and the racial composition of their societies has not been altered to such an extent to at least provide an explanation to the general public hysteria. For instance, as I argued on a previous paper, Czech Republic registers one of the lowest percentages of Muslim population (around 1%) yet its citizens have recently radicalized their views, especially towards the Arab ethnicity.
What Is Then Driving The V4’s Stand Against The Refugee Quotas?
Their common history as countries that used to be part of the former Soviet Union provides a useful path that sheds light on the V4’s attitude towards immigration. The combination of cultural homogeneity, as a result of the border-closure policy endorsed throughout the communist regimes, and the current populist construction of migration as a security threat, may be regarded as the socio-political variables having the greatest impact on their political stand against migration.
What emerges from a closer look at the shares of third-country nationals in Central and eastern European states, provided by Eurostat as of January 2015, is that they are generally low: indeed, the percentage of foreigners with nationality of a non-EU country residing in the V4 countries falls between 0 and 2.4 %. The data are even more eloquent if we take into account the fact that many residents of Russian origin kept their Russian citizenship after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and therefore constitute a considerable amount of those rather low percentages. It seems clear that third-country nationals represent a negligible minority in the V4 and that the composition of these societies is quite homogeneous.
At the political level, albeit holding different positions within their systems, Zeman, Orban, Fico and Kaczynski, enjoy a significant degree of support and influence over their citizens. In their countries, such political leaders adopt an alarmist discourse that openly conflates migration with terrorism and are not new to extremist and racist remarks. While the Czech president Zeman has urged citizens to arm themselves against a possible “Super-Holocaust”, Mr. Kaczynski has claimed “refugees were bringing parasites”. In Slovakia, Fico bluntly declared that in his country “there is no place for Islam”, while Orban’s toxic rhetoric has gone so far as to label immigrants as “poison” for Europe, accusing every single individual migrant to pose “a public security and terror threat”. Their rhetoric is highly simplified and based on xenophobic arguments; their style is harsh and informed by a populist ideology, counterposing their continual reference to the “virtuous and ordinary people” to an antagonist liberal elite based in Brussels, allegedly forcing un-democratic decisions upon them. Like in an economic demand-offer setting, this populist turn is set to attract and address voters who are particularly fearful of immigration. By making fear and insecurity the bulwark of their political message and democratic mandate, these controversial actors are fueling a vicious cycle of insecurity generating fear – because of its inner yet frustrating sense of precariousness – and fear bringing in even more insecurity.
To sum up this whole process, one may argue that cultural homogeneity has prepared the ground for populism to fuel the development of exclusionary policies, eventually causing a general xenophobic hysteria.
A Controversial Understanding Of Cooperation
There is a profound paradox in the V4’s attitude. Members of the political class in such countries laud their renewed alliance, in that it is allowing small countries to find “a common voice and strategy” or “to punch above their weight”. To put it differently, they are acknowledging that in a globalized world, atomized states do not have enough leverage or power in the international arena. They are also praising the advantages for countries to integrate into political blocs in order to gain international weight. (This would all sound vaguely familiar to students of European politics). Despite this, they are extremely critical of the European supranational project, often even in cynical and despising terms; in the words of the Czech president, “money, money, money” is the only reason to remain in the EU.
In the end, what we are all left with is a limping European Union, struggling to conceptualize a successful way forward, hampered by a crisis which is internal and external, political and humanitarian. Frontiers are simply working as dividing lines between different kinds of human and social frustrations.
Image source: Jenny Rotten