Refugees replace Greece in the headlines

Angela Merkel changes image of Germany

How much has changed in a month! The headlines are no longer about the struggle of the Greek government and people to find a way forward for their becalmed economy but the more traumatic sufferings of the Syrian people fleeing their civil war. The latter is not new: the war has lasted four years and the numbers coming to Europe have been steadily increasing over the last twelve months. Germany was already committed to accepting large numbers of the refugees and local authorities an voluntary organisations were busy preparing to facilitate their arrival. But the numbers have increased, particularly coming through Turkey and the Balkans overland or via Greek islands. Most important Angela Merkel decided that the issue could no longer be treated as a subsidiary problem but had become the greatest challenge facing the European Union this year and perhaps for years to come. Not only the courage and humanity of her decision to prepare to accept up to 800,000 refugees this year and 500,000 a year subsequently, but the extent to which it is endorsed by large numbers of ordinary German people who have openly even enthusiastically welcomed the arrival of refugees, for example at Munich’s main railway station, have been remarkable. Opposition has so far been muted and mainly concentrated in former eastern Germany.

The image of Germany as rigid and hard-hearted particularly in Greece and other southern European countries but also more widely across the EU by its insistence on harsh fiscal austerity and its refusal to countenance debt forgiveness has been overturned. The Greek drama has not come to an end. A second general election this year is to take place on September 20th. However, for better or worse, the wings of the radicals are likely to be clipped. The main contest is between the traditional centre-right party New Democracy and a Syriza separated from its most leftwing component, and committed to implementing a programme of pragmatic reforms agreed with its creditors, not least the hardline German finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble. It has become clear that a dramatically different economic policy would only be possible if Greece were to leave the euro, a choice supported by a significant but minority section of the Greek population. The dramatic decline in living standards since 2009 and the 50% level of young people’s unemployment in Greece have had devastating consequences that are more comparable to the conditions of the 30s than anything in western Europe since the 1950. Nevertheless it is evident to Greece, which has received many desperate refugees on its easternmost islands, as well as the rest of Europe, that the plight of the Syrian people and other refugees is far worse.

 

Differences between east and west Europe

The refugee crisis has thus done a little to ease divisions between northern Europe and southern Europe, but has opened divisions between west Europe and countries in central and eastern Europe which feel that the refugee problem is not theirs. There are some differences between these former communist countries. The Hungarian government has made it clear that it feels little but hostility to the refugees coming through, even though it knows that they are all heading onwards, mostly to Germany. At least the Polish government has agreed in principle to take 2,000 refugees while putting forward the argument , up to a point valid, that Poland’s demography and economy make it much less suitable to taking large numbers of refugees than Germany. Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister, now president of the European Council, has shown the statesmanship to take a wider view of the issue than he probably would have if still prime minster of Poland.

The new president of Poland, Andrzej Duda, has pointed out that the situation in its neighbour Ukraine remains of concern to Poland, much more so than to countries further away from Ukraine. There are substantial numbers of Ukrainians in Poland. Although only a minority of those there at present come from eastern Ukraine and so are refugees rather than migrants in search of employment the numbers of both could rise if the situation deteriorated. In recent months Ukraine has not been very much in the news and to an extent no news is good news even if the low level war in the east continues to cause loss of life. The government is trying to put a bill through parliament to give very substantial powers to the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk including control over the police forces and courts while allowing Ukraine to regain control of its eastern border, as agreed with Russia at Minsk. Such an eventuality looks theoretical at present but the bill shows that the government is rightly willing to make sacrifices in  the search for peace and stability. In doing so it provoked a violent response from the far-right Svoboda group which killed a policeman outside parliament and the loss of support in parliament from the nationalist Radical Party.

 

Quotas may not work but sharing is essential

The refugee crisis is seen differently across the 28-member EU, as is the case with other issues like the troubles of southern members of the euro zone. No one is suggesting that other countries should open the doors to the extent that Germany is doing. The 160,000 for the rest of the Schengen area proposed by the European Commission is several times lower than the number Germany is prepared to take. In the end rigid quotas probably will not work since it is hard to say how Syrian or other Muslim refugees could be settled in a country as hostile to them as Hungary even if its government agreed. Nevertheless a degree of sharing is required if the EU is to hold together.

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