The millions of people storming the borders of the European Union today are right to believe that migration is the best revolution. It is a revolution of the individual, not the masses. The European Union is more attractive than any 20th-century utopia, for the simple reason that it exists. But as it looks today, the migrants’ revolution could easily inspire a counterrevolution in Europe.
The myriad acts of solidarity toward refugees fleeing war and persecution that we saw months ago are today overshadowed by their inverse: a raging anxiety that these same foreigners will compromise Europe’s welfare model and historic culture. Cellphone images of foreign-looking men attacking and abusing German women during New Year’s in Cologne crystallized the fear that liberal governments are too weak and confused to defend Europe, and that the situation with migration is spiraling out of control.
Even before Cologne, a majority of Germans had started to doubt that their country could integrate those hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Afghans and others who have arrived in the last year. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who until recently was the symbol of the European Union’s self-confidence and resilience, is now portrayed as a Gorbachev-like figure, noble but naïve, somebody whose “Wir shaffen es” — “We can do it” — policy has put Europe at risk.
But it is not only the refugees who have arrived, and those on the way, that keep Berlin’s government on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Germany has a second, less discussed but no less disturbing integration problem: European integration itself.
Berlin finds itself surrounded by anti-austerity governments in the south — Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy — and anti-refugee governments in the East. While the south challenges Berlin’s financial policies and rules, Central Europeans are challenging its model of the open society.
The refugee crisis has fueled mistrust and misunderstanding between Europe’s East and West. Germans blamed Central Europeans for lack of solidarity and compassion. Central Europeans blame Germany for “moral imperialism.” For both, the crisis has revealed the hidden tensions of the process of European integration.
Central Europe’s resentment toward Germany in many respects is similar to the resentment of second-generation Turkish immigrants in Germany today.
Unlike the first generation of immigrants, who were eager to prove their utility to the host state, the second generation, while better integrated, expresses humiliation at having to imbibe the norms of others. Many in this second generation have graduated from German schools and were socialized in Germany, but they are using their education and freedom to grapple with their complex identities, and chafing under parental and social pressure to conform. These children of immigrants don’t dream of returning to their familial or national past. But they are eager to make their way, and frustrated by the prospect of being second-class citizens.
This is what’s happening in Central Europe. The first generation of post-Communist governments and leaders were obsessed with being better Europeans than even Westerners — more liberal, more loyal to the European Union, more ready to sacrifice national interests for European values. Only a few years ago, Central Europeans trusted Brussels more than their own governments.
This is no longer the case. Recent public opinion surveys suggest that even many of the Poles who oppose the new, right-wing government’s takeover of the Constitutional Tribunal — a dangerous, anti-democratic move — refuse to endorse possible sanctions by the European Union against Poland.
And herein lies the unnoticed danger that Central Europe’s illiberalism poses to the European Union. It is not simply that Berlin is unhappy with the rise of illiberal governments in the region. It is being forced to question some of its fundamental assumptions about the future of the union. “I can comprehend only with difficulty,” Germany’s president, Joachim Gauck, confessed, “when precisely those nations whose citizens, once themselves politically oppressed and who experienced solidarity, in turn withdraw their solidarity for the oppressed.” Germany and Central Europe are torn apart not simply by policy differences; they are profoundly disappointed with each other.
Over the past 25 years Germany has been the strongest proponent of the union’s enlargement toward the East. Berlin had clear economic and geopolitical interests driving its policy, as it is the largest investor and trading partner of the region. Germany’s trade with Poland alone outstrips its trade with Russia.
But that bundle of common interests might not be enough to sustain German enthusiasm about the union in its present form. Faced with the twin challenges of integrating the refugees and reintegrating the East, Berlin might well decide to back a two-tiered union — a move that would effectively end the postwar unification project. One already hears rumblings about such a step in many West European capitals; the next year will show if they amount to anything.
If Central Europeans have learned anything from the implosion of the Soviet Union and Tito’s Yugoslavia, it’s that in the absence of war, the collapse of empire begins on the periphery, but ends only when the center revolts. It was Russia’s decision to exit from the Soviet Union (not the Baltic republics’ aspiration to become independent) that buried the Soviet Union. So, too, Germany’s change of heart about Central Europe may represent the final straw of the European Union as we know it. To borrow the classic joke about the Jewish telegram: “Start to worry. Details to follow.”
Ivan Krastev is the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.