The Migration Crisis and the Future of Europe

The Migration Crisis and the Future of Europe

The identity crisis imperiling the continent isn’t one of race and religion. It’s one of Europe’s willingness to preserve and expand its liberal values.

April 5, 2019

This article appears in the Spring 2019 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

It was a friend of mine, an older German woman who fled the Nazis and has lived in the United States since the late 1930s, who said the one sentence that summed it all up. Not a lot of people caught the full gravity of the situation then, in the fall of 2015, when the number of refugees arriving in Europe increased dramatically—and with it the pressure on governments and societies to react. The refugees came mainly from war-torn Syria, from Iraq and Afghanistan, heading to Austria, to Germany, to Sweden, traveling up from Greece and through the Balkans—long lines of people, a steady presence on the evening news.

“This,” my friend said, “changes everything, doesn’t it.” And, depending on how you would define both change and everything, it did.

The so-called European refugee crisis exploded into public consciousness in 2015. The unrest that followed the Arab Spring of 2011 and the brutal civil war in Syria forced millions to flee their countries, first to neighboring states like Lebanon and finally to the richer countries of Europe, stressing the EU to the breaking point.

Migration will remain central to the politics of the continent, raising fundamental questions about European societies, challenging the legitimacy of the system, and increasing the political strength of the far right. Europe, this old continent of migrants and migration, of people fleeing and people arriving, was thrown into a profound identity crisis that has led to stunning political upheavals.

In Western Europe, these range from Brexit in the United Kingdom to the rise of far-right parties in Germany, France, Italy, even Spain. In the eastern part of the continent, right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland propagate increasingly xenophobic and authoritarian policies that have brought the European Union to the brink of dissolution. The sense of democratic inevitability that Europeans had taken for granted ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has been shattered.

But history did not end then; it came back, with a vengeance. Indeed, the specters of the past set the stage for the conflicts of the present. The refugees and the reaction to them have unveiled some very old and very powerful fault lines. The crisis pitted northern Europe against southern and the richer countries of the continent against the poorer ones. It pitted the East against the West—more specifically, a tradition of illiberal societies versus the practice of liberal democracy. The migrants’ arrival brought out deep-rooted differences on the continent—but they were the catalyst, not the cause.

Europe’s reckoning with the hopeful, the desperate, the “wretched of the earth” was in that sense a reckoning with itself, with the contradictions and unresolved questions of capitalism, belonging, and national identity that make this continent at once charming and dysfunctional. What happened in the summer of 2015 challenged European rules and regulations, but above all Europe’s supposed values of enlightenment and humanism when confronted with mass flight from suffering and death, which was tolerated or even made possible by decades or centuries of European governmental policies.

What, after all, are European values? How real are they when confronted with the legacies of colonialism, racism, and imperialism arriving on its doorstep?

My friend, it seems, saw all of this from a distance more clearly than most bureaucrats working in Brussels for the European Union or the politicians, journalists, and other cheerleaders for history’s triumphal progression. The history of the migration to Europe is the history of a continent falling apart, politically and morally.



The scene was ghastly only to the unkind observer. But it was a new sight to the working-class district of Wedding, in the middle of Berlin. One hundred or more people, men, women, children, were huddled in the dark, waiting in front of an iron gate. It was early one morning in September of 2015 and still dark, when at six o’clock precisely the gate opened to the Lageso, the office where newly arrived refugees were supposed to register, and mayhem broke out. People jumped and fell, some got hurt, the strongest made it first, and the ambulance was waiting patiently at the side to treat the injured.

This show of fierce desperation then became a daily feature.

In the fall of 2015, the Lageso, the acronym for the agency for health and social affairs, was a humanitarian hot spot in the German capital. It became the symbol for much of what went so wrong in the early days of the refugee crisis: families camping in the open, confusion about procedure, a bureaucracy that was wrestling with itself as much as with the number of newcomers.

The sheer number of refugees coming to Germany—a nation of 80.5 million in 2012—was huge. It rose from 77,000 in 2012 to 126,000 in 2013 to 202,000 in 2014 to 475,000 in 2015 and peaked at 745,000 in 2016—before dropping to 222,000 in 2017 after a controversial deal with Turkey prevented most refugees from continuing their journey north. In 2015, 55,000 refugees decided to register in Berlin—or try to register, because the bureaucratic apparatus at the Lageso was slow to adapt to the urgency of the situation.

Whose fault was the daily chaos, and all it came to stand for? The city, the country, the continent—no one was really prepared for the number of people who came. It was an immense political failure on the part of the European countries to see and react to what was happening on their southern front. There had been a steady rise in the number of people either crossing the Mediterranean by boat or taking another route and traveling north via the Balkans. But Europe as a whole opted to turn the continent into a fortress, to prevent people from coming.

In the years before 2015, the route across the Mediterranean—in ancient times a place of culture and connection but now the boundary between two worlds—was the primary path people took to reach Europe from North Africa. Over a million people came along this route in 2014 and 2015, mainly from Libya to Italy, where 170,000 arrived in 2014, a 277 percent increase over the previous year. Sixty-two thousand of those applied for asylum in Italy, while the majority of Syrians and Eritreans chose to continue to countries like Germany or Sweden.

The journey was often deadly. More than 3,000 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2014 alone. Overall estimates are that more than 22,000 migrants died between 2000 and 2014.

The policy for most of those years before 2015 had been one of trying to save people’s lives at sea. The rescue operation called “Mare Nostrum,” the ancient Latin term for the Mediterranean, “our sea,” exemplified this approach. Around 100,000 migrants were saved by Italian naval ships in 2014 alone—but in the fall of that year, the Italian government in coordination with its European partners decided to stop this operation amid concerns about rising numbers of migrants. British politician Baroness Joyce Anelay voiced a widespread critique when she claimed that the Italian rescue attempts had led to a “pull factor,” encouraging refugees to risk a Mediterranean crossing.

“Mare Nostrum” was replaced by “Triton,” an operation not of rescuing but simply patrolling in the Mediterranean. This shift had dire consequences for the thousands of people who’ve drowned in the ensuing years.

The shift from Mare Nostrum to Triton also pointed to a deeper failure—the virtual negation of what the European Union was meant to be: a community of nations united in solidarity, with a common purpose that went well beyond a common market.

To understand the flawed reactions of European nations and the European community as a whole, it is important to remember they followed closely upon the financial crisis of 2008, from which northern Europe (in particular, Germany) recovered quickly, but from which southern Europe has still not recovered—and its recovery has been slowed by the north (particularly Germany). The trust that the nations of Europe had in each other, if ever a reality, was largely gone. Egoism had taken the place of solidarity between nations, and also within a lot of nations.

You cannot, it turns out, bend, ignore, or destroy basic values of humanity at your borders without consequences for the very fabric of the society within.



They had come to the end of their journey, in the middle of a field in the north of Greece. They had settled along the tracks of an abandoned railroad. They relied on the help of volunteers. They had their eyes on the mountains across the border, and each night some tried to find a hole in the border to slip through. They would walk along the river and try to make it to the other side, to Macedonia, to Europe proper, so to speak. Greece, for them, was just the entry port, one more place to leave behind on their journey to a country where they saw a future for themselves and their children.

By the summer of 2016, this place, the camp of Idomeni, had become another symbol of the larger problems facing not only the refugees who got stuck here in tents, in the mud, but also Europe as a whole. Travel in or to Europe is governed by two key agreements, one regulating crossing from one EU nation to another, the other establishing procedures for refugees seeking asylum. Taken together, they produce an outcome that ranges from dysfunctional to inhuman, as the refugees at Idomeni could attest.

AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

The scene outside the central registration center for refugees and asylum seekers LaGeSo (Landesamt fuer Gesundheit und Soziales) in Berlin, September 9, 2015. 

The Schengen Agreement of 1985 created a common area that now includes 26 European countries free of border controls. If you are in one Schengen country, you can freely travel to others. (The exceptions that do retain border controls are the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland, but they are obligated to admit citizens of EU countries.)

The Schengen Agreement interacted with the Dublin agreement, which basically requires that a refugee may only claim asylum in the country of entry. This means that the overwhelming majority of refugees are forced to settle in the poorer countries along the shore of the Mediterranean, namely Italy and Greece, while the richer northern countries like Germany and Austria have a de facto shield. The rules of the EU require unanimity to change such agreements. Refugees have legal status only in their country of arrival, but the porous provisions of the Schengen Agreement serve as a magnet for them to get to the richer countries of the north. The efforts of EU leaders to get all member countries to accept a fair share of refugees failed.

But the contradictions went deeper, reaching back into the history of a continent that has been shaped by the challenges of waves of migration in the 20th century far larger than the current one. The historical perspective is necessary to understand the deeper misconceptions pertinent in today’s discussion around migration. In 1919, as the German historian Philipp Ther documents in his study Die Außenseiter (“The Outsiders”), a history of Europe as a continent of refugees, there were around seven million people on the move, escaping the Russian Revolution, the war between Greece and Turkey, and several local conflicts in eastern and southern Europe in the wake of the First World War. And at the end of the Second World War, there were at least 30 million people fleeing their countries.

The historian Gerard Daniel Cohen called the time of the Cold War the “golden age” of the refugee, because there was finally a framework for who was a refugee and how to grant them asylum and guarantee their rights. The Refugee Convention of 1951 defined a refugee as someone seeking asylum “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” a definition rooted in the experience of the Second World War and a concept of persecution that was mainly political as well as humane. It was an important step, built on widely shared democratic values (values, as Ther points out, that could now be in question with the “decline of the West” and the rise of more authoritarian states and ideologies). It has shaped the debate about immigration and integration in Europe up to this day. But it might be counterproductive in a lot of ways.

Many European nations had long been accustomed to their own particular forms of immigration and nationhood. The French and the British had their imperial histories, with immigrants who came from their former colonies, mainly North Africa in the case of France, mainly India and later the Caribbean in the case of the U.K. Other European countries held to the belief that they were somehow homogenous nations—which was mostly a sort of myth, because migration and border-shifting have been an essential part of European history.

But national myths are strong and prevalent. They were often formed, as in the case of Germany, around the concept of culture, the foundation of the nation supposedly being a common heritage, a common story, a common understanding of history, value, language. The boundaries were narrow for any newcomer. The idea was that he or she should change, assimilate, integrate himself or herself into the framework of the host society. Immigrants were guests, in some ways, and in the German case they were even called that: Gastarbeiter (“guest worker”) is the term for the Italians and Turks, mostly, who came starting in the 1960s to work in German factories, helping create the Wirtschaftswunder, the German economic success after the war. They changed Germany, but Germans refused for a long time to acknowledge that change.

In this context, the year 2015 marked the end of an epoch and the beginning of a new one. The post–World War II order had been replaced by a new reality. The old framework, the old logic, the old understanding of migration as something ruled by the principles of the 1951 convention had come into question. People were fleeing war and persecution, yes, but they were also fleeing economic hardship, despair, and the consequences of climate change. They will continue to do that for the foreseeable future, and Europe seems not really prepared, morally, politically, or institutionally, to deal with this challenge. European nations built walls and fences, avoiding the future by retreating to the past, which had been a place of conflict and bloodshed not all that long ago.



The debate about migration is really a debate about multiculturalism, about the fabric of European societies, about identity and a sense of belonging. It has been marked by fears and insecurities on the part of the native populations; it has been shaped by a belief in European superiority that has fueled the aggression against the perceived newcomers, even more so since the decline of the West has been felt within the countries of the West.

The intellectual and political fight against multiculturalism dates at least to the early 2000s, since which time multiculturalism has largely been held in disrepute. The general view, as Angela Merkel famously and flatly declared in 2010, is that multiculturalism has “utterly failed.”

At the root of multiculturalism’s rejection is a historic shift. Ever since the attack on the World Trade Center in New York in September 2001, the worldwide conflicts formerly confined to the edges of the old empires have spread into the nations of the West itself. Once-distant conflicts have come to the heart of Europe, and culture and, most of all, religion have become the battlefields on which fights about identity take place. As Islam more and more came to be seen as the enemy of the West, Islamic populations within European nations became further disenfranchised. There were legal battles like the ban on headscarfs in France in 2004, and there were attacks like the Madrid train bombing that same year. It was a combination of such events that led to a shaky consensus across much of Europe that multiculturalism was not only dead but a danger.

Clearly, this has had consequences for the concepts of immigration and integration. Moreover, during the last 30 years, the “cultures” from which migrants have been arriving have been more “multi” than they were previously. Most post–World War II migration was characterized by large flows of people from a few places to a few places: Turkey to Germany; Algeria to France; Mexico to the United States. Today, there is movement from many places to many places, and immigrants are both high-skilled and low-skilled. This is “super diversity” as Steven Vertovec, from the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, calls it.

Michael Debets/Pacific Press/Sipa via AP Images

Over a thousand people protested in Benheim against the campaign rally for 2018 state elections in Hesse by the far-right political party AfD. 

Many migrants are ending up in cities where they intermingle with people from earlier waves. This also has consequences for integration and social policy. While the trend in much of the world has been to loosen up the regulations for high-skilled migrants and tighten the rules for low-skilled migrants, Europe has made few such adjustments. The problem is one of distinguishing between economic migrants and political refugees—and “a lot of experts don’t want to tinker with that definition because they think it makes the situation worse,” says Vertovec. In Germany, conservative parties like the CDU have been pushing since the early 1990s to restrict the laws on political asylum, while avoiding any discussion on a broader shift in immigration policy.

This discussion is made no easier by the fact that many among the second and third generations of immigrants in countries like Germany, France, or the U.K. have seen their prospects dwindle, their economic and social mobility slowing or grinding to a halt, their expectations dashed. They are often far more radical and unassimilated than their parents or grandparents. Politicians talk about Parallelgesellschaften in Germany, parallel societies of Turkish or Arab populations—as though the problems were inherent within those groups and had nothing to do with Germany itself.



There was a huge positive aspect of the so-called crisis of 2015, best illustrated by one number: eight million. An estimated eight million people came forth in Germany to help the refugees then arriving in the country. That’s one German in ten. The number comes from a study conducted by the Protestant Church in Germany in late 2015, but the number of volunteers has remained high even years after the peak. The Willkommenskultur, the welcoming culture, left indelible images of citizens standing at the train stations waving to the newcomers, handing teddy bears to the kids, bringing sleeping bags, food, all the necessities. Over time, however, this welcoming culture has been ridiculed, invoked to discredit an open way of thinking about migration.

And yet: If all the volunteers active in the refugee crisis had voted for one party in the German elections of 2017, this party would have come in third, way ahead of the right-wing, xenophobic, anti-Muslim AfD, which won about five million votes; the Left party with four million votes; and the Green party with 3.7 million votes—trailing only the Social Democrats with 11.4 million votes and Angela Merkel’s CDU with 14 million votes. Every party but the AfD would of course have lost voters to this virtual pro-refugee party, but the numerical strength of that group is largely overlooked in today’s distorted discourse.

There was in fact an opportunity, and still is, to reimagine the whole structure and fabric of society in the image of that moment of help and cooperation. Many Germans became politically active for the first time in their lives. They realized what it means to be a citizen; they challenged a long-standing perspective in the country, which sees the state as a strong, remote entity that individual action cannot really affect.

Apart from the relatively new AfD, founded in 2013 as an anti–European Union party, the established political parties were unsure about how to react to this surge of immigrants. The citizens were much more decisive. This gap—between active citizens and muted, hesitant political parties—signified the potential for a new form of politics that goes beyond the routines of representative democracy.

Technology is a large part of this story. It was technology that steered the refugees on their long and dangerous journey, that helped them communicate and coordinate; it was the smartphone that made the difference in a world that has become smaller—and more navigable to people fleeing their homelands—due to the digital flow of information. And it was also technology that helped shape the forces of resistance, social media where the rumors and falsehoods about refugees spread, where the people organized who went into the streets in the winter of 2014-2015 to shout, “Wir sind das Volk”—We are the people—a reference to the peaceful citizen revolution in Germany in 1989, this time turned into a statement or threat of aggression against the refugees.

The AfD is huge on social media, bigger than any other German party, using emotional language that’s become a moral contagion. It has been the right that has shaped public discourse in the years after 2015. The 87 percent of voters who did not give their vote to the AfD in the last election have seemed more and more eclipsed in the discussions around migration and its discontents. Responding to the threat that the AfD posed—the threat to win away some of their voters—politicians of the conservative party CSU and some more hesitant members of the CDU have been eager to push words and concepts that cater to anti-immigrant fears.

Over the past few years, there have been more discussions about the Obergrenze, the limit on the number of migrants who should be accepted into the country, than there have been about Germany’s manifest need for immigrants to sustain its system of retirement and provide the necessary workforce. Similarly, there’s been more discussion about the Ankerzentren, the centralized institutions for refugees to register and live until their request for asylum has been granted or refused, than about the lack of funding for language courses or the fundamental injustice of returning people to a country where they face persecution. Indeed, more and more of the countries that refugees have been fleeing have been deemed “safe”—including Algeria and Georgia. The perceived threat to German society from a tiny minority of potentially dangerous extremists among the refugees has become the cornerstone for most discussions about immigration in general.

AP Photo/Antonio Calanni

Migrants wait to disembark from the Iceland Coast Guard vessel Tyr at the Messina harbor in Sicily, May 6, 2015.  

This climate of mistrust and fear-mongering replaced the constructive euphoria of the first weeks and months that saw the arrival of the great mass of migrants. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was portrayed as a traitor, and even mainstream publications repeated the myth that she had opened the borders in the fall of 2015, letting refugees pour into the country—notwithstanding that the borders were open as part of the Schengen Agreement. All Merkel did was to decide not to close the borders, most likely avoiding a humanitarian catastrophe. But facts mattered little in this climate of angst and agitation.

The discourse shifted further and further to the right, especially as German public television and the national talk shows addressed what was called “die Ängste der Menschen,” the fears of the people. The door that opened in the fall of 2015 was slammed shut.



The pushback against refugees, migration, and multiculturalism is a pushback against a progressive vision of society. What is at stake, in the European Parliament election of May 2019 and beyond, is the very notion of what this continent is about—whether it embraces just the freedom of movement of goods or also freedom of movement of people. In theory, the answer of the European Union has more or less been both. In reality, the economic imperatives that are historically at the core of the EU—founded in the 1950s as an organization for trading coal and steel across borders—always took precedence. The refugee crisis of 2015 offered and still offers the opportunity for the governments and people of this continent to rethink what kind of union they really want. And what kind of society.

It is a discussion that is necessary, one way or another. The continent has shifted into a retro mode and has lost a sense of its future. The economic and technological consequences to shutting out immigrants are already being felt. So is the political and societal regression. What Europe needs is a more inclusive discussion about progressive answers to the fundamental problems of an aging continent that needs immigration desperately. In the face of a world dominated by America and China, Europe needs to find a position of strength and unity—which, in this day and age, only comes from diversity and openness.

A part of the electorate has moved right, and in countries like Italy and Poland this has led to governments with a clear anti-immigrant agenda. But in most European countries, the vast majority of voters have a much more balanced and often open and constructive approach toward refugees and all the questions about how to deal with them, how to integrate them, how to behave in the face of fundamental humanitarian challenges. There is room for a new and different thinking about the perceived threat to the lifestyles and values that people are used to in Europe. The continent has the opportunity to reconceive of what is at the root of the European idea, of European history. This was always a continent of multitudes, and it needs to be reminded of this again.  

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