The refugee crisis has exposed cracks in the EU’s political foundations. Failure to agree over how to implement refugee quotas and inability to coordinate humanitarian actions has allowed Eurosceptics to vaunt their populist talents. Information chaos has wreaked havoc in Europe, radicalising public opinion. The Right joined forces, holding a hard line on immigration policy while appeals for solidarity and common action crashed against the opposition of the Visegrad countries – two of them run by ‘social democrats’. Thus, the refugee crisis has also exposed the crisis of the European left and its internal axiological incoherence.
Clear Statement Of European Social Democratic Values
As the refugee crisis struck Europe, The Party of European Socialists (PES), an umbrella organization bringing together European social democrats, took a determined stand on the role of EU to provide aid and shelter for the newcomers. In October 2015 PES adopted a Presidency Declaration, entitled ‘Refugees – a Progressive and humanitarian response’, supporting refugee quotas. According to the document “(…) by relocating 160,000 people in need of international protection and many more in the future, Europe can show unity”. The essence is clear and deeply rooted in social democratic values: equality, social justice, collectivism and respect for human rights. It then came as no surprise that the opposition of the eastern European countries towards these proposed measures brought about an immediate counter-reaction within progressive Europe. In early January 2016 Gianni Pittella, President of the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament, warned against Europe falling apart because of “the narrow-minded selfishness of some national governments and the illusion that restoring borders will solve the global challenge of migration”.
Western Social Democrats
Social democratic governments in western European countries proved supportive of the open borders policy. In September 2015 a meeting was held in Brussels to discuss possible solutions, hosting French Minister of State for European Affairs, Harlem Desir, German Minister of State for Europe, Michael Roth, and Italian State Secretary for European Affairs, Sandro Gozi. Their message was clear: The European Union is a community based on solidarity and humanity where the right to asylum cannot be questioned. From the perspective of the European Left the key words came from Gozi: “As socialists and democrats, but first and foremost as European citizens, we are committed to promote the founding values of Europe – solidarity, collaboration, respect for others – and to identify the common policies that can promote them”. This consensus does not seem to be so obvious in the East.
Social Democracy In The Visegrad Group
In the dispute over refugees the position of the Visegrad Four, i.e. Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia runs counter to western appeals. Two of the Visegrad countries are, however, ruled by social democrats. Even so, they do not fully agree with their western colleagues – to say the least.
Responding to the sexual assaults that accrued on New Year’s Eve in Cologne and other German cities, the Slovak Prime Minister, Robert Fico (SMER), immediately called for an extraordinary European summit on border controls. Previously, Fico set out an anti-immigrant agenda, claiming Slovakia was “built for Slovaks, not for minorities” and announcing multi-culturalism to be a failure.
Fico’s proposal won the support of the Czech PM, Bohuslav Sobotka (ČSSD), who put the blame for the situation in Europe on Angela Merkel and rejected pressures to accept quotas. Nevertheless, Sobotka keeps his temper and speaks responsibly. It is the Czech President, Miloš Zeman – nowadays the leader of the centre-left Party of Civic Rights (SPO) – who does not mince his words. In his annual Christmas message he warned against an invasion of Europe – the mass migration of refugees to exploit welfare benefits. Sobotka calls the president a populist “legitimizing xenophobia”.
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The Hungarian social democratic party (MSZP) remains in determined opposition to Viktor Orban’s government. Its members voted against the new anti-immigration laws criminalizing crossing of the border fence and supported by far-right Jobbik but the party remains “positively neutral” towards the refugee issue, not to irritate their electorate. Democratic Coalition (DK) has proved to be most sympathetic to the asylum seekers with its leader, Ferenc Gyurcsány, hosting refugees at his home during Budapest’s Keleti Railway Station impasse. It, however, has little say in the Hungarian Parliament.
Meanwhile, Leszek Miller, leader of Polish Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), is very open about his views. Although in the latest elections the party failed to win a single seat in the parliament, it remains the biggest left-wing political force in Poland. Miller harshly criticizes Angela Merkel for her open borders policy, as well as the SPD for its complicity. As for the refugees themselves, Miller claims most of them are “economic migrants” and demands their submission to Polish law, culture and mores of the education system. Above all, Miller warns against Islamic terrorism as the greatest threat to Europe.
The Left At A Crossroads
Martin Schulz, the President of the European Parliament, has responded to the “Eastern Bloc’s” opposition by accusing “some governments, who don’t want to take responsibility” of impeding a joint European solution. Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, threatened to cut structural funds for countries refusing quotas. Pittella threatened to expel the Slovak leader Fico if he doesn’t change his stance.
All these actions have failed to influence the Visegrad Four. Their position has even hardened due to the change of government in Poland. In fact, the endeavours of the European Left might take completely the wrong turn: threatening eastern and central European countries simply hardens their position even more, proving the existence of a “Brussels dictate”. There has to be another way to find a consensus on the refugee crisis.
The entire European Union has to face the challenge of securing effective support for the refugees. As of now, fundamental disagreements in managing massive immigrant influxes have led nowhere but to a humanitarian crisis and growing hostility. Firstly, listening more carefully to the concerns of the rebelling V4 could be a first step towards mutual understanding. This, however, will never be possible without abandoning populist arguments and emotional rhetoric. Secondly, it would be crucial for common statements, like the already mentioned PES Declaration, to be based on a real consensus. If some member parties publicly withdraw from them, they loose credibility.
Thus, the European social democrats have to revise their axiological foundation when the competitors from the new socialist left, like Syriza, Podemos or Razem, heave into view. It has to be clear that dangling red party labels over ones brand is not sufficient proof of representing progressive values. The European social democratic movement has to be consequential, but in a constructive way: not by threatening to throw out the “rotten apples” without prior negotiation of common positions. Nevertheless, once adopted, the joint policy standards have to be respected by all members of the social democratic family, without exceptions and in the name of unity in turbulent times.
Dr Maria Skóra is a researcher and political analyst in Berlin. At the Institut für Europäische Politik, she analysing rule-of-law developments in the European Union. She is also a policy fellow at the think-tank Das Progressive Zentrum, hosting the annual Progressive Governance Summit.