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From the 'welcome culture' to isolation

September 26, 2016

Little that was new came out of the West Balkan summit in Vienna. What it did show is how politics and the tone in the EU have changed. The focus is no longer on humanitarianism, but on isolation, says Barbara Wesel.

Family photo from the summit in Vienna
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C.Bruna

In February, when the refugee route through the countries of the western Balkans was closed, there was still vocal criticism of this move from within the EU. People were saying back then that the problem could not be resolved with fences and walls: Europe's humanitarian values must not be forgotten, or the fact that those arriving needed protection.

That was just half a year ago, but hardly anyone remembers this now. Europe tried to organize the fair admission and distribution of refugees - and failed spectacularly.

Focus is now on isolation

The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, now says point-blank that the West Balkan route must remain closed for good. Over the past few months, his overall position has been moving ever closer to that of many eastern European leaders - including where the future of Europe is concerned. He needs to ask himself who he is actually speaking for as he becomes more and more of a hardliner. The hard right – Poland's Law and Justice Party (PiS), the Front National in France, or the Alternative for Germany (AfD) - are not in power across Europe. There is, however, a sense that they are increasingly determining both the political discussion and its tone.

DW's Barbara Wesel
DW's Barbara Wesel

Tusk is just part of a general shift. The boundaries of shame have long since been overcome when discussing refugees. Europe watches the bombs raining down on Aleppo and no longer even rouses itself to protest; similarly, the fate of refugees from there and other crisis regions has become a matter of indifference. The EU is in agreement on warding off refugees from its borders. The aim is to strengthen Fortress Europe, and the sole focus now is on protecting its external frontiers. Even Angela Merkel, who just last year was praised as the savior of humanity, has quietly helped bring about this change.

Tone and response increasingly brutal

Reports detailing the dramatic fate of refugees have become unpopular. No one wants to know any more: for example, to know what drove the more than 400 people whose vessel capsized two days ago off the Egyptian coast - with scores of people drowned - to flee. There are shocking reports about violent gangs of people smugglers forcing young people to make the journey. But who even wants to hear it? Hundreds of children have already drowned this year, but they have remained nameless: Their stories are no longer told.

Europe's only response now to the suffering from the South, however varied people's reasons for fleeing might be, is to set up more border patrols. It has become unfashionable to see human beings as a humanitarian challenge. In the space of just one year, they've turned into numbers and statistics that no one is moved by any more. In this way, politicians in the EU are allowing themselves to be driven by right-wing extremists. The tone and language has become increasingly brutal - we don't even need Viktor Orban for this - and political action is in accordance with the new callousness. Europe has betrayed the fundamental principles that made it special and unique, and hardly anyone has noticed. This is not a good basis for the reorientation of the EU that will be under discussion over the coming months.

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