There are now two Europes. The first is home to those committed to common political values, shared burdens and an ever closer European Union. The second is for those who see national and European values in almost constant conflict, who say each nation should solve its own problems, whatever the cost to the dream of “Europe whole and free.” This divide, intensified by a rising wave of Middle Eastern migrants, poses the most dangerous challenge the union has ever faced.
The question now before every E.U. citizen: In the name of unity and human rights, should European leaders make deals that require each country to welcome a certain number of refugees? Or should each state reserve the right to decide for itself how many migrants to accept?
Europe faced intense pressures even before the tidal wave of migrants began to crest, from challenges like the financial crisis and Ukraine. But it is the arrival of so many refugees–and the ISIS-age anxieties they provoke–that has done most to boost populists in every corner of Europe. In the west, parties like France’s National Front, Britain’s U.K. Independence Party and Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland all have new political life. Farther east, Euroskeptic, right-wing populists have gained real power. When Viktor Orban became Hungary’s Prime Minister for the second time in May 2010, his xenophobic, authoritarian politics left him isolated in Europe. Now, thanks in part to Orban’s willingness to build a wall to keep as many migrants as possible out of Hungary, he has inspired admirers in Central and Eastern Europe. Countries like the Czech Republic and even Poland have agreed to send police and military officers to Hungary’s border with Serbia to reinforce controls.
Orban has also forged ties with Germany’s Christian Social Union–the main party in Bavaria and a permanent alliance partner with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. During a September visit to Bavaria, Orban accused Merkel’s government of “moral imperialism” and argued that by encouraging migrants to come to Europe, she is indirectly responsible for the fate of those who have died along the way. Thanks largely to this crisis, Merkel’s approval ratings are at their lowest levels in four years–and Orban has many new friends.
The migrant question is a more serious threat to Europe’s future than anything in recent memory, because it can’t be resolved by a promise from a central bank or an infusion of someone else’s cash. This is a question of Europe’s identity–and whether it means as much to European voters as it did a generation ago. All the while, the refugees will keep coming, and it will become harder for governments to make sacrifices to welcome them.
This appears in the November 23, 2015 issue of TIME.