By Hadas Aron and Emily Holland
Images of thousands of migrants, making their way across Europe with only the clothes on their backs, are reminiscent of the darkest historical periods in recent memory. The migrant crisis, which has reached biblical proportions, is threatening to unravel the European Union’s passport free Schengen Zone and is causing a deep rift between EU member states. But while migrants fleeing war stricken Middle East, Afghanistan, and Africa are flooding the European Union’s entry points, some political actors are capitalizing on the migrant issue for domestic political gain. Nationalism literature in political science can shed light on why some states have responded with such violent anti-immigrant policies.
Germany, who expects to receive almost 800,000 refugee applications this year, is calling on other EU member states to take their share. Leaders in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria and others are against a quota system, arguing that migrants are a strain on their societies and economies.
The same literature that helped explain the violent conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s can increase our understanding of the current crisis. VP Gagnon Jr. demonstrates how Serbian elites framed politics around ethnic cleavages in order to create a domestic political context where ethnic identity is the only topic on the agenda. Therefore, the conflict was not the result of security concerns, but rather of political manipulation. We argue in a recent article that leaders can use certain nationalist policies to define their regimes as protectors of the nation and marginalize liberal oppositions in the process.
The current policies put forth in several European states are not intended as real solutions to the migrant problem; instead, they are indicative of domestic political struggles. Hungary, the Southern entry point into Europe’s Schengen zone by land, is completing the controversial construction of a spiked fence on its southern border with Serbia to prevent the entry of migrants, Bulgaria has followed suit, and Estonia recently announced its decision to build a fence to keep out Russian migrants.
Even if keeping out the migrants was a reasonable solution, a fence alone could hardly keep out migrants who have traveled thousands of miles facing nearly insurmountable difficulties, unless it was heavily guarded. Second, Hungary and Bulgaria are not actually facing the worst of the migrant problem. The majority of the migrants only wish to pass through them in search of better opportunities in Austrian, Germany, or Scandinavia. While the influx of migrants is a bureaucratic challenge for Hungary and Bulgaria, their response is more a signal to domestic audiences than a rise to the challenge.
The Hungarian government is systematically using the migrant issue to detract attention from growing unrest with government policies and corruption, first with an extensive campaign warning migrants (in Hungarian) not to steal jobs from Hungarians, then with the construction the infamous fence. Recently, Hungary closed its Keleti railway station, keeping migrants stranded in the streets of Budapest with no access to basic facilities. This has made the migrant problem more visible than ever to Hungarians.
While the Hungarian government is claiming their actions are meant to protect EU borders, the result of their actions is to exacerbate the sense of domestic crisis. Hungary could have easily provided facilities to the migrants, but instead chooses to keep them in poor conditions to reinforce negative stereotypes. After much international outcry, the Hungarian authorities allowed some of the migrants to pass through to Austria, but not before making the passage as difficult as possible and reiterating their position publically.
The Hungarian campaign has a proven successful distraction: at the end of 2014, Hungarians filled the streets of Budapest weekly protesting against Orban’s radical government. Today, migrants are the only issue on the public agenda. The discourse in Hungary is becoming increasingly hostile and violent toward migrants, quickly spreading from politicians to media to the public. Violent incidents have already occurred, and as migrants passing through the country are becoming more visible, unrest is growing. This is exactly what Orban’s government wants: it frames Orban as the defender of the Hungarian nation against invaders seeking to take Hungarian jobs and disrupt society.
In Bulgaria, the fence along the Turkish border does little to deter migrants, but it does serve as a symbol of the anti-migrant sentiment sweeping Europe. Right Wing parties argue that jihadists are hiding amongst the refugees waiting to cross the border and that caring for the floods of refugees are an unsustainable strain on the national budget.
Exacerbating the problem is that in Bulgaria, the anti-migrant sentiment is not just an issue of the far right. Even moderate political groups are proponents of the fence because they want to demonstrate to the European Union that they can secure their borders, and deserve the right to become a Schengen group state.
In some states in Europe liberal voices have responded to the crisis with calls to open the borders. But in others, there has been a startling lack of alternative narrative in the press and the general public. In these states the right wing have managed to appropriate the national discourse for so long that liberals have no legitimate claim to the issue. Kahneman and Renshon argue in their 2009 article that hawkish policies resonate with individuals because they overlap with previously held biases. These tendencies are exacerbated in states that have along history of existential concerns such as the small states of Eastern and Southern Europe.
As demonstrated by the Balkan nationalism literature, the response to the migrant crisis raises several concerns. First and most immediately, the only way to offer a solution to the large population of desperate people seeking refuge is a cohesive response from European states. Building fences, stopping trains and other stopgap measures simply forces migrants to turn to smugglers and other dangerous methods of entering the European Union.
Second, the migrant crisis underscores domestic political fears and gives credence to the growing far right movement within Europe. As Gagnon shows, these conditions are ripe for intensifying conflicts around the continent, in particular in areas already prone to conflict such as Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Right wing elites mobilize support around xenophobic exclusionary narratives leading to growing animosity and even violence between groups.
Recently, Hungary’s Orban announced that Europe has a duty to defend her borders from the migrants, who “represent a radically different culture.” This is exactly the language should alert us to a potential emerging political crisis beyond the scope of the migrants.