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The centre cannot hold

April 20, 2016 - Samuel Abrahám - Discussion


Reflecting on the turmoil occurring in Europe today, one is prone to ask whether it is a symptom of the larger global crisis or a sign of the European Union’s systemic weakness to withstand pressure from within. In particular, has the influx of refugees in 2015 manifest Brussels’ lack of will, means or both to take the lead in resolving the crisis? There seems to be no European government in charge, no leaders to rally other leaders to co-ordinate or compel them to act. The EU Lisbon Treaty, which in theory gives more power to the centre, has done little to weaken the old concept of sovereignty in practice. Indeed, what we witness is that individual member states are taking charge of the crisis and deal with it according to their governments’ predisposition and outlook. Unfortunately, political leaders have so far neither provided a united voice nor a scenario regarding how the crisis might come to an end. There seems to be a moment coming when we sadly, yet again, might recite William Butler Yeats’ words:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

Indeed, by only observing the current status quo, it would seem that with one or two more waves of refugees like those we witnessed in 2015, the EU is bound to collapse. Not because Europe lacks the capacity to absorb refugees. On the contrary, more than half a billion aging EU citizens are leaving plenty of room for young immigrants. But the point is that the capacity and willingness to accept refugees are two distinct issues and that it is the majority population’s unwillingness and fear – real, imagined or enticed – which dictates the shape of the crisis. As we witness time and time again, if under threat, the majority chooses security rather than freedom. As Richard Rorty argues, “The fear that there will be not enough to go around” is a great enemy of liberalism and ultimately of liberal democracies. The resulting feeling of insecurity, he continues, “makes people claw back at what there is, for use by people ‘like us’”. This real and psychological threat would prevent us from sharing with others when we feel that we might lose everything. 

What are the causes and what are the prospects for Europe? And where does Central Europe, or the Visegrad countries (V4), stand in all this? Europe was caught off guard in 2015 with the flood of refugees coming, especially from the Turkish coast. A number of EU countries, Germany and Sweden in particular, offered humanitarian help and welcomed refugees in the best European tradition and in accordance to international law. Others, and in particular the V4 countries, reacted also in the European tradition, but in its darker rendition. We might expect that the western EU members which offered humanitarian help will not forget the behaviour of those closing their borders and unwilling to share the burden of accommodating refugees. They might not reprimand Hungarians or Slovaks now (in fact, there are no legal measures to do so). Yet, in due course, when the EU finds itself at a crossroads again, in need of reshaping its structure and borders, a notice will surely be presented to the selfish V4 countries lacking solidarity with their European partners.

One should also note that EU countries can quite easily prevent or minimise this flood. However, it would be a difficult and painful process, as the EU is often plagued with procrastination and indecision. The resolution would require harsh anti-immigration measures, even the use of force to prevent the new influx of refugees. These steps would certainly undermine common European values, the notion of solidarity with those whose life is threatened by war or natural catastrophes.

This text is a part of New Eastern Europe’s special coverage titled “A debate on the future of Europe”.

Yet, there seems to be an alternative perception of this grim prospect, which was envisioned in the 1990s by Irish philosopher and diplomat Connor Cruise O’Brien in his book On the Eve of the Millennium. O’Brien argues that the West – we can say Europe – will survive only if it becomes “a guarded palace, in a city gripped by the plague;” a fortress keeping out poor, would-be immigrants. O’Brien argues that opening the gates would cause the plague to spread and we would all perish. Yet we realise that keeping the immigrants out is in conflict with our ethical and moral codes of solidarity. Most of us would feel guilty – consciously or subconsciously – for consenting to the “dirty work” done behind our backs, by immigration officers, border controls and armed boats keeping the gates locked.

The impact on the EU would be profound. It would not be a pleasant picture but, for different reasons, the vast majority of Europeans would acquiesce. The right would present the need for a fortress in order to prevent terrorists to enter Europe while the left and liberals, uncomfortably, would simply claim that more refugees would undermine liberal democracy and the EU’s structure. The result would clash with our current ethical codex on how to treat those who are genuinely in need of help.  

O’Brien asks us to face the harsh reality. He advised us back in 1994: “The first thing to feel clearly is that we do have a lot to feel guilty about. The second is that most of the guilt is inseparable from our condition.” Refusal to openly recognise this moral quandary and to believe that we stand on a high moral ground, he claimed, is an illusion cultivated by moderate politicians and the majority of public intellectuals.

One could ask: could our liberal democratic tradition and values prevent the rise of fortress Europe? One could respond with another question: do we, or will we, have a choice? Paradoxically, fortress Europe might be the only chance for Europe to preserve the political structure of liberal democracies. Besides, liberal democracies are the only political entities able to face the dangers of a future fortress Europe. All the other regimes would turn it into a political system prone to dictatorship of some sort – harming Europe as well as those suffering beyond its borders.

Samuel Abrahám is the rector of the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts (BISLA) and the publisher and editor of the journal Kritika & Kontext.


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