Article written by: Anna Wilson, Communications Officer for the Young European Movement UK, reporting from Vienna
A quick glance at any newspaper stand will confirm that the current refugee crisis is a divisive issue to say the least. From declarations of terrorist threat to outpourings of grassroots support, reactions have been strong and have revealed a great deal about the character of the European Union. The continent is being forced to look in the mirror – but will it like what it sees?
The nature of states
Emergency talks amongst the EU member states have exposed cracks in the Union as more and more national governments reveal the extent of their intentions to pursue self-interest.
Opposition to the emergency quota systems has been fierce within Europe. Rather than sharing responsibility as is the aim of the European system, states such as Hungary have refused to comply with new regulations, citing national circumstances as justification for exemption. In a situation far-removed from the peaceful European idea, nations have maneuvered themselves to the extent that they are now effectively pitted against each other in a bit to secure their own private aims.
The East/West divide is once again accentuated as the less-developed economies argue that their relatively weaker financial infrastructures negate claims of shared responsibility to provide sanctuary for refugees whilst larger powers attempt to alleviate the over-burdening of their social security systems.For many neighbouring nations, the lack of cohesion at a European level is also serving to stir up historical enmity. The Union is becoming divided.
So what, then, does this mean for Europe?
Some would say that the refugee crisis has caused European states to revel their true colours, and this is not far from the truth. At the present moment, the self-interested nature of member states’ governments is overshadowing the pursuit of the common good in the emergency negotiations. Though a result of the current crisis, this narrow-minded approach that many states have adopted in these negotiations reflects a deeper and more worrying trend of governments valuing the interests of their nation above those of the Union as a whole. Do selfish governments threaten to tear apart the EU from the inside?
The rise of populist movements
The second revelation that has been brought to light by the refugee crisis is that of the continued danger of populist and far-right movements.
These movements have been capitalising on the refugee crisis as a way of gaining support, packaging it as not only the failure of the EU to “protect its borders”, but also to cultivate a dangerous dichotomy between “Europe” and the “others”. This reliance on a common enemy to rally support not only endangers the future of the EU, but also generates a culture of racism and hostility to those perceived as belonging outside the boundaries of Fortress Europe.
The alarming explosion in popularity for such parties and movements across Europe is testament, then, to the undercurrents of xenophobia and imperialist mentality still present in modern day Europe. The refugee crisis has driven these sentiments into the open, forcing the continent to acknowledge that they are still a major problem – even in the EU, the supposed haven of peace, justice and human rights.
Refugees waiting in Westbahnhof, one of Vienna's main train stations
The grassroots of Europe
It’s not all bad news, however. As governments squabble and populists fear-monger, the citizens of Europe rally together to aid their fellow human beings.
Spending time with the volunteer effort at Vienna’s Westbahnhof, it becomes clear that state negotiations and xenophobic campaigns are far from the whole picture. Where states have failed, citizens have stepped up to the mark, and grassroots movements proved that Europe means more than just single markets and collective regulations.
People arrived in droves to do what they could for those in need. Max, a student volunteering in Vienna told me he had been working 16-hour shifts for over a week with Caritas, the aid agency to distribute locals’ donations to the estimated 6,000 refugees who passed through the station daily.
Another volunteer, Stephen had come to Austria on holiday when the crisis struck. He gave up his time to help coordinate efforts to ensure the migrants’ time as they passed through was as safe and comfortable as possible.
Stories like these are not uncommon; as the crisis continues, stories of citizens going out of their way to aid migrants grow more commonplace. From makeshift libraries in Calais to offers of spare beds from Iceland, the support of people from across the continent has been phenomenal. Here, Europe can look at itself and be proud.
What does the future hold for Europe?
Through the murky waters churned up by the refugee crisis, a much clearer image of Europe has emerged. Troubling reminders of states driven by self-interest above all else and populist movements twisting events to their own advantage sit alongside the monumental scale of citizens’ philanthropy to create an image of a Europe that is far from perfect, but not incapable of improvement.
The way the European Union conducts itself in the following weeks and months will determine not only whether or not history will look back upon these times favourably, but also the future of the Union itself. As Europe stares at its true self, we now realise that the time has come to change.