The four new members of the European Union in Central Europe (Poland, Hungary, The Czech Republic, Slovakia) have themselves been exporters of refugees in the recent past. After the Hungarian Insurrection of 1956, 200 000 refugees fled their country and were welcomed throughout the world. A similar number of Czechs and Slovaks escaped after the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968 and some 250 000 Poles found refuge in the West after the proclamation of martial law in 1981 that put an end to the hopes of the Solidarity Trade Union movement. And yet it is these countries that have proven most recalcitrant in the face of the influx of new refugees from Asia and Africa to the extent of setting up walls and barbed wire, such as those they themselves knew in the past and which they joyfully dismantled as they prepared to “rejoin Europe.”
The excuses they have made for this behaviour have hardly been convincing. “We have no mosques, the refugees would not be comfortable,” declared the Slovak Prime Minister. A high Polish official has argued, “the refugees want to go to Germany. It would unjust to make them come here.” And the Hungarian foreign minister, without citing any sources, has spoken darkly of thirty to thirty five million refugees ready to descend upon Europe.
The lack of generosity of these countries, the amnesia with regard to their own recent past, have shocked Western Europe. Living on a seemingly united continent, one overlooks the profound differences which distinguish the so-called “New Europe” from the “Old Europe.” And yet, these differences exist and they can be sought in the historical experience of these countries, both in the distant and in the recent past.
The colonial experience, or its absence, constitutes a first difference between the old and the new Europe. None of the countries of central Europe has ever possessed or been part of an overseas empire. Almost all the countries of the European Union in Western Europe have been colonial powers or, like Malta, Ireland and Cyprus, have belonged to colonial powers. In fact, several West European countries – notably, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Denmark – still have colonial possessions; and Portugal left Macao, its last and one of its oldest colonies, only in 1999.
Today there may be fewer than two million people living under colonial rule, but although the colonial era properly speaking appears to be over, it has left a lasting impact, particularly in respect to what one may call “the uses of the Other.” One notices the sequels of colonialism in all the great cities of Old Europe. No one is surprised in the streets of London, Paris or Amsterdam when she sees an African or a veiled woman. Nor is anyone taken aback when she hears someone from the global South speak the local language. Even more anecdotally, one can hardly count the numerous Pakistani restaurants in London, those serving couscous in Paris or a Rijkstafel in Amsterdam.
All this remains unknown for the countries of Central Europe. They have never recovered from the fact that they missed the first wave of globalization, marked by the opening to the Atlantic as of the 16th century. Thus, Prague, which in the Middle Ages rivalled Paris as a European capital, became a provincial city. The isolation of these countries was further reinforced by almost half a century of communism. The foreigner of distinctive appearance is not a familiar sight in the East of the continent and the attitude towards him or her is very different from what one experiences in the West. “We are here because you were there,” read the signs carried by demonstrators from the Indian sub-continent in London. West European elites, proud of their openness and their anti-racism, carry the burden of a bad conscience with respect to people from the South. There is nothing of the sort in the East where people are unanimous in recalling their own suffering and their historical innocence, and in affirming that “we are not responsible for the miseries of the world.”
Because of divergent experiences, including the colonial past, diversity has become a key value in the West. In contrast, whereas the countries of Central Europe have historically exemplified ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity, they are pleased that this is no longer the case.
Jews, Slavs and Germans cohabited Central Europe for centuries – not necessarily in harmony, but in the tacit recognition that each community had its place in the social landscape. This diversity was destroyed by genocide, expulsion and massive movements of population, notably in the course of the Second World War. Moreover, diversity is now associated with an unhappy past. These countries experienced diversity when they were deprived of independence, subjected to Habsburg, Prussian, Ottoman or tsarist rule. They did not then have their own state and they were obliged to speak foreign languages.
Today, whereas almost all the Western members of the European Union share a language with another country – even Swedish which is an official language in Finland – none of the new members of the EU in Central Europe shares its language with another state. Polish, Czech, Slovak or Hungarian have no official status at a national level outside their own country and the people concerned consider this a cause for celebration. Whereas all the states of old Europe have introduced some measure of regional autonomy, all the way up to federalism, to respond to the aspirations of their minorities or to allow for local particularities, all the new countries of European Union remain resolutely unitary. “One and indivisible,” the slogan of the French Revolution, contested even in France, remains the rule in the East. The ideal of a homogenous state, mistakenly imagined as a feature of successful Western states, is shared by all in Central Europe, even though these countries are in fact less homogeneous than they would like to be, as the example of the Roma demonstrates.
The fear that the arrival of refugees would destroy a much vaunted, though considerably exaggerated, national harmony is heightened by the fact that these refugees are, predominantly, Muslim. And yet, only Hungary has experienced a partial occupation of its territory by the Ottomans over a period of one hundred fifty years. Hungarians are prompt to blame the Ottoman occupation for the under-development of their country. In fact, their ills are due to the fact that Hungary found itself, for other reasons, outside the main axes of modernisation. Poland is proud to have acted as a rampart of Christianity against invaders from the East – antemurale christianitatis – but the few Tatars who have been historically present there have never weighed much in the make-up of the population. Today, the “Muslim” acts as a figure of fright, a codename for the stranger or the foreigner whom people do not want to live with and whom they are not ready to assimilate.
Sovereignty Above All
Behind the hostility toward the Other, the newcomer, lurks a deeply held apprehension among the people of these four Central European countries that their state is a fragile one. For over a century Poland disappeared from the maps, partitioned by its three powerful neighbours. Poland’s national anthem begins with the words “Poland has not yet perished while we live …,” a statement that only confirms Poland’s deepest fears. Hungary, four times smaller than Poland demographically, with a population distinct from that of the Slav, German and Latin peoples who surround it, and a language unrelated to that of any of its neighbours, is permanently obsessed with the fear that the Hungarian nation may die out. The Czechs are pleased to be finally alone in their own country after having expelled the Germans in 1945 and having cut their ties with the Slovaks in 1992, but their state is only twenty-some years old. And the only previous experience of independence that the Slovaks have known is that of having been a German satellite during the Second World War. The people of Central Europe fret over what the influx of refugees would do to their newly-won and very fragile statehood.
Moreover, the countries of Central Europe have been made to wait a long time before entering the European Union. During the heady early days of European construction, the countries of the Soviet bloc watched, with envy and self-pity, as the gap in terms of material well-being between them and Western Europe grew increasingly larger. In the communist period, the European Union was, obviously, unattainable. However, even after having overthrown the Soviet yoke, the Central European states found, to their surprise and disappointment, that Brussels was in no hurry to welcome them. The European Union waited fifteen years to accept countries which believed that they had always been a part of Europe and thus had a right to belong to the Union. Absent for fifty years, the ex-communist countries were excluded too long from the process of European construction to embrace its principles. They have thus come to resent rather than to share its secular and pacifist ethos which prides itself on its modernity or post-modernity and on its unrestricted tolerance.
Misunderstandings between the two parts of Europe remained understated during the period when the former communist countries were candidates for admission to the European Union. They accepted the conditions imposed upon them without expressing indignation at Brussels’ hypocrisy which required them to solve their ethnic conflicts before entering the EU, even though such conflicts persisted in the West and were in some cases very violent, as in the Basque Country or in Northern Ireland. Now that these countries have become members of the European Union, they no longer hesitate to affirm their distinctiveness, as is the case with the present refugee crisis. It is the Poles who insisted on including “Christian values” into the European constitution and who supported the American invasion of Iraq, condemned by the major countries of the Old Europe; the Poles went so far as to assume responsibility for an occupation zone in Iraq, taking pride in their martial prowess. The principle of non-discrimination which is at the heart of the European experience for the older members of the European Union is viewed far more skeptically in the East. Whereas Old Europe defines itself in terms of its tolerance of historical or ethnic minorities and of new sexual minorities, this tolerance has not been internalised in the East.
In the final analysis, Brussels has not understood the importance of national sovereignty for the new members of the European Union. Only recently freed from the limited sovereignty imposed by Moscow, these countries delight in their new-found sovereignty, long lost or, in some cases, never previously attained. These recently resurrected or completely new states cherish their sovereignty as unrestricted and unconditional. They entered the European Union not to give up their sovereignty but to reinforce it through integration into a broad and prosperous community which, in their minds, is indebted to them because of the suffering they have experienced. Today, the refusal to accept quotas put forward by Brussels or by some older members of the European Union is an affirmation of sovereignty.
The attitudes of hostility to refugees that characterise the countries of Central Europe are not unknown in the West. With the increased entry of refugees and the difficulties of integration that are bound to arise, these attitudes may well find broader support in the West. The difference between the Old and the New Europe lies in the fact that these exclusionary attitudes will remain contested within the old members of the European Union and will be resisted there both by elites and by a large share of the population. In Central Europe the refusal to welcome refugees is an element of social consensus.
André Liebich is honorary professor of International History and Politics at the Graduate Institute, Geneva and a visiting fellow at the Institute für die Wissenschaft vom Menschen, Vienna. This text is a free translation by the author of an article that is to appear in French in the review Choisir. Some of the themes presented here have been developed by the author in his article “How Different is the New Europe? Perspectives on States and Minorities,” CEU Political Science Journal 3:3 (2008) pp. 268-3012.
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