For over a week, networks around the world have covered the fate of refugees striving to reach safe havens in Europe. The narrative has been one of wild contrasts.
In Austria and Germany, Syrian populations have been welcomed with flowers and applause as opposed to refugees in Budapest facing harassment from Hungarian soldiers. The underlying theme has been the same with nation states throughout Europe paralysed by inaction and sputtering an adequate answer. Yet, the reality is more complex.
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With a very low unemployment rate and an ageing population, Germany has a need for immigrants and the generosity of Germans, however laudable, should not overlook existing economic interests and racial tensions.
|Hungary to deploy army to stop refugees from crossing border
Earlier this year, the streets of Germany were taken over by anti-immigration rallies from the extreme right movement, Pegida, who vented racial slurs and propaganda.
Similarly, in contradiction with most of the images shown globally, a large number of Hungarians have offered countless acts of solidarity in the streets of Budapest.
Their actions are a rebuke to the nationalist rhetoric employed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has previously stated that Middle Eastern immigrants were not wanted in Hungary.
Under his administration, Orban has continuously reiterated his populistic claims, calling for a re-establishment of a Hungarian exceptionalism based on tradition, Christianity, and nationalism. He argued as a result of that, he should defend his country against a Muslim invasion.
Integration project v nationalism
If the reaction of European citizens in Hungary and Germany has been confounding, the refugee crisis has clearly exposed a profound divide in continental politics, between the liberal political establishments of historical European Union members in the West and the populist parties ruling in many recent EU members in Central and Eastern Europe.
The decisions taken by Orban and his supporters are symptomatic of post-Soviet societies gangrened by nationalism. Orban’s rhetoric ignores the original integration project of the EU, which promoted transparency and cooperation in the wake of post-World War II reconstruction.
Failing in its diagnosis and obsessed only by economic integration, the EU has been reluctant to enforce political will and remained reluctant to raise its voice against the populist national movements who baffled its very core values.
When prominent American political scientists such as Francis Fukuyama wrote that the collapse of the Soviet order in 1991 had resulted in the “end of history” and the globalisation of Western liberal democracy, they clearly misread the faultlines which were emerging in Central and Eastern European countries.
Western capitals naively assumed that a new generation of leaders would emerge to embrace market rules and private entrepreneurship. They championed reformist political leaders such as Boris Yeltsin or Lech Walesa and overlooked the challenges of encouraging their populations on a path far from communism and the historical cradle of nationalism.
More importantly, the unbridled race towards capitalism – often motivated by individual gains – ignored the constraints and violence on everyday citizens first condemned by Jacques Derrida and other European philosophers.
Inequality, exclusion and economic oppression affected populations who as a result returned to their traditional protection nets against globalisation – local institutions, religious doctrines, populist parties and ethnic communities.
Instead of joining Europe in its quest for liberalism, new member states followed the steps of xenophobic leaders such as the Kaszynsky brothers in Poland, Vaclav Klaus in the Czech Republic or Viktor Orban in Hungary.
Failures of the EU
Central European politics and the attitudes towards the current refugee crisis cannot be fully understood if not situated in an historical context of reborn nationalism unleashed after the end of the communist regimes.
Religious, ethnic or nationalistic inspired policies have halted the liberal development of their societies. As opposed to their Western neighbours, Central and Eastern European countries – frozen by communism – did not experience crash remedial reforms as initially envisioned by American scholars and as a result still lag 50 years behind.
Similarly failing in its diagnosis and obsessed only by economic integration, the EU has been reluctant to raise its voice against the populist national movements who baffled its very core values.
While Brussels continued to pursue an agenda dedicated to freedom of the press and liberal democracy, the institution took no action when Hungary, the country heralded as the example to follow immediately in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, organised a methodical crackdown on intellectuals and dissidents to strengthen Orban’s electoral basis.
The only way forward for the EU is a renewed cooperation between major countries around essential civic values.
As it was the case for past immigration waves, the current refugee crisis will eventually be a long-term economic blessing for Europe but could also offer the opportunity for a pan-European effort against individualism and petty nationalism.
The actions of Orban should be strongly condemned and its government shunned by other European capitals as was the case with the far-right government of Jorg Haider in Austria at the turn of the century.
If it hadn’t been for bold EU action at the time, refugees in Vienna would probably have faced the same fate as in Hungary.
Remi Piet is assistant professor of public policy, diplomacy, and international political economy at Qatar University.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.