Debates: Experts from the Valdai Club discuss the European refugee crisis, highlighting the political, economic and cultural issues that threaten to destroy the unity of the EU.

A group of migrants crosses a border from Croatia near the village of Zakany, Hungary. Photo: AP

The refugee crisis has topped the agenda of the European Union for over a year now. It is not surprising, as this crisis has resulted in a significant debate in European countries about the future of Europe, and the role of Muslim migrants in it. This issue has already divided EU members and put the unity of Europe at risk, especially as the continent faces its most serious crisis since 1945.

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With that in mind, the Valdai Club asked its experts about the impact of the refugee crisis on European unity, and the role of those refugees in Europe’s future.

Valdai Club: Do you think that the refugee crisis in Europe will lead to a split among the EU members? Or will it actually help to unite Europe? Will EU members be able to convince the Visegrad countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary) to agree with the migrant distribution scheme of the EU?
Huseyin Bagci, Professor and Chair, Department of International Relations, Middle East Technical University in Ankara; Deputy Director, Foreign Policy Institute in Ankara; Guest Professor, Humboldt University in Berlin

Europe hasn’t seen a crisis like the current one since 1945. Undoubtedly, it will change the social and political institutions of European countries and the EU. It is hard to say now whether the crisis will split or consolidate the EU members. At this moment, I would say that the EU is splitting; at the same time, the head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, is trying to minimize the split and preserve the unity. It is quite difficult, as the refugee flow is not decreasing.

I agree that the Visegrad group of countries is trying to stop Muslim migration with all their efforts. Being squeezed in between the Balkans and other EU countries, they do not want to host Muslims. It is easier for them to integrate Christians, as their women do not wear the hijab or niqab and their men do not grow beards like the members of Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).

This is actually where the compromise might be found: The Visegrad states will host just Christians, although it is unprecedented for Europe to take such a step. Meanwhile, the EU is trying to convince the Visegrad states to accept refugees using political pressure recall the statement of the Luxembourg foreign minister, who has called for the exclusion of Hungary from the EU. Thus, it is difficult to say whether this trend of increasing political pressure will develop further.

Gerhard Mangott, Professor of International Affairs, University of Innsbruck

I believe that the influx of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa has deeply split the European Union. Many EU members considered it wrong that the German chancellor decided to open the borders for uncontrolled refugee flows heading to central Europe via the Balkan route. They were particularly angered by the fact that the German and Austrian governments had not coordinated this decision with the EU authorities and other EU member countries, but in the end, insisted that all other EU members have to take quotas of the refugees moving to Germany, Austria, Denmark and Sweden.

Pointing to that lack of coordination and based on resentment against Muslim immigration, many of the EU countries, especially in Eastern Europe, have refused to accept such a quota system. It is extremely unlikely that Germany or anyone else will be able to change that stance. This will deepen the split in the EU and further escalate the crisis that the EU has been in for the past years.

Stefan Meister, Head of the Program for Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia, Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia, German Council on Foreign Relations

The migration issue, which concerns the influx of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, is one of the biggest challenges for the EU in years, because a foreign policy problem is linked with internal security. This is happening at a time when we observe a trend towards renationalization and growing populism among the EU member states as a reaction to globalization and the growing perception of the threat to European societies.

This refugee crisis splits the EU and, in particular, its Eastern member states who are afraid of German dominance on this issue. Due to differences in the ways to respond to different crises in the EU, there are different groups of states that are trying to resist the German approach to the problem.

I don’t think that the crisis will be solved soon. [Angela] Merkel will not be successful in implementing the idea of quotas, but both sides have to make compromises. The Visegrad states normally disagree on crucial issues; however, the refugee crisis is the only one that unites them. The EU member states don’t want the European Commission to dictate how many refugees they have to take and many of them even don’t want to have refugees at all. Therefore, I don’t think this coordination and cooperation against German dominance will last long.

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Ivan Blot, political scientist, economist and Professor at the University of Nice (Sophia Antipolis), ex-member of the European parliament

The refugee crisis is an occasion of splitting the European Union. We must not forget that a lot of people who voted for the Brexit were motivated by the fear of the immigrants coming to Europe. The Brexit gave courage to the Visegrad countries to oppose the plans of the European commission to organize a share of the refugees between different European countries. Other countries that are dissidents on this issue include Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands. Other countries like France can change their position, especially if the National Front gets good results at the next presidential election.

Valdai Club: Do you think that public opinion in Europe is also divided on the refugee issue? If so, in which countries and what political consequences might it have?

I.B.: In fact,there is a strong split in public opinion in many European countries. The split is also between the elites and the people, a bit like the 19th century split between the bourgeoisie and the working class. The dialogue between the opposite positions is very difficult. In my party, the Republicans Party of Nicolas Sarkozy, such a split is present. Sarkozy tries to hear the majority opinion to avoid further division in his party. Otherwise, a lot of voters could change their mind and vote for the National Front (s a socially conservative, nationalist political party in France Editor's note).

A migrant woman walks past a banner that reads: "Open the Borders" during the protest demanding the opening of the border between Greece and Macedonia in the northern Greek border station of Idomeni, Greece, March 22, 2016. Photo: AP

G.M.: The increase in Muslim immigration, much of it uncontrolled, gave rise to the growing resentment against foreigners and reinforced anti-migrant and anti-Muslim parties in several EU countries. It is particularly noticeable in Germany with the extraordinary rise of the Alternative for Germany party. It achieved impressive electoral results in the German states of Baden-Würtemberg, Sachsen Anhalt and Mecklenburg Vorpommern. Immigration has also strengthened support for the Freedom Party in Austria and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. At the same time, we can identify substantial parts of the societies in those countries that continue to support the refugees and rally around those political forces that endorse state-sponsored plans for quick integration of the registered refugees into the labor market and the education system.

S.M.: This split exists in all countries and the refugee topic is a catalyst for right-wing populist groups in many EU member states. The Alternative for Germany party would not be so successful and would not get so much attention without the refugees coming to Germany. But this issue also splits societies and polarizes the political discourse in France, the UK, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden. In the Eastern member states, in particular within the Visegrad group, the governments are very opposed to any quotas for refugees because they want to prevent strong populist groups. Many of these governments, especially that of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, use the arguments of the right-wing populists to strengthen their own positions.

H.B.: I regularly visit different EU countries and can confidently say that the split exists not only on the diplomatic level but also on the social level, and it is growing. It leads to a rise of popularity of far-right parties and these parties are different from the neo-Nazis. They are supported by people who see that their normal everyday life is changing, foreigners are occupying their country that’s why they fear losing their social status. Whether they are right or not is a different question, but their position leads to the conflict with those who are opposing them.

I assume that Angela Merkel might well lose the next year elections given the recent rise in popularity of the Alternative for Germany party. The political landscape of Europe is changing and becoming less stable and I think this trend is here for another decade.

Valdai Club: Do you believe that Europe will manage to settle the agreement on refugees with Turkey? What are the chances of that happening?

G.M.: The Turkish government has made it explicitly clear that Turkey will no longer adhere to the refugee deal they signed with the EU if Brussels does not grant Turkey a visa-free regime until the end of October 2016. It is extremely unlikely that the EU will follow through, as it insists that Turkey has to meet all of the 72 requirements the EU has set. This includes changes to Turkey’s anti-terrorism laws that the Turkish government refuses to accept. We have to wait and see whether Turkey will follow through with its unveiled threat.

I.B.: it will be difficult to maintain the agreement with Turkey. Public opinion in general is not in favor of Turkey and there is little room for maneuvering during the negotiations for the Turkish government.

S.M.: I think, in contrast, we currently are observing a rapprochement between the EU and Turkey. Turkey until now supported the March agreement and EU member states understand how much they depend on Ankara. At the same time, Erdogan has no interest to completely isolate his country from the EU. A lot depends on the situation in Syria and the ability to stop the war and reduce the number of refugees, but for the time being, the agreement will hold and both sides have an interest in it.

H.B.: Jean-Claude Juncker stated that introduction of the visa-free regime with Turkey is possible, but it will require some time. Currently, both sides use the refugee issue as a political tool. As many migrants attempt to get into Europe through Turkey, I think that it is a key country that can stop the influx of migrants to Europe.

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Valdai Club: What is the national and ethnic composition of the incoming refugees to Europe? How is it changing? What role can it play in the future?

I.B.: The national composition of the refugees is not an issue. The issue is in the cultural domain. The Portuguese or the Chinese integrate in good conditions but it is not the case with Muslim minorities or African minorities because of their attitude towards study and work in general. A lot of young migrants are unemployed. Besides, the competiveness in France is low and the unemployment rate among young people is about 25 percent. Thus, enormous efforts to integrate the new migrants have to be taken. The possible solution may be in the selection of a part of the migrants and their integration into society while the rest should be helped to return to their home countries.

H.B: The youngest and the most employable migrants strive to get into Germany. It is sort of a small America on the European continent. Thus, people who can contribute to the German economy, like those working in construction or in manufacturing, are coming there. Germany itself needs young people as its own population is aging. Children of the refugees can potentially spur business activity in Germany, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia, where they have less job offers.

By the way, young refugees can find prospects for job in Turkey as well regardless of their religion, color or ethnicity. Of course, the issue of integration exists everywhere, but the difference is in the scale of this problem. For Germany it is relatively new challenge, for France it is not. Besides, not all migrants want to integrate into the host society. This is why it raises a very important question as to how they will change European society.

However, a lot depends on the environment the European Parliament is currently discussing the issue of tolerance. For instance, Guy Verhovstadt, who heads the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, supports multiculturalism and acceptance of the refugees from all over the world. As long as the majority of the political parties are not against such approach, I hope, that in the next big elections their positions will only get stronger.

S.M.: We have now much fewer migrants from the Balkans, less from Afghanistan and still a high number from Syria. In particular, the number of people from Central Africa is growing; North Africans still have higher numbers but they are also declining.

The number of really well educated people is much lower than expected. Language is a hindrance to enter the European labor market. That means, most of them will only get easy jobs, many will depend on state aid, and frustration will grow. It is a question of investment in these people, if integration will succeed.

Unfortunately, populists make it more difficult to spend more money on these people so that they become more of a benefit for European society. Many of these people flee from war and terror and they just want to have a safer and better life. But that is long way to go in a culturally and religiously very different environment.

The comments were kindly provided by the Valdai Discussion Club. They were edited and adjusted to Russia Direct's style.