Turning Point in European History

9 september 2015

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.

Resume: The refugee crisis – by no means the first one in European history – is just the tip of the iceberg, the quintessence of the accumulated problems. They should be analyzed rationally in order to make the right diagnosis and find a cure.

The heart-rending photo of a three year-old Syrian boy washed up on the Turkish shore has escalated emotions in Europe’s migration drama. This is understandable and inevitable. However, the refugee crisis – by no means the first one in European history – is just the tip of the iceberg, the quintessence of the accumulated problems. They should be analyzed rationally in order to make the right diagnosis and find a cure.

These developments amount to a systemic breakdown both in the Middle East and Europe. Neither the Middle East as we knew it in the 20th century, nor Europe, which we grew accustomed to talking about as some immutable entity, exist anymore. Both were the products of the dizzying political developments of the past century, accompanied by the disintegration of empires and military-ideological confrontations. The storms of the past century destroyed many things but eventually produced a relatively stable structure. In the 21st century the situation underwent a fundamental change and former arrangements began falling apart. Naturally, changes in the Middle East and Europe took place under completely different circumstances but on a comparable scale.

There has been a direct link between the migration crisis and the policy of Western countries in the past 15 years: not a single instance of interference has produced the desired effect, but has only further aggravated the imbalance. But even if the United States and Europe had been calmer, the erosion would have been slower but the final result would have been much the same. The models of the 20th century stopped working in the new conditions, but there was no smooth transition to the next stage. Superficial modernization was not accompanied by domestic socio-political changes, while the international context (rivalry between the two superpowers), which served as a kind of bond, underwent transformation. Even without the democratization frenzy, the region would hardly remain stable, but under outside pressure, everything happened much more quickly.

What we are witnessing is not just refugees fleeing to Europe from wars and threats. The situation is much more serious. The active part of the population of several countries (Syria is an obvious example but this also applies to other states shaken by upheavals) simply came to the conclusion (consciously, or not quite) that they cannot live at home because they have no prospects for the foreseeable future. Importantly, these people represent an advanced social segment, and Syria was a fairly modern secular state in the region. These people see their future in Europe, for the standards of which they and their former governments to some extent were striving. Now the region is moving in the opposite direction. Peculiar democratization of the Middle East now means archaization in all spheres – from culture and ideology to management – and it is likely to be that way for a long time to come.

In other words, Europe’s efforts to stimulate socio-political progress in the Middle East and North Africa (and in the past, in colonial times, to create a loyal stratum) were crowned with success in a way: there emerged a category of people gravitating toward the Western lifestyle. The only problem is that they cannot fulfill their wish at home, and so they move to countries where this is possible, and they want to settle there not just for a while, but forever.

In this context Europe is divided into two large parts: those who are ready for their Old World to change by integrating these “new Europeans,” and those who are against their arrival. It is hard to draw a clear line, but the east of Europe seems to be less ready for such changes than the west. The division line also cuts through societies, often between the ruling and intellectual elites, on the one hand, that are more liberal and pro-migration, and a considerable part of the population, on the other hand, that is scared and does not understand what all of this means.

Indicatively, Germany – now the main EU country – intends to accept masses of migrants and demands that others follow suit. One of the arguments for domestic voters is that the country needs labor and skills. Both the labor minister and the head of Daimler talk about this. It is possible to imagine that a flow of unassuming albeit fairly able-bodied compatriots may affect the very high standards of labor and social legislation, something that modern European countries cannot afford to accept. But one thing is certain: migration can trigger very serious changes in the EU institutional mechanism, and not only as regards migration, but also in general, because what we're talking about here is the code of conduct within the community, distribution of the burden and discipline, which apply to virtually all aspects of the EU's functioning. All EU countries are looking at Berlin as the main decision-maker.

It is quite probable that in the future, the summer of 2015 will be considered a turning point in European history. The Greek crisis in the first half of the summer and the migration flow in the latter half are assigning a new vector to development, and nobody can tell where it will lead.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

Valdai International Discussion Club

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