Merkel’s answer to Europe’s leading anti-Muslim xenophobe

Friday 11/09/2015
Hailed as heroine

The largest flood of refugees in Europe since the second world war has brought out the best and the worst in the continent’s leaders. Few have covered themselves with glory. One stands out for portraying the crisis as a threat to European values by Muslim invaders. Meet Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has been warning that Europe’s “Christian roots” are in danger.

Orban tried to seal off Hungary’s 175-kilometre border with Serbia — one of the main routes for refugees from Syria’s war — with a razor-wire fence. As the stream of refugees swelled to a flood, Orban stoked anti-Muslim fears in an article in the Frankfurter Allge­meine Zeitung. “Let us not forget that those arriving have been raised in another religion and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christian but Muslims,” he wrote.

“Is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian? If we lose sight of this, the idea of Europe could become a minority interest in its own continent.”

Orban’s fence failed to keep back desperate refugees and although few, if any, wanted to stay in Hungary, the prime minister declared that non-Christians had no prospect of being accepted. The governments of Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic — all formerly communist countries — fell in line with similar statements, creating a sharp East-West divide in the European Union.

The rotating EU presidency is held by Luxembourg, whose foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, responded to Orban’s sentiments with blunt words, saying, “one has to feel ashamed of Viktor Orban.”

Indeed. But a smaller portion of shame must go to the entire European Union, whose leaders appeared unprepared for a crisis that had been in the making for years. The Syrian civil war, now in its fifth year, has not been high on the list of European priorities despite the vast scale of suffering it caused — about 250,000 dead and 4 million refugees, mostly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

For years, the debt crisis in the eurozone commanded more attention and took up more energy than refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries.

The focus of the European Union was on stopping people smugglers rather than finding ways to absorb refugees and distributing them across Europe. That ranking of priorities angered human rights groups. Amnesty International termed the international community’s response to the refugee problem as “shame­ful”.

What changed in the past few weeks to capture world attention to something that had been going on for a long time? More than words and official statements, it was a heartbreaking photograph of a 3-year-old Syrian boy, dressed in a red T-shirt and blue shorts, lying face down on a Turkish beach where he was washed up after the smugglers’ boat that carried him and his family capsized. The image touched hearts in a way statistics could not.

And it helped spur action, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful leader, who has been hailed as the heroine of the story in which Orban is the villain.

Europe’s economic power­house, Germany is the favourite destination of refugees and economic migrants. Making an exception for Syrians, the German govern­ment has suspended EU rules which say refugees should register in the first country they reach, instead of allowing them to apply for asylum in Germany no matter where they enter.

This accelerated the influx to unprecedented proportions. In the first weekend, 20,000 refugees entered Germany from Hungary to a warm welcome from citizens and officials.

Berlin estimates it may process up to 800,000 asylum applications by the end of 2015 and Merkel is trying to persuade her counterparts to accept a binding quota system to distribute newcomers across the 28 EU countries.

How far she gets in leading the way to a collective response will become clearer on September 14th, when European interior ministers meet to discuss this thorniest of issues.

Whatever the outcome, the best way to end the crisis remains elusive — stop the cause of the refugee flow, the Syrian war.