By Ekaterina Soubeva
The current refugee crisis has exacerbated the division between Western and Eastern Europe. It has caught the European Union unprepared. Even though the situation in the Middle East and North Africa has been unstable for years, Europe was not prepared and did not expect such a wave of refugees to move towards its boards. Most Western European countries have shown compassion and willingness to welcome refugee, but this is not the case in a lot of Eastern European countries, which can been explained through historic, economic and political perspectives.
Eastern Europe is specific, it has its own features and dynamics and should not be compared in its reaction to the refugee crisis to Western Europe. Historically, Central and Eastern Europe has seen more frequent change of boarders, political systems and politicians and it is not used to the refugee and migrant pressure that it is experiencing right now. Central and Eastern European countries have been part of different empires for centuries, either the Austro-Hungarian, the Ottoman or the Russian. This has left countries and societies from the region with specific fears, which even though not rational should not be ignored.
The fear of disappearance as a nation – language, culture and traditions is evident in most Eastern European countries. This is partly due to demographic reasons, including aging and declining population. Bulgaria is expected to lose a third of its population by 2050 and this pattern is similar in many countries throughout Europe, but significantly stronger in Eastern Europe. The lack of experience with migrants and the historic fear of absorption from a larger entity are very irrational fears but are used by politicians in Eastern Europe as a uniting power.
The recent attacks in Paris, unfortunately, have given more grounds for the anti-refugee rhetoric not only in Hungary but also in Slovakia, Czech Republic and many other Central and Eastern European countries. Societies in the region are more and more supportive of building fences to stop refugees entering their countries. Politicians throughout Eastern Europe have started using the distinction between economic migrants and refugees to support their reluctance to host more refugees. Europe and more specifically the European Union needs a common integration policy but at this point it would be incredibly difficult for all countries to agree on something.
The economic side of the argument is also important. Europe has aging and declining population and the influx of refugees can be seen as a positive thing, given that there is a demand for both skilled and unskilled workers. However, in many countries there is a significant level of youth unemployment, which makes it more challenging to argue for accepting more refugees. Poverty is also a factor, especially in Eastern Europe, where almost one in five lives in a relative poverty. People from Eastern Europe have been waiting for the EU and Western Europe to help them improve their standard of living but a lot of countries have experienced difficulties in their transition periods. Some countries are still in their transition periods and now they have become transit countries. There is a general feeling of disappointment and distrust among societies in Eastern Europe.
The refugee crisis has reiterated the already existing wedge between Eastern and Western Europe. It has underlined bigger problems with the whole structure and functioning of the EU, the ineffectiveness of some of its policies, especially the Dublin Regulation. Politicians throughout Europe have called for measure to be taken to solve the crisis in Syria but the lack of common foreign policy will make EU involvement difficult.