We should stop saying that Europe is facing a refugee crisis

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"Europe faces a refugee crisis." This seems to be the standard media description of the current movement of refugees to Europe—the largest migration to the continent since World War II—with at least a million expected to reach the EU in 2015. Refugees, fleeing unlivable lives in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia and beyond face a gauntlet of crises. But what exactly is the crisis that Europe faces?


There is the challenge, and it is no small one, of resettling eventually millions of displaced people. Four million people have already fled Syria alone. The infrastructural, bureaucratic and ethical demand on European states is sizable now and will be vast. But Europe's challenge is not something it can avoid or ignore—in other words, it's a new reality. To call reality a crisis risks refusing to face it as anything more than temporary, or exceptional. In this case, it is neither.

If it took the invocation of "crisis" to push through Tuesday's fraught agreement between EU leaders to enforce refugee quotas and share the settling of 120,000 people, so be it. However, to say there is a "crisis" in Europe posits an existential threat to a preferable, pre-existing status quo. It implies that something about Europe is under threat, which is the sort of thinking behind history's darkest moments. The framework of "crisis" is being deployed in two very different ways around the challenge of settling refugees. One is dangerous, xenophobic and baseless, the other is ill-thought and ahistorical.

The first can be found in the paranoiac nationalism of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who said of the refugees "they are over-running us." Hungary's treatment of Europe's new denizens has drawn rightful censure. Prison laborers were deployed to erect razor wire fences along Hungary's Balkan frontiers, while the army has been empowered to use rubber bullets, net guns and tear gas at the borders. With a blood-chilling historical echo, a train bound to take refugees to Austria stopped instead at a camp for asylum-seekers in Hungary. The crisis Orban sees is the crisis any racist sees when facing the Ausländer. It's a deranged logic that sees German neo-Nazis burn down buildings in the cities they want to protect, because those buildings might soon house refugees. This sort of "crisis" talk needs unmitigated crushing. Europe is not being "over-run"; if 5 million more people come to Europe, that's less than 1% of the union's current inhabitants.

The other idea of European "crisis" proliferating is less racist, more inward facing, but more confused. Well-intentioned voices calling for Europe to live up to its purported ideals understandably see a crisis for Europe in the erecting of nation border barriers and disunity over refugee policy. The rightfully vaulted European principle of free movement—enshrined by the Schengen agreement—is at least temporarily threatened as nations establish border controls along frontiers where no customs or passport controls had been required, in many areas for two decades. When Germany, just days after stating that all refugees were welcome, re-established passport controls along its Austrian border, the commentariat cried, "But Schengen!" As such, the arrival of record numbers of refugees appears to be revealing the fragility of liberal project Europe.

It's an easy enough narrative to buy when border restrictions thought long gone from the European model are reasserting themselves. Certainly, this is no good thing when more borders need tearing down, not more erected. But if we locate a great crisis in the albeit problematic interventions on free movement of refugees within the continent now, we're telling ourselves a dangerous fairytale about Europe. The agreement signed at Schengen was important in inscribing free movement of people as a European principle—but, to be sure, it was in service of the movement of European capital and always, always incorporated measures to control immigration from south and east of Europe. When, in 2004, the EU expanded east to include the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia, these countries were not initially included as Schengenlander precisely because (in familiar rhetoric) the populist voices and powers in Western Europe aired concerns about ways of life, European Values, financial burden, and yes, immigration.

Historian Tony Judt wrote in a seminal 1996 essay on the "illusion" of Europe, "the object of Schengen is to make Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia, as well as the Mediterranean Sea, a sort of demographic limes, tampon states that would absorb and block the westward or northward movement of desperate peoples." These countries later of course joined the EU, then, after jumping considerable bureaucratic hurdles, the Schengen zone of free movement. Their previous role as buffer zones for refugees has shifted under EU law, but reminds us of something crucial when we think about the European idea of free movement as it applies to refugees. Schengen was not an attempt to open up Europe but rather to shore up the fortress. Judt noted that Schengen meant that whichever country within the agreement had the fiercest immigration and labor laws, the same regulation could be applied to other member states. "A sort of highest common factor of discriminatory political arithmetic," he wrote.


So if Schengen has always in some ways been a tool to manage immigration from outside of Europe, there should be no surprise that it does not prevent internal nation-state based control on non-European migrants. Anyone who thought Europe's free movement policy had managed to truly perforate the spaces of nation states, and blur the line between national citizen and global, even European, denizen must have been looking at a different continent in recent years and decades. This past year alone has shown that the European project is fragile and defined by fraught unity between very distinct nation states.

For over a year, news media harbingers have been warning of a Europe tearing at the seams. 2014's European elections saw far right and euroskeptical parties from the left make sweeping gains—the great liberal project seemed under siege. Then, relatedly of course, Greece, backing the leftist Syriza party squared off against Germany and the pro-austerity Eurocrats. The possibility of a Greek exit from the monetary union, and the righteous anger in southern Europe at the power of Europe's unelected Troika, spoke loudly of European disunity.


And now, the divisions over a refugee response fall along entirely different lines, with Germany acting the closest to decent. There, too, realtpolitikal calculus attends the discussions of refugee quotas across Europe. "Refugees Welcome," but not so welcome that more people are encouraged to come. The question, from tabloid headline to Luxembourg negotiation table repeats: "How many more can we take?" (If only the emphasis rested on "can.") This is not a new refrain: Europe, as a project beyond a continent, has always been uneasy about expansion, integration and protectionism. To hold it up as a coherent panacea— as with any state, let alone super-state—just gives fuel to the racists and nationalists who claim they have something essential to protect.