Europe’s two faces

Confronted by the sudden influx of migrants fleeing from the war-torn and impoverished countries of West Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, Europe has responded in two fundamental ways—one, out of fear; the other, out of love.

The first has taken the form of barbed-wire barriers to keep aliens out of Hungary’s borders. In recent months, this country has served as the gateway to Western Europe for those taking the land route across the porous borders of Southern Europe. “It is Hungary’s primary interest to protect its border,” Prime Minister Viktor Orban said last Monday. “For this, we need a physical point, a physical line, a construction, which can be guarded by the army, the police and any other official sent to the border.”

The second took the form last week of a convoy of more than 200 private vehicles that streamed out of Austria to rescue migrants stranded in Hungary’s highways and bring them to safety. This was a spontaneous reaction to the discovery just days before of 71 decomposing bodies of refugees inside an abandoned refrigerated truck along an Austrian motorway. The truck, carrying the logo of a company that deals in frozen chicken, lay silently by the road just three miles outside of Vienna.

In Germany, where most of these migrants are headed, Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken the boldest step in all of Europe, pledging $6.7 billion in additional funding to accommodate these displaced populations. Last year, Germany took in almost 200,000 of them in a gesture of humanitarian compassion that no other European country has so far been able to match. But not all her compatriots share Merkel’s passionate commitment. There have been xenophobic attacks every week targeting refugee hostels and shelters in various German cities. Rightwing extremist groups are sprouting everywhere, feeding upon growing anti-immigrant sentiment.

But Merkel is unfazed. The power of her example has created strong pressure on other governments to act decisively. French President Francois Hollande is now pushing the European Commission to allocate as many as 120,000 refugees among the European Union’s 28 member-nations. Even Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, who had earlier warned against further attracting “swarms” of migrants, has modified his tone. Britain, he said, is prepared to admit up to 20,000 refugees from Syria. But he insists that priority be given to those who, lacking in material resources to pay human smugglers, have languished in the refugee settlements of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

It is, however, unlikely that Europe as a whole will be able to muster enough will to mount a unified response to this crisis. The numbers are simply staggering. Not since World War II has Europe witnessed such a massive flow of people crossing national borders at the same time. What is interesting is that not all of them are coming from conflict-ridden Syria, Libya, or Iraq. According to a New York Times report, of the 150,000 migrants who passed through Hungary this year, “53,467 came from Syria, with 41,094 from Afghanistan, 24,554 from Kosovo and the rest from Iraq, Pakistan, Eritrea and other troubled nations.”

Stepping out of the shadow of the Holocaust, the new Germany appears alone in acknowledging the emergent reality of a single world system that defies the built-in racism of the modern nation-state. Everywhere else, people remain in the grip of the old nationalism that had fused race, religion, language and culture into a single vision of the nation-state. France seems to be the only other country that has come around to recognizing the futility of the modern project of a homogeneous national identity. It is thus not surprising that these two countries today are home to the largest Muslim populations in Western Europe.

Those of us who travel from Asia to Europe for the first time may find it disorienting to encounter a continent that has become a home to a huge variety of peoples, languages and religions. And we may well wonder—given our own fixed notions of national identity—how European countries have been able to manage the complex pressures and issues arising from such diversity. I still remember, while attending a conference in Berlin in the late 1990s, how stunned I was after I got off at the wrong train station and promptly got lost in a neighborhood that looked like a microcosm of Turkey. I had the same strange sensation of being out of place during an overnight stay in the little city of Brignole in Southern France, after having spent 10 days in picturesque Provence. There were shawarma stalls everywhere on our street, but not a single French restaurant.

Those scenes were just so totally different from the Europe that my wife and I experienced as graduate students traveling on a bus tour across the continent in the late 1960s. With every border crossing, picture-perfect images of Europe’s diverse nations greeted us, almost as if people and their cultures faithfully abided by the neat territorial divisions of the map. To all intents and purposes, that Europe is now long gone.

But the acceptance of the reality and persistence of difference are something else. In many European cities where immigrants have settled, multiculturalism has given rise, not to shared spaces, but to ethnic ghettoes that epitomize exclusion rather than solidarity. Fear continues to be the existential barrier that divides people, nurturing what Freud once called “the narcissism of minor differences.”

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