From the outset, the European project has been under considerable pressure to prove that it is not just an economic union. The recent Greek crisis, which is far from over, raised the fragility of a deeper sense of a Eurozone beyond a common currency. We watch in stupefaction and dismay as refugees continue to pour into Europe only to be met with barbed wire barriers and hostile police. The reaction to the current mass influx is an example of the lack of commonality among EU members.
While we have difficulty understanding the general concept of géométrie variable concerning EU membership – like being dead or pregnant, it’s either yes or no – the recent attitude of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia (sometimes called the Visegrad group) only adds to our difficulty.
At a meeting of the group last week in Prague, the leaders of these four countries - all EU members - tried to come up with a common policy. Reports of the meeting noted that the Czech prime minister argued against quotas saying that the “chaos” caused by the migration was “undermining the confidence of European citizens,” according to the International New York Times.
As members of the European Union, the four countries are supposed to be part of a larger entity in which they have certain rights, but they also have certain obligations. The four are developing their own plan for migrants as evidenced by Hungary’s construction of barriers and the chaos at the Budapest railroad station. For the four to refuse quotas is to deny their obligations. They have taken the rights/privileges of EU membership without taking on its obligations.
Historically, it should be noted that citizens of some of these very same countries fled during the invasions by the Soviet Union during the uprisings in 1956 and 1968. It would be helpful to remind the Visegrad group of how hospitable other countries were to the plight of their citizens fleeing the Soviet tanks. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established in 1950 to deal with the backlog of WWII refugees. The “new refugees” in “new refugee situations” starting in 1956 changed the nature of UNHCR. The outpouring of humanitarian assistance following the invasion of Budapest has been called “the first modern relief effort.”
On the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising, UNHCR’s Refugees Magazine described what took place with Hungarians fleeing:
“A mere three days after the Soviet army stormed into Budapest, on 7 November, the French Red Cross flew a plane to Vienna loaded with medical supplies and brought refugees back to France. Some British private groups, and later commercial aircraft companies, on their own initiative and at their own expense, shuttled their planes between Britain and Austria for the British Red Cross, bringing 7,500 refugees to the UK by 14 December. On 8 November the first special train, from Switzerland, moved more than 400 refugees. And in the following days, buses from Sweden and trains from Belgium and the Netherlands returned with refugees to those countries. Money and relief items were also coming in quickly. By 28 November, a total of nine European countries had already taken 21,669 refugees. By 31 December, a phenomenal 92,950 people had already been transported out of Austria. By the end of the operation, a total of around 180,000 out of the 200,000 refugees in Austria and Yugoslavia had been transferred on boats, buses, trains and planes to 37 different countries.”
How far we have moved from that situation. Was the enormous hospitality in 1956 only part of a political ploy during the height of the Cold War? Are barriers being constructed today because those fleeing are non-Europeans? Whatever the reason for today’s negative reaction, and remembering that 37 countries took in Hungarians in 1957, one has to congratulate Angela Merkel for her statements and opening borders, and admire German citizens who have volunteered to welcome those who are arriving. A Nobel Peace Prize for her and her country would be a fitting tribute.