This is the full version of my International New York Times article on the attitudes to migrants in Eastern and Western Europe. It was published earlier this month under the headline ‘Is Eastern Europe Really More Racist Than the West?’. (I cannot publish the full version of my INYT articles on Pandaemonium until four week after the original publication.)
Soldiers putting up miles of razor wire fencing to keep out refugees. A mother and child stuck in a field of mud. A truck parked on the highway between Budapest and Vienna containing the decomposing bodies of 71 refugees. The scenes over the past few weeks from the Eastern borders of Europe have generated horror and revulsion. ‘Have Eastern Europeans no sense of shame?’, asked the Polish American historian Jan Gross. Another historian, the German-born Jan-Werner Müller, demanded that the EU ‘ostracize’ Hungary, ‘a country no longer observing its values’, by cutting off funding and suspending its voting rights.
For many, East Europeans’ lack of generosity towards refugees reflects, in the words of one Guardian columnist, a fundamental ‘political and cultural gap’ that divides the continent. East European nations have only recently thrown off the Soviet yoke and are new to the values of liberal democracy. Many are homogenous and unused to immigration. Hence, many suggest, the insularity and prejudice.
Recent history has certainly shaped the character of East European societies. But are they really more xenophobic or hostile to migrants than those of the West?
Flicking through the newspapers in recent weeks, one might be forgiven for thinking that until Hungary started putting up fences, the European Union had open borders, and had welcomed migrants only with kindness and gentleness. In fact for 25 years, the EU has been constructing what many justly call ‘Fortress Europe’, keeping out migrants not with fences but with warships, helicopters and surveillance drones. One of the reasons that migrants are now coming through the Balkans is because EU patrols have effectively blocked off the southern routes, particularly from Libya into Italy.
Hungary’s treatment of migrants has certainly been brutal. But is it that different from policies adopted by Britain or France?
Some 6000 migrants currently live in what is in effect Europe’s largest shanty town on the outskirts of Calais. A report last month by the University of Birmingham and the Doctors of the World group described the conditions in what has come to be known as ‘the Jungle’ as ‘diabolical’, with tents overrun by rats, water contaminated by feces and inhabitants suffering from tuberculosis. ‘I lived like this in Darfur’, one man told a British journalist. ‘I could not believe a place like this existed in Europ
The migrants are confined to the Jungle because Britain refuses to let what Prime Minister David Cameron described as ‘a swarm’ cross the Channel. Were the Jungle in Hungary or Poland, there would no doubt be an international outcry. Because it is outside Calais, few historians or journalists have bothered to write furious condemnations of the intolerance and xenophobia it exposes.
It is true that Western European nations have had greater exposure to immigration than countries of the East. But how has that affected social attitudes?
The Atlantic magazine’s Heather Horn surveyed some of the data recently According to the 2005-2009 World Values Survey, 14 per cent of Poles and 24 per cent of Hungarians would not want an immigrant as a neighbour. In France, however, the figure stands at an extraordinary 36 per cent. The most recent World Values Survey, conducted between 2010 and 2104, did not poll Hungary or France. But it showed that the proportion of Germans objecting to immigrant neighbour (21.4%) is almost identical to that in Romania (21.3%) – and three times higher than in Poland , where only 7.2 raised objections.
The 2009 Pew Global Attitudes Survey looked at differences between Eastern and Western Europe. It found that East Europeans were less likely to think that it was ‘a good thing for any society to be made up of people from different races, religions and cultures’. Thirty per cent of Hungarians, and 22 per cent of Poles disagreed, compared to just one in 10 of the French population and 13 per cent of Britons and Germans.
But when asked about specific groups, the picture changed. In Eastern Europe anti-Semitism is particularly strong, while in Western Europe people tend to be more hostile to Muslims. The Pew survey found that 29 per cent of Poles and Hungarians had an unfavourable view of Jews. Twenty-seven per cent of Britons, and a full 69 per cent of Italians had an unfavourable view of Muslims, while 30 per cent of Germans disliked Turks. Western Europeans, in other words, may appear more tolerant when talking in the abstract, but are as intolerant as East Europeans when it comes to their attitudes towards specific groups. The ‘cultural gap’ may just be that Western Europeans are more polished in using the language of tolerance while in reality being equally intolerant of the ‘Other’.
The largest far-right party in Europe is not in Poland or Hungary but in France. Ninety per cent of the French people may say they are at ease with a society comprising different races, religions and cultures, but almost one in five voted for the Front National leader Marine le Pen in the 2012 Presidential election.
In the Netherlands, the populist politician Geert Wilders recently told Parliament that the refugee crisis amounted to an ‘Islamic invasion’, echoing the words of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Wilders has called for the Qur’an to banned and for an end to the building of mosques. Every recent opinion poll shows his PVV party in the lead. It is not inconceivable that Wilders and Le Pen could end up as leaders of their respective countries. Where then for the great cultural divide between East and West?
The treatment of migrants by East European nations has been reprehensible and needs challenging. But there is something equally nasty in the chorus of condemnation that East Europe has faced. Portraying Eastern Europeans as lacking ‘our’ values, and as particularly xenophobic and narrow-minded, serves only to disguise the role that west European nations have played in fostering hostility and intolerance. Demonizing East Europeans is no answer to the way that political leaders throughout Europe have helped demonize migrants.
The photo is of an Afghan migrant at the Calais Jungle, © Reuters/Pascal Rossignol