The desert of the Real

Though it almost never seems that way, Europeans actually feel quite good about the European Union.

Benjamin Cunningham
9 December 2015

There were only two member states (Cyprus and Austria) where a plurality of people had a negative view of the EU in a Eurobarometer survey released in July 2015. Perhaps even more surprising to the casual observer is that Europeans are highly optimistic about the future direction of the EU. In twenty-six countries, a majority of people feel the EU is going in a positive direction (all but Cyrpus and Greece), and this is especially so in the Visegrad Four where the statistics enjoy healthy majorities — 67% in Poland, 62% in Slovakia, 61% in Hungary, and 57% in the Czech Republic.

The results are clear. Europeans, including V4 citizens, like being part of the EU. In fact, the race is not even close, and, contrary to what a few tensions and struggles would suggest, positive public opinion is pulling more and more ahead.

The most popular single feature of the EU is the free movement of people, goods, and services, in other words, the Schengen Area. Unlike other trans-European projects, Schengen membership is still a draw for those outside of it, and the free travel zone includes four countries that are not even EU members.

In Bulgaria, a non-Schengen country, 57% of people say they support joining the Schengen zone, with just 12% opposed. Juxtapose this with how Bulgarians feel about potentially joining the Eurozone — 65% are opposed — and you get a picture of how popular free travel really is.

It seems that if there were ever a single issue which most Europeans could agree on, it would be this free movement, but that does not suggest that it is free from attack. At the time of writing this article, this right was being threatened and, indeed, had been temporarily suspended in much of Central Europe. The crisis of the Schengen zone “cuts to the heart of the political spirit of the EU” notes Benjamin Tallis of the Institute of International Relations in Prague. “Schengen created a common border without creating a common migration system,” he added.

While Europeans may well support the EU as an idea, that concept is actually not uniform; it is often under the influence of various and disparate views.

The ongoing influx of migrants from the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere has done a lot to expose those divisions. Though a simplification, it is largely accurate to say that this has placed Western European member states (with decades of experience in immigration) in opposition to Central and Eastern Europe (where emigration has been a more common trend).

Indeed the ability of people to move around once inside the Schengen area “does not make life easier” when it comes to dealing with refugees, says Robert Visser, director of the Malta-based European Asylum Support Office (EASO) which coordinates EU asylum policy. He continued, “The countries where people are going have invested in integration and integration does work.”

The open, internal borders frequently serve as an argument that migrant-wary politicians use to vacillate over accepting refugees. V4 leaders are not above arguing that any asylum seekers resettled in their own countries would, almost certainly, make their way elsewhere as soon as possible — as if such hostile rhetoric would not create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Why pretend that your country is not a nice place to live?” Tallis asks.

The obvious answer is to avoid responsibility. As of now, the unwillingness of some EU members to welcome refugees has been combined with outsourcing security duties for external borders to others. That combination shifts the burden of coping with migrants onto just a few countries — because they are external border states (Greece, Italy, Hungary, etc.) or desired destination states (Germany, Austria, Sweden, etc.).

The Czech Republic falls into neither of those categories, and although Poland and Slovakia have external borders, refugees have yet to flood either country. None of the three have thus far contributed in any significant way to dealing with the current migration issues.[1]

“We should do our part, but at the same time it is a tough sell politically,” said one top Czech government official, who asked that his name not be used as he was not authorized to comment publicly on policy deliberations. “There is also a growing realization this won’t go away anytime soon and that this will shape domestic politics in one way or another.”

Indeed it already is, and although voting publics the world over have a great capacity for ignoring the suffering of faraway peoples, the V4’s reticence to engage in migrant issues also abandons their supposed allies in the EU — in particular the very countries that V4 citizens and the goods from their industries wish to travel to regularly without border checks. Few reasonable observers believe this imbalance can continue if the free movement within the Schengen zone is to be maintained, and why should it?

“The Central and Eastern European members have never been keen on taking on the burdens … of EU membership,” Tallis says. “They have managed to get away with it until now.”

European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker largely agreed in his September State of the Union speech. “The free movement of people under Schengen is a unique symbol of European integration,” he said. “However, the other side of the coin is a better joint management of our external borders and more solidarity in coping with the refugee crisis.”

V4 leaders have balked at increasing solidarity, but thus far vocally support increased security on the EU’s external borders. They tend to argue that sealing the outer border must come before aid to the hundreds of thousands of people already inside. As our anonymous Czech official put it: “A common position is that we have to help in the countries of origin and strengthen the Schengen borders.”[2]

This is presented as a dispute about chronology – that improved external borders come first and migrant aid second – but is really a reluctance to resettle migrants at all, and comes as V4 leaders cater to domestic xenophobia. In all four countries, the public has a negative view of immigrants generally and foreigners from outside the EU in particular.

The Czechs lead the way with 81% of people pessimistically perceiving immigration from outside the EU.

“People are genuinely scared,” the anonymous Czech official said.

But as is often the case, those fears have little basis in reality. Though just 0.3% of Poland’s population is foreign, Poles view immigration as the most urgent challenge facing Europe. They may be right, but for the wrong reasons as a full-quarter of Poles believe that foreigners account for at least 10 % of the population. This means they overestimate how many foreigners live in their country by 3.7 million people.

During the Sept. 22 vote that ultimately saw EU members approve the redistribution of 120,000 refugees, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania opposed the plan. Going into the summit, most had predicted that the V4 countries would vote in unison against redistributing migrants, but Poland broke with the rest of the group.

This may not mean the end of the V4 altogether, but the move did have the look of a country unwilling to be dragged down by eccentric neighbors and leaders unconcerned with short term public opinion.

“The alternative was turning away from Europe,” Polish Interior Minister Teresa Piotrowska said.

In the Czech Republic, Interior Minister Milan Chovanec used Twitter to express displeasure with Warsaw’s decision. “Poland broke away,” he wrote. “I am afraid now it is only the V3.”[3]

Someone might tell him that without Poland, it could be called the Visegrad Zero for all the influence his grouping might wield.

Next door in Slovakia, Prime Minister Robert Fico called the resettlement plan a “dictate” from Brussels and threatened to fight the EU in court in an attempt to avoid taking refugees. Just weeks earlier, and running contrary to the shocking images of suffering children, Fico had asserted that most of the migrants were not refugees at all.

“Is a person who shells out €5,000 to a smuggler really impoverished?” Fico asked. “Look how many of them are young men seeking jobs, it’s 90% of them.”

Not to be outdone, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has remained the face of Central European opposition to migrants and in a recent speech he made to the Hungarian parliament where he described Europe as “rich but weak…the most dangerous combination possible.”

But buried in the rhetoric there was something resembling a constructive proposal. As the only member of the V4 that has thus far dealt with a significant number of migrants, his position resembled the urgent calls that went ignored when they came out of Rome and Athens for at least a year. “All 28 member states should share in the protection of the southern borders of Europe,” Orban said.[4]

What Orban and others don’t mention is that a full 73% of Europeans also support the idea of a common migration policy — including a majority in Hungary and the rest of the V4 states.

The future of the Schengen Area almost certainly depends on it.


[1] Though, it should be noted “over the past 20 years, almost 90,000 Chechen refugees have come to Poland.” From Grzegorz Schetyna “Poland: Seal EU borders: Poland’s foreign minister offers solutions for the migrant crisis,” Politico, September 21st, 2015, sel-eu-borders-poland-migration-refugees/.

[2] Quotation modified.

[3] Quotation modified.

[4] Quotation modified.


Benjamin Cunningham is a Prague based writer and journalist. He contributes to The Economist, The Guardian, and Politico and is an opinion columnist for the Slovak daily Sme.

The article was published in Visegrad Insight “Border Anxiety” issue 2 (8) 2015.

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