The European Crisis

The European Crisis

The EU as a whole is once again, as Europe was in the 1930s, a world of borders and refusals.

Syrian refugees in Vienna, September 4 (Josh Zakary / Flickr)

The crisis in Europe today is felt most dramatically and most painfully by tens of thousands of refugees. They are indeed in critical need of help, and many of them will die if their needs are not recognized and met. But this is also a crisis for the people of Europe, for they are the ones, right now, who must recognize and meet those needs, and if they fail to do that, the idea of Europe will die. The dream of a new kind of commonwealth, a commonwealth of mutual responsibility and liberal values, will be over; we will wake up to a grim day.

In 1938, in an earlier European crisis, with refugees clamoring to enter France, Leon Blum, the leader of the Socialist Party and the prime minister of the short-lived Popular Front government of 1936, gave a speech whose key sentences are worth repeating today. This is what he said:

Your house may already be full. That may be. But when they knock on your door, you will open it, and you will not ask them for their birth certificates or criminal records or vaccination certificates.

What a joy it would be to hear a Socialist leader in Europe today speak like that! François Hollande came close: “It is the duty of France, where the right to asylum is an integral part of its soul, its flesh. . . .” But he then announced that France would admit 24,000 refugees over the next two years—too few, given the numbers knocking on the door.

Blum in ’38 went on to say that the refugees would not necessarily stay in France. A more general solution to the crisis was required, as it is today, permitting the return of people to their homelands or their resettlement in different countries, which would share the burden of providing for them. But they needed a place, they need a place, right now: “How can you refuse them shelter for a night?” Blum asked. In Europe today, only the Germans and the Swedes have opted strongly against refusal; Italy and Greece are overwhelmed and eager to help the refugees on their way to other places. The EU as a whole is once again, as Europe was in the 1930s, a world of borders and refusals.

Faced with the desperate plight of the migrants, the countries of Europe (and other countries, too—I’ll come to them) face a clear choice: they can help stem the tide, by confronting the poverty, civil wars, and predatory governments that produce it, or they can take people in for the night and for many nights. I guess it isn’t actually a choice; some version of both is morally and politically necessary. Let me say something, very briefly, about each of them, starting with the second.


The immense task of providing shelter for a night has fallen on countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, where several million refugees are now housed or tented in camps with inadequate, most often radically inadequate, shelter, sanitation, and health services. Even for this, the costs are enormous, and richer countries, most of whom don’t want to see these people at their borders, have nonetheless failed to help them, or to help them enough, where they are. Men, women, and children are fleeing the camps, on a very dangerous journey to those European borders, which are mostly closed to legal crossings. Illegal crossings are now a big business, which, like other businesses in our neoliberal world, produce many casualties. Stories of injury and death at the hands of traffickers have become commonplace, and they move us, though not very much. But the people won’t stop coming, so the crossings must be made legal and help provided on a scale that matches the wealth of the providers. Your house may be full. It doesn’t matter.

European leaders, led by Germany’s Merkel, have talked about dividing the burden by assigning quotas to each member state of the EU: so many refugees for you, so many for you. The numbers discussed have been too small, but as of this writing, no assignments have been made or accepted. Iceland has done better.

And what about the United States, where Liberty lifts its torch to welcome the huddled masses? There isn’t much of a welcome these days. We have taken in very few of the refugees from Iraq, very few even of the people who cooperated with U.S. occupation and whose lives were therefore in danger, and even fewer from Syria.* Our politicians are vying with each other in their enthusiasm for keeping out Mexicans, so why would they open the door to people from so far away? We should be assisting Europe or, better, embarrassing Europe, by taking in significant numbers of people—especially from parts of the world that we have helped to ruin. It should be easier for us, an immigrant society, than for the Europeans who persist in thinking of themselves, against a lot of evidence, as a land of anciently rooted and entirely homogeneous populations.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Ross Douthat counseled prudence: advocates of opening the door are “blind to the realities of culture, the challenges of assimilation, and the danger and inevitability of backlash.” He is right, of course, about the realities, the challenges, and the danger, but what follows from being right? In the 1840s, the United States took in tens of thousands of Irish Catholic peasants fleeing the potato famine—immigrants who, our nativists insisted, would never learn the virtues of democratic citizenship (only Protestants could do that). And, yes, we got the backlash of the Know-Nothing Party, which was briefly a majority party in parts of the northeast. But sometimes dangers have to be met, not avoided.

What about other countries, where the dangers might be less threatening than in Europe? India and China seem sufficiently crowded, but Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Brazil, Argentina—surely these countries have room for some number of desperate people. The countries most responsible for the Syrian disaster—Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia—have taken in none at all of its victims; they should be welcoming Syrians by the thousands. Indeed, in all of these countries, and ours too, an influx of immigrants would, over time, strengthen the economy and enhance the culture. And, not to worry, if there is ever peace in their homelands, many of the refugees will go home.

Is there any way of bringing peace to their homelands, or of reducing poverty, or of replacing predatory rulers? Besides taking people in, we have a responsibility to help them where they are. Not having helped them where they are, and sometimes having hurt them, Europeans and Americans, and others too, must take them in. But, still, it would be a good thing to change the conditions that drive so many into exile. People don’t leave their homes willingly; it takes a disaster to produce large numbers of refugees, looking for a better place or just a place to rest for a while. A serious, sustained policy of investment, substantially funded but carefully and locally focused, could begin to reduce poverty in, say, the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. But politics is probably a more common cause of disasters than economics is, and wars, warlords, and tyrants require a more forceful intervention. We are rightly leery of anything like that. Overthrow a tyrant, like Qaddafi, say, and you get a chaos of thugs and zealots—and then thousands of people fleeing. What ought to be done?

I have a utopian solution, which is also politically incorrect. There are countries in the world today that ought to be, for a time, not-independent and not-sovereign. What the world needs, and what the UN might provide if it were the organization it was meant to be: a new trusteeship system for countries that are temporarily unable to govern themselves. The old mandate system of the League of Nations was not a great success, but it did not produce, and perhaps it prevented, disasters like the ones we are helplessly watching today. For the last decade and a half, Kosovo has been a kind of NATO trust—again, not a glorious example, for refugees are still fleeing, but at least the killing has stopped. So perhaps it isn’t crazy to suggest that Libya and Syria ought to be UN trusteeships, with some coalition of countries, different in each case, taking responsibility for maintaining law and order and providing basic services to the population—under strict UN supervision. I hesitate to suggest the countries that might serve as trustees, since I wouldn’t want to vouch for any country’s trustworthiness. But great virtue isn’t necessary, only a readiness to stop the killing, get rid of the killers, and provide enough stability for the citizens of the war-ravaged countries to begin rebuilding. That has to be their work.

Still, trusteeship is much more than peacekeeping. It is, in fact, more like occupation, and so it is a large, even if temporary, responsibility. It would require the use of force; there would be costs for the trustees, though nothing like the costs for the region (as well as for Europe) of the Syrian disaster and all the other disasters. In leftist accounts of imperialism and neo-colonialism, it is always assumed that there are powerful and ambitious countries eager to take on responsibilities of this sort. For responsibility is also opportunity—to control resources, to exploit cheap labor, to win strategic advantage. In fact, it would be very difficult to find trustees today; political leaders would see this as a thankless job, acceptable only, if at all, if the costs were widely shared. Imagine a meeting (like the one that will take place in Europe this week to argue about sharing the costs of taking in refugees) to argue about sharing the costs of a Libyan or Syrian trusteeship. Most likely no one would show up.

But imagine it we should, anyway; perhaps its time will come.

Michael Walzer is editor emeritus at Dissent.

* Editor’s note: On Thursday, President Obama announced that the United States would take in 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016—a move that aid groups have criticized as a token gesture. Some 3.8 million refugees have left Syria since the war began there in 2008; so far, the United States has welcomed less than 1,500 of them.