Miraculously, only now, in 2015, have the millions of people leaving their homes South and East of Europe found their way across the European borders. One might also say fought, as nothing about those trips seems to be easy. These people have made a reality what the artist activists of the Centre for Political Beauty prophetically enacted as the First Fall of the European Wall only a year ago. In an unceasing trickle Syrians, Africans, people from the Balkan countries and many others emerge from the many holes in that European wall. The European fortress must always have had those holes. But only now does the pressure outside of that comfortable refuge we call Europe start to push people through them. These refugees (for lack of a better word) arrive in a Europe fundamentally torn between its own perceived needs and conflicts, a fear of the other and the distinct feeling that neither goes well with the image we would like to keep of ourselves. People arrive and they are welcomed, fed, made to wait, left alone, registered, celebrated, hated, put up in good/unsuitable/no housing, kept from moving on, made to move on, kept waiting, processed – in any and no particular order, usually more than once. Things are happening much to fast for much political strategy to be behind this. It’s everybody following their guts in a Europe not prepared for that kind of situation. And apparently everybody is pretty confused – hence the confused reaction.
Everything about this “refugee crisis” is complicated: the sheer numbers, the speed, the logistics, the priorities, the politics, the long-term implications. Unfortunately, everything about Europe was pretty complicated before. Remember the almost forgotten Greek debt crisis? Unlike the – also starving and suffering Greeks, Syrian families do not stay in Greece or Italy or Hungary but go on and on, as far away from the cause of their pain as seemed possible. These crises share many features. Resolving them requires funds, cooperation and the courage to ask and answer difficult questions. In other words,their resolution needs everyone to be ready to share, talk to people that may or not be easy to talk to, give up on many little things they would like to insist upon (like “proper” papers and procedures for everything), think beyond their own immediate needs, find creative solutions and commit to a commonly shared goal yet to be determined. I am only naming the basic requirements here….
Look at the immediate challenges faced in light of continuous flows of people from the Middle East (a mess we are by no means innocent in). Closing borders even for a brief time seems wrong but so does having people walk across the borders along motorways, strand in small towns and sleep on the floor in huge. Closing the borders between European neighbours feels like a step back into a time, we all thought behind us. Transporting thousands of people by train and bus is all nice and well but the logistics of moving so many people are incredibly difficult to manage, especially if we just dump them at the next border. There is a reason that kind of thing is usually only done with months of planning ahead – not hours. And when people arrive housing, food and clothing don’t materialize simply in the right places. Needs and distribution need to be matched and it is not even possible to say who is responsible (No, it is not enough to say the state…). By an unexpected show of collective maturity (or divine intervention) these immediate tasks have been solved incredibly well. People volunteer, share and cooperate in unprecedented ways. Thousands around the Europe go out of their way to make the best of a challenging situation. It is a miracle! Yet, the whole system completely fails: Noone is ready, many people are left without help at all and if anyone has any idea where to go from here, they are hiding it pretty well. It is desaster!
Those warning, that we cannot keep on taking on more refugees have a point – the long term challenges are immense and I am far from convinced that we will master them. But the people reminding us of our moral duty not to let people die at our borders if there is any way we can prevent it couldn’t be more right. There is so many right things, that it is impossible to decide what is the right thing to do. I have reconciled myself to the fact that we will have to muddle through this crisis just as Europe muddled through the last (Remember? Back when we Europeans thought a little Greek debt was a problem to fall apart over…). We will fail many times over, fail us and fail those seeking refuge. Yet, muddling through and failing has brought the European Union so far, maybe it will get us further still? Aren’t all these question in the end administrative and can best be answered by people who have lots of numbers at hand, who can systematically optimize the outcome employing a healthy combination of fair rules and good judgement?
Administrating the problem is not exactly straight forward, though. Limiting asylum appers as the one way in which we can gain back control in an uncontrollable situation. In light of the immediate challenges which so vividly illustrate the impossibility of the tasks ahead, many conservative voices see this as a way out. Isn’t Afghanistan mostly safe these days? Liberal voices on the other hand refuse to consider the gravity of the changes we are about to face with hundreds of thousands of people coming to live with us for a while – or forever. They consider the practical problems because these problems seem so, well, practical, solvable if just we find the right procedures and muster the necessary resources. Critics of this perspective are right in saying that this is essentially driven by the fear to face the severity of the problems to be solved. Both perspectives go hand in hand and can, indeed and quite surprisingly, be held by one person at the same time. These perspectives are little more than coping mechanisms. But not for coping with the refugee crisis. We turn in circles around these problems in order to avoid the really tough questions. What kind of Europe do we want to be? Do we dare to fall back into nationalistic patterns or leap for something else? Are we ready to do what it takes to live up to our ideals and dreams? And most importantly, are we ready to take the risk of debating these questions even if one possible outcome is that the whole European project falls apart?
All too often we are too scared to discuss the underlying issues because they relate to our innermost beliefs, our European idea. We are mostly happy with this “European Idea” being a generally undefined Something. Indeed, we would not really know what to do if we became explicitly aware of any fundamental disagreements – about who we want to be as Europeans, about what the “European idea” means and what we are ready to do for it. Many would argue such general things have nothing to do with the crises at hand. Answering these questions is not a solution to the refugees’ situation. It may not even help in making the right choices between different policy options. Yet, when I look closer at the different suggestions voiced in the debate around the refugees coming to Europe over the last weeks, I see how it is those questions on what we think Europe should be – remaining not merely unanswered but mostly not even raised – fuelling disagreements. The debate between proponents of limiting rights to asylum more strictly and those wanting to find the most liberal solution only superficially concerns numbers, logistical problems and the limits of our capacity. It is rather an expression of a fundamental uncertainty about solidarity in Europe and where we want the European project to go. Sceptics are driven by fear of the unknown and the sheer unpredictability of what will come out of this. Putting up the founding ideas of any society, those ideas that form the basis of all administrative bickering is tricky business. Smart political theorists advice against it. But barring a belief in political authority based on tradition, money or God, engaging with those fundamental questions is the strategy of choice. Maybe, this latest crisis pushes us over the edge and forces the issue into public consciousness. Maybe we take babysteps by creating an empirical reality of welcoming and sharing which will reassure us of our ability to indeed live up to ideals of solidarity and a fair and open society. Maybe we exchange bold opinions and argue fiercely. Either way, what we do now matters, we are redefining who we are and who we will be with every little thing we say and do. We need to be bold and brave and aware of the significance of these times.