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Peripheral unrest, conflicting beliefs threaten EU solidarity

By Maximilian Mayer | 2016-06-12 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

In Madrid, capital of Spain, on April 23, people protest the EU-Turkey agreement on the repatriation and relocation of refugees.


Europe totters as millions of refugees overwhelm the political coordination mechanisms of the European Union. The asylum system and the Schengen Agreement now exist in name only, while terrorist attacks have shocked Paris and Brussels.

Germany and France, the engines of European integration, have yet to reach consensus on a unified response while Europe’s political landscape has taken a poisonous turn to the right. Burgeoning nationalist egoism undermines trust, unity, and collective decision-making in the European Union.

Observers agree that the European Union is now facing the toughest test of its entire history. Until now, serious political crises have always ultimately resulted in stronger European institutions, allowing integration to reach a new level incrementally. But the currently unfolding situation does more than just fundamentally challenge the problem-solving capacity of existing institutions. There are two underlying crises that reinforce each other, threatening the survival of the European Union as a political entity: regional destabilization and rivalries among different Muslim sects.

Regional instability
The first crisis consists of the unraveling of state and societal structures along the European Union’s southeastern border regions. This process has accelerated due to the failure of interventions by the United States and its allies in Iraq, Libya and Syria.


Neoconservative hawks in Washington put forth a vision of democratic structures rising from the ashes of authoritarian regimes, but instead, nearly the entire region sank into sectarianism, radicalization and constant carnage. The best Europe’s foreign policy can do is to contain the growing conflict in its border areas. The key questions that arise are: How can collapsed societies, which have become radicalized and are constantly subjected to intervention from outside, be turned into peaceful societies again? Which infrastructural and institutional framework would help to stabilize countries in Europe’s periphery? Finally, how can the European Union prevent itself from collapse as it struggles to establish a new regional order?

It seems that it will take a long period—perhaps several decades—to implement appropriate solutions. But without substantive solutions, the tide of refugees cannot be stemmed. Living conditions are simply no longer bearable for many. Considering the growing demographic gap between European and African countries, a decline in the number of refugees cannot be expected.

In this case, data shows that the recent agreement between the European Union and Turkey championed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel has had little effect. The agreement stipulates that those refugees without the right of asylum who arrived in Greece after crossing the sea must be “repatriated.”

If the European Union wants to relocate a certain number of refugees to Turkey, the same number of asylum seekers in Turkey must be brought directly to EU countries. The quota limit for this transfer, which is prescribed in the agreement, is only 72,000. Yet, between January and the end of March 2016, more than 149,000 refugees arrived on the shores of Greek islands. In the year 2015, according to official figures, more than 1 million refugees fled to Europe.

Although the data from the UN refugee agency indicates that the number of refugees has decreased significantly, the quota obviously is insufficient. On the European side, it remains unclear whether even such a low ceiling can be achieved because of the strict resistance of Eastern European countries, who stopped the implementation of a similar refugee resettlement quota scheme before.

The discrepancy between the high numbers of refugees and planned reception and accommodation capacity puts a massive financial and humanitarian burden on Greece. Since the end of January 2016, the country has become a trap for fleeing people after the Greek-Macedonian border was closed. Tens of thousands of refugees were forced to stay either in the border town Idomeni, in Athens, or on islands in the Aegean Sea.

After Turkey and the European Union signed the agreement in March, the United Nations refugee agency and other NGOs withdrew from the so-called “hotspots” on the Greek island of Lesbos. The reason is that the newly established asylum system does not conform to the current international humanitarian law. Their open shelters were overnight converted into fenced camps with EU help in order to organize the next massive repatriation of refugees.

Greece, whose population has had to endure tremendous social hardships because of the financial crisis and the austerity policies demanded by Brussels, was indeed rendered a catchment basin for the rest of Europe. If the EU-Turkey plan doesn’t reach its target and achieves no massive decline of boats of refugees, the country where Western democracy was born could face institutional and humanitarian collapse despite all the admirable solidarity and generosity shown by the Greek population.

After the closure of its borders with Austria and the Balkan States, Greece is actually no longer part of the Schengen area. Following the decisions of the EU states and the European Commission, it could become a veritable buffer zone, a barrier between the destabilized belt and the new European borders.

Besides the obvious sacrifice of Greece, the EU generally lacks a robust and sound overall strategy. The preexisting police and electoral cooperation with North African countries changes nothing in this regard. Long-term thinking to control the humanitarian disaster and social disintegration within the periphery is absent. Therefore, it is difficult to see the current disastrous conditions in Greece as anything other than the harbinger of a much bigger challenge. The Italian government has already warned that the refugees might come back to its own shores.

Religious conflicts
The second conflict is similarly intensifying, yet tends to overwhelm the imaginations of European elites and ordinary citizens alike. What is at stake is a religious struggle–yet not a fight between Islam’s monotheistic religion and Christianity, as it is so often assumed to be self-evident in an erroneous reading of Huntington’s clash of civilizations. Instead, at the core of it lies an intra-religious conflict splitting the Islamic world. Those who emphasize, or rather speculate, about a confrontation between Christianity and Islam often forget that the vast majority of the victims of terrorist attacks are themselves Muslim.

From a European perspective, it’s hard to imagine why the frictions between the faiths of Shia and Sunni—and between fundamentalists and more moderate fractions from within the same denominations—have led to a seemingly infinite carnage. Europe has left a comparable experience of religious and confessional strife centuries behind. After devastating religious wars, European monarchies, cities and republics have created a political order without direct religious interference.

Religious communities, churches and theology have in turn modernized over the course of a long process. They were forced by ideological developments, political institutions and civil society to find answers to the social and legal developments of modernity. But Islam as a major religion, despite its historical ability to sustain tolerance in multi-religious polities, has come up only with inconclusive responses to global modernity.

Against this backdrop, dangerous cognitive dissonance can be found in the relationship between Europe and Muslim neighborhoods and also within the Islamic communities in European countries. The identity crisis of Muslim societies as well as the legitimacy issue of its political systems encounters a lack of understanding from secular societies in Europe.

The struggle over modernization of Islamic life praxis and doctrine is fought everywhere, but particularly in Europe. On the one hand, the Islamic State group has already declared the goal of dividing European Muslims from the rest of European citizens as their core strategy. With the help of terror attacks and hardening political attitudes towards Muslims by European governments, the Muslims who live in countries without Sharia, or so IS assumes, are forced to support the caliphate.

On the other hand, Islam can achieve modernization through successful integration. Therefore, we must highlight the great effort of Islamic organizations in European countries. A large number of Islamic people, who have dedicated their free time to the practical and conceptual realization of Muslim life practice under secular law, have made great contributions.

After the March 2016 terror attacks in Brussels, the public demanded effective solutions. Certainly, to avoid terror in the future, it is urgent that cooperation between police, intelligence agencies and special units across Europe be improved.

Facing this harsh reality, Europe is now learning that the end of problems is not in sight. Will China in this context play the role of merely a spectator? How should the leadership in Beijing strategically respond? If Europe calls for help in the refugee crisis, the issues are not only immediate humanitarian support but also coping with this long-term crisis, and both of these have a great impact on Chinese foreign policy, directly affecting the realization of transcontinental connectivity.

While the European governments and citizens must find a proper mix between integration and asylum policies, which balances the national order and humanitarian responsibility, China should consider how to actively participate in a stabilization policy at Europe’s edges. This requires a complementary interpretation of the “Belt and Road”—not only as an initiative for economic integration but also as a security and stabilization project—because the success of the modern Silk Road crucially depends on having a strong and effective partner at the other end of the Eurasian continent.

Maximilian Mayer is from the German Studies Center at Tongji University in Shanghai.