How the refugees bring the danger of new walls between East and West

The wave of refugees flooding in across the borders has caught the European Union off guard. While older EU members have attempted to help migrants and to create a common EU response, the new post-communist members have panicked.

In Eastern Europe, populations are quite homogenous and politicians – with few exceptions – play populist hard ball. The extreme reaction of the Hungarian government of Viktor Orban, which has built fences around the country’s border, has incited a debate about a new Iron Curtain.

The other side isn’t doing much better.  With all its “Realpolitik,” the West doesn’t seem to understand that 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, post-communist societies still feel at risk. Their institutions remain fragile and faced with such an enormous crisis, they have over reacted.

There is a serious danger that as a by-product of the refugee crisis, Europe will see a new East-West divide. In an interview on BBC Radio 4, European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans described Central European nations as having “no experience with diversity.” This kind of Western patronizing, coming as it does from an ignorance of our historical experience, only fuels regional populists like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Czech President Milos Zeman.

According to Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkevics, the biggest dangers aren’t the physical fences or walls being built all around the region. It is the danger of “mental walls” springing up between Europeans.

“We are not used to accepting large numbers of people of totally different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds,” explains Rinkevics. “We have had our own experience with people coming to Latvia or Estonia as laborers during the Soviet occupation.” Today, 70 percent of Latvians are opposed to accepting any refugees – including the generation that were actually refugees themselves, fleeing the Soviet army and the persecutions after 1945.

“And now politicians in Brussels are saying we are ‘not European enough’,” he complains. But to “blackmail us” by threatening cuts in European funding is not also fair, he says.  “The Latvian government is not alone. No EU government was prepared for the refugee crisis.”

While attention is concentrated on Hungary, emotions run high across Central Europe. The decision by Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico to sue the EU for imposing refugee quotas set off a heated debate with President Andrej Kiska.

“I think (refugees) would be acceptable for the majority of our citizens, if we explain our decision peacefully, correctly and together,” said Kiska recently in Parliament. “This would not be a threat to Slovakia; it would not change the life of the Slovak people for better or for worse.”

But Kiska is nearly alone in this view.  In Poland the refugees dominated the election, with conservative Jaroslaw Kaczynski claiming they would carry diseases and turn Polish churches into mosques. Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec, a Social Democrat who speaks no foreign languages, is the leading voice against the refugees, urging cooperation with Hungary and Slovakia in closing the borders. Deputy Prime Minister Andrej Babis, leader of center-populist coalition partner ANO, uses language similar to the western European far-right.

These attitudes have even overshadowed news from the extraordinary summit on September 24 that the EU had pledged to help Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan with €200 million this year and €300 million the next. And none of the CEE leaders has noted the EU “action plan” agreed with Turkey on October 15 EU offering what European Council President Donald Tusk described as “a lot of money” and a promise of visa liberalization if Ankara stems the influx of refugees.

Instead, it was the “unexpected” attempt of the Western partners to resurrect a quota resettlement system that made headlines, with the most vocal criticism from Slovak Prime Minister Fico, although diplomatic sources told the Slovak media that the government had known the issue would be raised two days in advance.

Throughout the region, the public is divided. Poles are split down the middle, according to CBOS, with about 45% for receiving refugees, and 45% against, and the rest undecided. Among Czechs, half are against, while 40% are willing to accept them temporarily, only until the war is over, according to a recent poll by CVVM.

Only four percent want refugees to settle in the Czech Republic.

Somehow, Central European politicians do not seem to be able to play the European game. At repeated gatherings in Brussels and elsewhere, they have been playing domestic politics and ignoring the wider context – as Orban shows perfectly. Or what is worse, they have been unable to explain their positions or offer alternatives, because, like the Czech Interior Minister, they simply lack the foreign language and/or diplomatic skills.

As in the West, CEE politics is driven by populism and fear of being overwhelmed by foreigners. The only difference is that our politicians do not know how to package it nicely, so as not to provoke outsiders.

Nobody talks about the record support for the party of Dutch extremist Geert Wilders – in Timmermans’ homeland.  Everyone focuses on Orban’s fences, even as he is building bridges to like-minded conservatives in Austria and Bavaria, where there is growing criticism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “culture of welcome.” Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the far-right Freedom Party in Austria, delivered a strong second place finish in the recent Vienna elections by exploiting the fear of  Muslim immigration.

Timmermans is right that Central Europe doesn’t have “experience of diversity.” Unlike some western EU countries, including the Netherlands, it did not have colonies to exploit. And in Portugal, the Netherlands, or the United Kingdom, it took decades to accommodate minorities.

However the Czech Republic already hosts the largest Ukrainian minority in the EU, and a very large Vietnamese community, realities Czech leaders should bring out in the discussions, as well as the communist-era roots of discrimination against the Roma.

All these are relatively new problems for Central Europe. The region’s traditional cultural diversity disappeared as a result World War II, when – with some help from Western powers – new borders and forced migrations put a seal on Nazi ethnic cleansing. After the war, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland became homogeneous as never before, which the communists reinforced for their own purposes.

The financial crisis and now the refugees have shown how weak our institutions are, and how vulnerable our societies, when dealing with events on this scale. And while it is hard to support the refugee policy of Viktor Orban, there has not been, until recently, any coherent offers of help from the European Commission, in a situation that even overwhelms stronger states like Austria or Germany.

Coming on the heels of Russian pressure in the Ukraine, the clumsy handling of the refugee crisis has led only to the reopening of old wounds and unsettled accounts among EU nations. Central European politicians have become divided from their western and southern European allies, trading verbal blows over how the two crises should be handled.  If this goes on, we may bury the achievements of European integration and again raise the mental walls in Europe.

“A physical fence you can tear down in one day,” said Latvian Minister Rinkevics. “Such mental walls are much harder to erase.”