Migration and the Crisis of Human Rights
The global financial crisis has had a profound effect on European politics. As often happens in such hard times, these events have resulted in an upsurge in tribal, xenophobic instincts. This has been particularly visible in the reaction to the increased flow of migrants to Europe from Africa and the Middle East.
These effects have been most noticeable in East-Central Europe, where they have fuelled the rise of an “axis of illiberalism.” While intolerance is a problem across the post-communist space as a whole, Victor Orbán’s Fidesz and Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) parties have succeeded in creating regimes that combine elections and market economics with illiberal elements, including gerrymandering, the manipulation of voting rules and control of the media. These all come with the rejection of individual human rights and the rights of social minorities. Known as the Visegrád Group, these parties have fueled a counter-revolution against “Western European dogmas” of tolerance and multiculturalism.
Such developments threaten the human rights regime created in response to the Second World War. Presenting themselves as the defenders of the “ramparts of Christianity” (antemurale christianitatis), the Visegrád countries argue that they are the defenders of traditional European identity and culture in the face of ever-increasing globalization.
Statelessness and the Nation State
The success of this movement in post-communist Europe – as well as the sympathetic reception they have received on the far right across the continent – testifies to a shocking historical amnesia. As the generations of Europeans with personal memories of total war – as well as the massive transfers of people that followed – pass away, Europe risks repeating the mistakes of the past. At a time when migrants and stateless refugees have once again become “the most symptomatic group in contemporary politics,” we must remember the lessons of the 1930s, which testify to the importance of ensuring the liberal protection of both human and minority rights.
In her study of the Origins of Totalitarianism, the German-Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt, who was a stateless refugee herself, argues that the political difficulties posed by migrants point to a fundamental tension within the nation state. Whereas the first term – ‘nation’ – points to the importance of ethnic belonging, the latter – ‘state’ – focuses on the rule of law, which ought to apply equally to all residents regardless of nationality. She argues that the persecution of migrants is a sign that the “nation ha[s] conquered the state,” i.e. that the popular will of the majority has sought to repress the human rights of minorities and migrants.
This problem dates back to the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen (1789), which links the “the Rights of Man” – human rights, in modern parlance – to the “will of the people” through the concept of citizenship. While this system works for so called “state peoples,” i.e. nationals who have their own state, it does not protect unwanted individuals and minorities from “having no community” or from having their citizenship stripped away “quite democratically – namely by majority decision.” This realization is the basis for Arendt’s call for the protection of “a right to have rights […] a right to belong to some kind of organized community.” Her key insight is that the killing of the “juridical person” during the nationalist furore of the inter-war crisis was the first step towards the larger atrocities of World War II.
Arendt’s Lessons for the Present
The development of the post-war liberal-democratic order, which gives individuals international legal status, is designed to address the problems Arendt identified in her study of the 1930s. Today’s attacks on stateless migrants and refugees demonstrate that her basic concerns about the tensions between the nation and the state have not yet been resolved.
A key insight of the post-war European order is that the protection of individual human and group minority rights must be grounded beyond the nation state. This is visible both in the creation of a European legal order that supersedes national law and of the European Court of Human Rights, which allows individuals to sue national governments directly to enforce their rights. Although the European Union has resisted using the mechanisms at its disposal to censure the Visegrád governments, it must do so even if it costs the European People’s Party its majority in the European Parliament.
In the 1930s, the plight of migrants and stateless peoples coming from East-Central Europe served as a harbinger of greater atrocities to come. These same dangers haunt European politics today. Although popular sovereignty and the will of the people expressed through democratic elections is important, it is only one side of the democratic coin. The other is the protection of the individual and group rights that give the vote its legitimacy.
Europe has already experienced the dangers of unconstrained democracy once. We must remember those lessons today if we wish to avoid similar outcomes in the future.
Peter J Verovšek is an assistant professor of politics / international relations at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of Memory and the Future of Europe: Rupture and Integration in the Wake of Total War (Manchester University Press, 2020).