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Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Z. Gergely Kelemen

Refugee crisis divides Europe

Alexander Andreev / js
March 8, 2016

While solutions to the refugee crisis are being pursued intensely in Western Europe, Eastern Europeans remain unimpressed by the tragedy. Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev sees a new divide.


DW: Mr. Krastev, right now it seems as if Eastern and Western Europe are speaking very different languages when it comes to the refugee crisis. How do you explain this?

Ivan Krastev: The financial crisis split the EU into creditors and debtors, tearing open a divide between North and South. Now, the refugee crisis is dividing Europe between East and West. We are not just experiencing a lack of solidarity, as we often hear it described in the EU, we are experiencing the clash of conflicting solidarities: between national, ethnic and religious solidarity and our duty as human beings.

Eastern Europeans do not believe they are obliged to show the same responsibility toward people fleeing war and repression in other regions that they feel obliged to show their compatriots. The refugee crisis has shown that Eastern Europe feels threatened by the exact same values that the European Union is based on, and which many in Western Europe consider universal and at the core of a new European identity. The West looks at this stance as indecent, even scandalous. While almost ten percent of Germany's citizens participate in private initiatives to aid asylum seekers, the citizenry of Eastern Europe remains unimpressed by the refugee tragedy. Many politicians even go so far as to castigate Brussels' refugee quotas.

So it is an asymmetrical reaction to the refugee crisis?

In most Western European countries the refugee crisis has led to societal polarization, to a confrontation between those who are for and those who are against open-border policies, between those who open their homes to refugees and those that set fire to asylum centers. But the usually divided societies of Central and Eastern Europe are almost unanimous in their rejection of refugees.

Ivan Krastev
Political scientist Ivan KrastevImage: BGNES

But the question remains: Why are Eastern Europeans so disinterested in the refugee tragedy?

The return of the East-West divide in Europe is more than just an unhappy coincidence. It is rooted in history, demography and the turbulence of the post-Communist transitional period. At the same time, there is a Central European "popular uprising" against globalization. History weighs heavily on Eastern and Central Europe. Very often history contradicts the promises of globalism. Central Europe knows the benefits as well as the dark side of multi-cultural societies better than most other places in Europe.

The states and countries of Eastern Europe came about late in the nineteenth century, and all at once. Whereas Western Europe was formed in the legacy of colonial empires in the wider world, Central European states arose out of the collapse of empires and the ethnic cleansing that followed that collapse. For instance, before the Second World War, Poland was a multicultural society in which more than a third of its citizenry was made up of Germans, Ukrainians and Jews. Today, Poland is one of the most ethnically homogenous societies on earth, with 97 percent of its citizens being ethnic Poles. Therefore, a return to ethnic diversity seems to them like a return to the difficult times between the wars.

Are Central and Eastern Europeans lagging behind Western Europeans in their views on nation and statehood?

Not really. Their views are simply different. The EU is based on the French idea of a nation - that means affiliation as loyalty to institutions - and the German concept of the state - that is powerful federal states and a relatively weak center. But Central and Eastern European countries have adopted the German idea of a nation and the French concept of the state. So these countries combine an admiration for the centralized state of the French with the German belief that nationality is based upon shared origin and culture. For many Eastern Europeans, cries like "Poland for the Polish" or "Germany for the Germans" are completely understandable, but not the idea of Europe for the Europeans. Because Europe has no political gravity and it has no ethnic identity. We have no common language and our shared history serves to highlight our differences rather than to unite us. By opposing refugees, Eastern Europe could touch off a radical solidarity crisis within the EU, and paradoxically, end up being rejected by Western Europe itself.

Ivan Krastev is a political scientist, the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and a Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.

This interview was conducted by Alexander Andreev.

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