As anyone looking past the beer and the box scores knows by now, there’s a refugee crisis unfolding in Europe. It’s big and getting bigger, creating its own political weather, and no one seems to have a clue as to where it’s heading. That it will affect us seems obvious – political climate change, like the other kind, doesn’t respect borders. So what do the experts think? Many things, many of them contradictory. The sharpest comment I’ve heard - if not particularly helpful – came from a talking head on Czech TV who, on being asked for a prediction, shook his head and said, “Bude horky podzim” - It’s going to be a hot fall.
I think the man may be right. How hot, for how long, at what cost - these are all very good questions.
There’s a personal angle to all this. I’m writing in a small hotel room overlooking a leafy courtyard in Prague, where my family and I have come to collect my mother’s ashes. Mom’s across the room behind me, tucked under the bedside table in a handy cardboard carrying case suitable for a pet bunny. I find her presence oddly comforting, which is both good and surprising. Mom and I are a very long story.
I mention this – yes, there is a connection – because my parents were refugees themselves, part of the post-war wave of Hungarians and Czechs and Poles, camp survivors and former SS men, concert pianists and construction workers, fleeing the Communist coups of Eastern Europe in the late 1940’s. For the better part of three years they lived in transit camps and immigrant ghettos from Innsbruck to Naples to Sydney. They went wherever anyone would have them. They shoveled coal and cleaned toilets and cut sugar cane. Eventually, their ship ground down on the pebbles of the New World, where I was born.
My point is that while my sympathies are naturally with the refugees – one or two twists of fate and we’re all hand-washing our underwear in the sink - I understand that openness has its limits.
So far, my parents’ refugee crisis still stands as the largest in European history. So far.
There’s so much to say here – about political refugees versus ‘economic immigrants’, about our often irrational loyalty to the particulars of language and landscape, about that deadly abstraction called a nation and the many shapes of tribalism – but I’m going to shamelessly step around those thickets and follow my novelist’s nose to what may be the heart of the current problem.
In a word, numbers. Volume. Our bonds, like our best intentions, can only take so much stress. If a thousand refugees need to be fed and clothed, you’ll be handing out blankets; ten thousand, you’ll be marching for tolerance, shouting down the right-wing zealots screaming for God and country. A hundred thousand? A million? We need to talk.
Some will hold to their principles, of course; some always do. But what I learned from my parents’ generation – from the Czech and German Jews, primarily, who’d survived the war – is that you never know who will fold and when. You say you think you know what you would have done in Leipzig or Warsaw or Prague in 1940, or 1941? You don’t. You don’t know until the decision’s before you and the costs are clear. If you’re smart, you’ll hope that moment never comes.
I realize it’s precarious to draw a parallel between a refugee crisis and a time of war, but my point is simply this: Pressure alters people’s values, re-orders their priorities, rattles their convictions. A little pressure alters beliefs very little; enormous pressure alters them enormously – it’s a continuum.
So far, the pressure being applied to Europe is relatively light (roughly 3,000 refugees a day, mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, coming in primarily through the Balkans), but already the twenty-eight countries making up the EU are adjusting their stance, beginning to argue. It’s like watching a group of people in a jammed elevator when the AC goes off.
A quick snapshot of the situation, as of September 2, shows us Angela Merkel arguing for a fairer distribution of refugees, the Czechs and Slovaks seeking an alliance with Hungary to resist any “quota-based redistribution,” Macedonian officials trying to close the border with Greece, the Hungarians building a 100 mile-long fence topped with razor wire (Donald, take note!), the Brits and the French increasing security around the Chunnel, Austrian authorities inspecting all vehicles from Hungary, creating monster traffic jams in 90 degree heat.
It’s getting hot out there, and we’re still three weeks from fall.
Here’s how it may play out (I’ll limit myself to just the three most intriguing/troubling prospects):
A). As the number of refugees rises, so will right wing parties across Europe; it’s a reaction almost chemical in its predictability. Already there have been more than 200 attacks against migrants in Germany alone; in Rome, violent clashes have forced authorities to move migrant camps out of harm’s way. Those marching for tolerance and openness today – in Munich and Berlin, for example - will find it harder and harder to hold the line.
B). As the heat comes on, the European union, always a fragile construct, will begin to break like a geography puzzle along national lines. As of this writing, the no-passport ‘Schengen’ area, which allows no-passport, free travel between EU countries (something on which the European economy largely depends), is coming under pressure. As Ms. Merkel has pointed out, if we cannot arrive at a fair distribution of refugees, some will begin to question Schengen. Merkel’s use of the future tense is diplomatic; it’s already being questioned.
C). As the old borders begin to re-emerge and nationalism rears its ugly head, enormous pressure will build for Europe and the United States to attack the problem at its source. Or sources. Which raises the specter of a military return to the Middle East. Which may – a final, only slightly paranoid thought - have been the plan of those hoping to draw us in all along: Use refugees as a wedge to expose Europe’s fragility, test its liberal foundations. Then stand back and watch it crack.
It may not go this way. The influx of refugees may plateau or decrease for reasons we can’t see. A solution more subtle and effective than razor wire may be found; NIMBYism may wane. Europe’s experiment in unity may prove stronger than anyone thought. (For an extraordinary shot of hope, read Icelandic author Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir’s open letter to the country’s welfare minister, Eygló Harðardóttir). The people in the elevator may hunker down, help each other out, grow closer under pressure. I hope so.
I’m a long way from the shed today. In the courtyard outside, nothing moves in the heat; the laundry someone’s hung across the way looks painted. And it seems to me that this fall, in Europe, the Better Angels of our Nature may be put to the test.
Lets hope they fare better than when Lincoln invoked them in 1861.