A European Disaster

Will the refugee crisis tear the European Union apart?

Rescued woman and child
A woman holds her child after disembarking from a rescue vessel in Lesvos, Greece, on April 17, 2015.

Photo by Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images

BERLIN—The scenes of desperate refugees camping out in Budapest in the hope of catching a train to Bavaria are the rerun of an old film. In September 1989, communist Hungary’s reformist government opened the border to Austria, allowing tens of thousands of East Germans to slip through the Iron Curtain to a better life in the West. By November, the ramshackle regime in East Berlin was facing such an exodus of its citizens via third countries that it caved in to the pressure and opened the borders to West Germany.

A quarter-century ago, it was a refugee crisis that brought down the Berlin Wall and helped sweep away communism. Today it’s a refugee crisis that’s exposing the cracks in a continent that was supposedly whole and free. Ukraine’s struggle with a revanchist Russia and the recurring convulsions of the Greek economy already demonstrated the fragility of the European order. The plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees at Europe’s doorstep could break it.

Most Europeans had come to see the 28-member European Union as a bloated if benign bureaucracy whose main benefit was ensuring affordable air travel, cheap pinot grigio, and lower mobile roaming charges. Now the most fundamental questions about the EU are open for debate: How much more sovereignty will European countries surrender in a time of uncertainty? And is the EU merely an economic union, or are its values measured in something more than a common currency?

Reactions to the refugees arriving on EU borders show how split the continent is: between poor and rich, east and west, nativist and post-national. Those divisions were most starkly on display when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán visited EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday. Orbán, representing the old-fashioned nation-state, claimed his government was securing Europe’s borders and blamed the influx of migrants on German generosity toward Syrian refugees. “The problem is not a European problem; the problem is a German problem,” he said.

Meanwhile German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande called for a pan-European solution that would “fairly” distribute refugees across the EU depending on a country’s ability to absorb newcomers. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is expected to unveil a plan to relocate 120,000 refugees according to a new quota system next week. Former communist countries and Britain, the most reluctant EU member, are opposed to a centralized system.

Countries such as Hungary and the Czech Republic, a reliable source of political refugees during the Cold War, are putting up the stiffest resistance to a common European solution. The divide even goes through Germany, with eastern Germans significantly more hostile to migrants than western Germans. Protected from foreign influences by the Iron Curtain, the largely ethnically homogeneous countries of the communist bloc had little experience with immigration and the challenges of multiculturalism.

Only after the collapse of communism and the withdrawal of the Red Army did the countries of Eastern and Central Europe—including Germany—fully regain their sovereignty. And from the Baltics to the Balkans, those newly sovereign states chose EU integration as the way of the future, though for completely different reasons. The German establishment, embarrassed and even a little fearful of its own power, saw a reunified Germany embedded in Europe as the key to a lasting peace. German support for EU enlargement could also be understood as late penance for the ravages of Hitler’s legions. Eastern Europeans considered the EU as a guarantee of prosperity and freedom from Russian domination.

Both old and prospective members were interested in new markets and the spread of wealth. Bureaucrats from Brussels dutifully double- and triple-checked the rule of law in the new democracies, but nobody cared whether ordinary citizens had adopted the liberal values of Western Europe.

In 2004, eight former communist countries joined the EU. Expansion for expansion’s sake took on its own momentum. Without much ado, Bulgaria and Romania were ushered into the EU in 2007.

As long as times were good, it seemed the European party would keep rolling east and south.

The EU’s blithe experiment in geopolitics hit its first bump during the global financial crisis, when the euro came under pressure and Europeans began to question the cost—and sense—of further expansion. The next big shock came last year, when Russian President Vladimir Putin took Europe’s half-hearted flirtation with Ukraine as an opportunity to annex Crimea and start a covert war that would make EU membership impossible.

While Germany was the driving force in eurozone debt negotiations and the Ukraine peace process, Merkel has always attempted to “Europeanize” solutions in tandem with France and other partners. The reason isn’t simply German modesty, but an attempt to avoid taking on more responsibility commensurate with Germany’s political and economic clout. The refugee crisis has highlighted the tension between EU members demanding more sovereignty and those calling for even less.

When Orbán said the migrants stuck in Hungary were “Germany’s problem,” he wasn’t just trying to pass the buck. The refugees themselves have made clear they have no wish to stay in Hungary and will do almost anything to get to Germany. The EU is an abstraction for migrants and Europeans alike. And if EU leaders push through decisions on an emotive issue like migration, they could trigger a populist backlash across the continent.

For the past two centuries, the so-called “German question”—the proper configuration of German statehood—has plagued Europe. With Germany reunified and embedded in the EU and NATO, the German question has evolved into a European question: What is Europe, and what role should Germany play in it?

Merkel faces a particularly treacherous Catch-22. If Germany accepts its role as Europe’s hegemon, it could pry the EU apart with Hungarians, Greeks, or Britons calling for a return to the nation-state. German passivity is just as dangerous, as the centrifugal forces tugging at Europe may only get stronger.

Europe’s status quo is no longer an option.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of Europe’s migrant crisis.

Also in Slate, see the latest photographs from the European refugee crisis.