People show their true colors in times of crisis; the same is true for countries. The E.U. is made up of many countries that come in many colors. These 5 facts explain Europe’s schizophrenic response to the migration crisis so far.
Just a month ago, Germany was under fire for mismanaging Greece and the entire financial crisis. With Greece in particular, many observers suggested that Germans simply didn’t care about the suffering of others. Now Germany has pledged to take in an estimated 800,000 refugees this year, earmarking an additional $6.7 billion for the refugee crisis. It’s a remarkable turnaround for Berlin—and its image.
Unsurprisingly, the German government’s newfound generosity has already provoked an internal political backlash. Leaders of the Christian Social Union, an ally of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, have unanimously condemned the move to welcome more migrants. But Germany is staring at some pretty scary demographic figures—by 2060, Germany’s aging population is expected to shrink from 81.3 million to 70.8 million. Admitting hundreds of thousands of migrants will help shore up its labor base for years to come and pay for a social safety net that will have to catch many more people.
The financial crisis was the first real test of German leadership in the E.U.; not only did it fail to get Europe’s finances in order, but the political union is more divided than ever as nationalist parties surge across the continent. The migrant issue is a second chance for Germany to show that it can lead Europe into the future, and it looks set to make the most of the opportunity. Much will depend on Chancellor Merkel’s popularity. For now, she can shrug off criticism from German xenophobes.
Unlike Germany, the UK has no real need for more migrants: Britain’s population is set to expand from 64.1 million today to 80.1 million in 2060. That would make it Europe’s most populous country if current migration and fertility rates hold. This helps explain why British Prime Minister David Cameron has only pledged to accept an additional 20,000 refugees over the next five years, a paltry figure compared to Germany’s.
But the specter of the Brexit referendum—a vote, likely next spring, that will decide Britain’s future in the E.U.—also looms large. The UK is a member of the European Union, but not of the Eurozone, allowing the UK to try to exert substantial influence in Europe without accepting some of its most onerous rules, restrictions and responsibilities. According to a recent poll, 40 percent of British citizens say the UK should accept more refugees while 31 percent say the country should accept fewer. That’s a delicate balance, one that Prime Minister David Cameron must bear in mind as he campaigns to ensure Britain keeps at least one foot in Europe.
Like the UK, France finds itself at a crossroads. On the one hand, it is a leader in the E.U., and one that takes seriously its role as champion of human rights. On the other, its economy is stalling (0.4 percent GDP growth in 2014), its unemployment is high (10.2 percent) and the rise of the far-right National Front (its leader Marine La Pen topped a recent poll of presidential hopefuls with 29 percent) signals a turbulent political climate. Much of this can be attributed to France’s inability to assimilate different immigrant and religious groups into French society. The Charlie Hebdo shootings offered a stark reminder that the children of French immigrants sometimes feel less allegiance toward the homeland that their parents chose than to other callings. Employment numbers tell the same story: the unemployment rate for working-age native born French people is 8.6 percent, while for non-E.U. born workers it’s 18.9 percent. No wonder France is only willing to accept an additional 24,000 refugees this year—even when so much political capital can be won by taking the lead on this issue.
On Wednesday, Denmark suspended its rail links with Germany, citing the need for “exceptional passport checks.” The Scandinavian country already made waves earlier this week when its Ministry of Immigration, Integration and Housing bought advertisements in four Lebanese newspapers that detailed the stringent regulations that migrants will face in Denmark. This is a pretty brazen attempt to dissuade refugees eyeing the country as a safe haven. Among other things, the ads highlighted recent legislation that slashed welfare benefits for new refugees by 50 percent.
Countries as small as Denmark (population: 5.6 million) don’t have the economic incentive that Germany or France have in accepting more refugees. Factor in Denmark’s uneasy relations with Islamic militants following the 2005 publication of Mohammed cartoons and a minority government that is heavily reliant for backing on the far-right Danish People’s Party, and Denmark’s recent actions are disappointing but unsurprising.
The migrant crisis is also causing panic in central European countries, best embodied in a wall that Hungary is now building along its border with Serbia. To be fair, Hungary saw asylum applications shoot up 1,236 percent in the first three months of 2015 compared to the same three months of 2014. Put another way, for every million Hungarians, there were 7,245 asylum applicants. That same figure for Brits is 485, for the French 890, Germans 2,635, and the Danish 2,590. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a right-wing populist, has vowed to seal Hungary’s border with Serbia by Sept. 15—claiming to do so for the good of the entire E.U. It also helps that doing so stops ultra-nationalist Jobbik’s climb in the polls.
No European country has received worse press during this migration crisis than Hungary. But that’s the risk you take when you start building walls to keep people out. Europe is built on the shared value of freedom: freedom of ideas, freedom of commerce, freedom of movement. It will take wisdom, courage and patience for EU leaders to protect these freedoms during a crisis that complicates life in so many countries at once. And given the growing unrest across North Africa and the Middle East, there is reason to fear that this crisis is just getting started.