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 could not have anticipated a wave of refugees to invade its borders. Most Western European countries have shown compassion and willingness to welcome refugees, but this is not the case in many Eastern European countries, which can been explained through historic, economic and political perspectives.
Eastern Europe is unique. It has its own cultures, beliefs and dynamics that should not be compared to Western Europe. Historically, Central and Eastern Europe have seen more frequent change of borders, political systems and politicians. They are not used to the refugee and migrant pressure that they are experiencing. 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 that, however irrational, 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 an 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 as a uniting power.
The recent attacks in Paris have given more grounds for the anti-refugee rhetoric, not only in Hungary, but also in Slovakia, Czech Republic and many other countries. Societies in the region become increasingly 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. The European Union desperately 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. 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, youth unemployment is devastating, 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.
The people of Eastern Europe have been waiting for the EU and Western Europe to help improve their standard of living, but a lot of countries have experienced difficulties in their transition periods since the fall of the Soviet Union. Some countries are still enduring their transition periods and now they have become transit countries. There is a general feeling of disappointment and distrust among Eastern European societies.
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, ineffective policies, especially the Dublin Regulation, which establishes the EU Member State responsible for the examination of refugee applications. Politicians throughout Europe have called for measure to be taken to solve the crisis in Syria, but the lack of common foreign policy will prove EU involvement to be more difficult.