Monday, September 7, 2015

Europe split East-West as well as North-South.

During the Greek debt repayment crisis and referendum of a couple of months back there was a lot of talk about the possibility of two Euros - a northern tier Euro for Germany, Netherlands, France etc. and another Euro for those countries considered less fiscally responsible - mainly Mediterranean countries although it could of course include Ireland.

But, the Euro aside, it seems to me that there is almost de facto two Europes within the EU. On the one hand there are the original six plus perhaps Britain and the Scandinavian countries and possibly Poland. On the other there are the countries of central and southeastern Europe,most of which were in the Soviet bloc, before 1989. This includes most of what was once referred to as Mitteleuropa - Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia - as well as those which were once under Ottoman rule - Bulgaria, Romania. Greece was also under Ottoman rule but, never in the Soviet sphere.

In the eighties and nineties there was much debate about whether Europe should seek greater depth or greater breadth. While France with its centralizing tradition was all for deepening the existing union, Britain with its insular tradition of scepticism of too much involvement with 'the continent', pushed very hard for expansion eastward, taking in former Warsaw Pact countries. What actually occurred was both broadening and deepening, although perhaps not to the extent that the promoters of either wanted.

The EU was deepened with the relaxing of border controls and the formation of the Euro and the creation of a European parliament. But the deepening was only patchy - several countries stayed out of the Schengen agreement on borders, most notably the UK, and many more stayed out of the Euro.
With hindsight we can now see some of the problems with the deepening - the crisis of the Euro, and the rules for refugees entering and moving across borders within Europe are the most obvious.

But the refugee crisis has also revealed serious problems with the broadening. The attitudes of some of the newer EU members from the east seem to be very much at variance with the liberal democratic values on which the EU was founded. Hungary is a prime example.

We have seen pictures of Hungarian police blocking refugees from entering the railway station in Budapest, and then eventually letting some on to trains which were diverted to a police-controlled camp in Biscke, even though they had tickets to Munich. Germany had publicly stated that it would accept all refugees reaching its border, so the Hungarian police action was gratuitous and presumably carried out to make a point. What was the point?
Well the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban who heads a conservative nationalist government has said:

“those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims.”

“This is an important question, because Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity.”

In a similar vein Slovakia has said that it will only accept Christian refugees from Syria.

Pointing out the ethno-nationalist attitudes which prevail in some of the eastern countries does not mean to say that similar attitudes do not exist in the western core EU nations. France's National Front and Britain's UKIP are anti-immigrant parties, neither of them friendly to Muslim immigrants or refugees. The UK Conservative government has shown extreme reluctance to allow refugees entry. In fact Germany alone seems to stand out as the one country willing to act with generosity towards Syrian refugees.

But even in Germany there is some hostility to immigration, especially from Muslim lands. But interestingly enough most of this opposition seems to be concentrated in the former DDR. Pegida, an anti immigrant group drew large crowds to protests in Dresden but failed miserably when rallies were organized in the former FRG (West Germany). Ossies and Wessies seem to have different attitudes to having foreigners in their midsts.

And it seems fair to say, more generally, that the majority attitude towards refugees and outsiders is different in the eastern reaches of the EU to that in the West, and an interesting question is why this is so.

I think it lies in the fact that after the World War II, West Germany and France were open societies that came to terms with what had happened during the Nazi period. This is especially true of West Germany. In the east however, under Soviet sway, it was all too easy to blame the sins of the past on the Nazis, who after all were virulently anti Communist. Thus even in the DDR (East Germany) people were not asked to examine their consciences about what happened during the war. Rather it was all conveniently blamed on Hitler and his Nazi henchmen.

Hungary was a willing ally of Hitler from the outset, but in 1944 with the Soviets advancing, Hitler sent in German troops when he learned of contacts between the Hungarian government and the Western Allies. Under Adolf Eichmann's direction, Hungarian authorities willingly participated in rounding up Jews and forcing them on to trains headed for Germany and death camps further east.

But the current government of Hungary likes to portray Hungary as a victim of Nazi aggression. In July 2014, in spite of many protests, a monument in Budapest's Heroes' Square was unveiled. Central to it is a statue of the German eagle attacking the Archangel Gabriel, a symbol of Hungary.

I think an acknowledgment of the crimes of the past has helped the countries of western Europe avoid the temptations of fascism and xenophobia. The police in occupied France and the milice in Vichy both assisted the Nazis in rounding up Jews for deportation, in a similar way to the Hungarian police a few years later in 1944. But the French have publicly acknowledged their guilt, while such a public reckoning has not happened in Hungary. Modern France is not free from racism and anti-Muslim sentiment, but it has not become official policy as it apparently has in Hungary and Slovakia. 

So this is the east-west divide I see in the EU - the western countries with a longer-stnding tradition of liberal democracy and the rule of law, and a more tolerant attitude to change and to outsiders; and the eastern countries with shakier democracies and a tendency towards extreme nationalism if not racism.  

Of course as always there are exceptions.  Spanish and Portuguese democracies have only been established for forty years or so, but they seem robust, even though anti-Muslim sentiment can be quite strong in Spain.  France as I mentioned has the National Front.  On the other hand the Czech Republic seems to have been quite successful in establishing a liberal democracy.

Back to the deepening-enlarging dichotomy. Deepening has led to the Euro crisis; enlargement to a loss of homogeneity.  Britain in seeking an enlargement was worried about too much power being concentrated in the Franco-German axis. But now Britain is contemplating exiting the EU largely because many of its citizens don't like the immigration from many of the newer EU countries (Poland, Hungary, Romania etc.). Be careful what you wish for, one might say.

There surely is an irony here as marked as that of Hungarian authorities hindering thankless refugees given that thousands of Hungarians fled to Austria and became 
refugees in the West following the Soviet invasion of 1956. 

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