Spray against refugees (and what Europe do we aim for?)

Dr. Linka Toneva


Anti-refugee spray. A one-way ticket to Farawaystan in the post box. No, these are not ideas of the citizens of the Bulgarian towns of Harmanli, Shiroka Laka or Elin Pelin, nor of their political representatives. These are not even ideas, but rather real political actions of the far-right nationalists in Denmark. The fear against the other and the dissemination of hatred know no boundaries. They thrive both in weak democratic communities and in societies with stable political and civic culture. They stem in poor but also in rich and highly developed societies. They flourish on political populism and extremism when the “traditional” policies do not offer effective solutions to the public problems.

The discourse of xenophobia is similar across countries and at any given time – it relies on contradictions – them against us, majorities against minorities, ours against foreign, including “shopi” against Syrian usurpers. The mayor of the Bulgarian municipality of Elin Pelin announced that “over 30 people with unclear statute live illegally in the municipality” and “tomorrow they will be more than us, this is unacceptable and we, the “shopi” will not let that happen”. At the same time on 7 February, the Danish Parliament adopted a declaration in which it “states its concern that nowadays in Denmark there are areas where the number of residents of non-Western origin is over 50% and the Parliament considers that the Danes should not be a minority in any residential area in Denmark. The declaration is approved by a majority of 55 against 54 votes, a result demonstrative of the political polarization on the issue – and it is part of a long-lasting discussion in the Danish society on who can be considered a Dane. For the time being, it seems the answer is to be sought in an identity based on differentiation from the other, the foreign.

Such political attitudes forecast a grim future on the “Europe united in diversity”, which has been a political and institutional declaration for more than 15 years (in a way the European identity debate has existed ever since the very start of the integration process). The refugee and immigrant crisis is a risk for each of the European societies and the EU as a whole. The risk however is more in the political crisis, created by the immigrant wave, than the migrants themselves. Without a common European approach neither of the EU countries can cope with the immigrant pressure on its economy, security and social systems. However, a higher risk stems from the identity crisis of the EU and the crisis of its institutional and legal toolbox for coping in such situations. It blocks both the decision-making on specific EU-wide measures to cope with immigration problems (and to turn them into opportunities), and it also blocks the trust of European citizens in the institutions taking these decisions. And with no effective solutions and their public legitimacy, Europe risks disintegrating into societies who question the meaning of a Dane, a German and a Hungarian, and seek for grounds for their national glorification at the expense of the “others”.

European societies today need one another more than ever before and yet, they are more suspicious than ever of political initiatives for deeper integration. Europe refuses to construct its identity negatively – on the principle of opposition to an External Other. This is understandable, considering the cultural and value-based priority of diversity: the EU is valuable because it can be united in its diversity. But the European identity, the perception of belonging to a common European political space can only be developed on the basis of open and equal participation in European policies, or at least, a common European debate, a shared conversation on the topic what Europe do we want in order to renegotiate the nature and the content of our union relationship. A multi-speed Europe seems more and more probable, but would that be a solution to the issues raised by the Wallonians in Belgium? Or the expectation of the Western Balkan countries towards the EU?

This is more than a political identity issue. These are pragmatic questions which have clear socio-economic dimensions – employment, social protection, security. And this is exactly why they are such a strong instrument in the hands of populist, xenophobic and anti-European parties. Their positions could definitely have a role in an open public discussion but should not be the only loud voices to express the concerns of Europeans.

Paradoxically enough, an instructive example of pluralism in the identity discussion recently came from an European country that has chosen to stay out of the EU. A few months ago the centre-right ruling coalition in Norway suggested erecting a fence between Russia and Norway’s Arctic circle border – the primary root for immigrants and refugees to enter Norway through Russia. In somewhat of a response, the 79-year old Norwegian monarch declared in a public speech: Norwegians come not only “from north Norway, central Norway, southern Norway and all the other regions”, but from “Afghanistan, Pakistan and Poland, from Sweden, Somalia and Syria”…”they believe in God, in Allah, in the universe – and in nothing”.

But where do Europeans come from, where are they headed, who are they and what kind of Europe do they believe in? This painful question will need to find an answer soon, while an united Europe is still possible.