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How to understand the European political reaction to the refugee problem?

At first, and for a few years, we pretended there was no problem – or we preferred to think it was an isolated and localized one to be dealt with at the borders of Italy and Greece.

Then in 2015, when the refugee numbers swelled and the border countries could no longer cope on their own, hence deciding to let people move on – we suddenly woke up to the reality of war. Reluctantly some European countries decided to comply with their obligations according to international law and provide protection.

Only a minority of European countries adopted this stance. The majority persisted in their belief this had nothing to do with them. Thus it has been impossible to arrive at an agreement on how to share the ‘burden’ of this humanitarian crisis. As a result, the few countries that have until now been prepared to provide protection are themselves beginning to falter – their will (and willingness) breaking down mainly as a result of domestic strife.

Member States are divided, national governments are divided, the European Council and Commission are divided – and everybody acts under the compulsion to speak up their mind in public. This is high time for solo performances – both in words and in deeds.

The discourse suggests refugees are viewed as either a natural catastrophe or as barbarians. The fear is that we will be flooded by them as if their ‘flows’ represented an epidemic or tsunami waves. We stand to lose our health, our balance, our belongings and our quality of life. Moreover, that refugees should talk foreign languages and pray to foreign gods renders them barbarians – and we additionally fear for our values and lifestyles.

This is an extreme right wing racist and paranoid discourse, which has taken hold of mainstream politics – at the expense of both common sense and humanity.

The refugee problem is perfectly manageable if we were to agree to collaborate and coordinate — at European and at international level. If it is still a problem it is only because it so conveniently lends itself to populism. It provides an opportunity to countries, groups and individuals to give vent to their long-standing frustrations about other things. Some, not all, of these frustrations are legitimate, especially in the wake of a financial crisis that has alienated many people and reduced their trust in their political institutions. But competing with the weakest of the lot will not help achieve fair solutions on anything.

The so-called refugee crisis is not a crisis. This is not really about anxiety, but rather about agitation. Let us hope we will soon regain our sense and our sensibility.

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