Quo vadis Europe? The refugee crisis that brought EU’s solidarity clause to its twilight

The world is in trouble. Europe is in even bigger trouble. The old continent became the host of a humanitarian crisis that has not been seen since the end of World War II. After decades of effort and dedication spent on the European cause, and after many debates on European values and principles, the European Union is now facing a real challenge where diplomacy and rhetorical speeches must be replaced by concrete actions in order to solve a humanitarian disaster.

Even if immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Europe faced an influx of people from ex-soviet countries, mainly from Ukraine, Moldova and Baltic states (due to the immediate neighbourhood, close geographical ties and similar linguistic features), in the 21st century, Europe as a continent and the European Union as a political and economic entity, is now facing the “Big Southern Migration” which is quite different from what it has experienced before. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than one million refugees and migrants crossed the borders of European countries in 2015. Most of these people arrived by sea and almost 34.000 made their way over land via Turkey.[1]

The refugee crisis wrecked the European Union’s solidarity clause, brought its social and cultural values to its knees and questioned the communication process among member states. The crisis threatens to shake the foundations of EU moral principles and is testing the fabrics of the European society. Moreover, some voices are claiming a possible dissolution of the European Union. The world is too small to fall apart, and so is the EU. Metaphorically speaking, this crisis “built” a New Berlin wall between Western and Eastern Europe, where the idea of “Europeanness” might disappear. Many experts, scholars and researchers from different worldwide known universities state that the current refugee crisis the EU is confronted with deepened the divide between East and West. The two “Europes” are being represented in the West by the Germany of Angela Merkel and Junker’s European Commission, and in the East by the Hungarian government led by Viktor Orban who is, at the same time, head of the Vişegrad group (Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland) (Morilass, 2015).

The solidarity clause, as mentioned in Article 222 of the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union, states that: ”The Union and its Member States shall act jointly in a spirit of solidarity if a Member State is the object of a terrorist attack or the victim of a natural or man‐made disaster” (Myrdal & Rhinard, 2010). In the context of the refugee crisis, not only one state is in danger or victim of an attack or disaster. In fact, in a short period of time, all Europe was subdued by the flow of refugees. However, this did not activate the solidarity spirit among Europeans and unite Europe, and there was no joint effort in order to avoid the escalation of the crisis. Instead, all that could be seen was a balkanized Europe with abstruse citizens. The European Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of the minorities. The Treaty of Lisbon (2009) officially confirmed these universal citizens’ rights.

The question of European solidarity creates tensions among policy makers and, even if it has the slogan “United through diversity”, current events in the world, and the mediatisation and politicisation of the refugee crisis showed that EU countries are not as united as they claimed to be. Moreover, due to the fast advancement of events, especially in most of the Eastern European countries,  a growing nationalist wave (xenophobia, racism) is being noticed. Throughout Europe, the migration discourse is a part of extremist parties’ concerns, but not a part of commitments in respect of human rights, asylum and migration (Frantziou, Staiger, Chaytor, 2014). If the European society was waiting for internal cracks in Eastern European countries, or any other political or social divisions, the biggest “surprise” came from the West. Brexit was a landmark in the history of Great Britain, a decision British people took on 23 June, that will transform not only the nation itself, but also the European Union, as the most successful supranational organisation in the modern world. The British “leave” campaign happened mainly because of economic and sovereignty reasons (in brief, the rise of nationalism), but it can also be assumed that it was triggered by the uncontrollable migration flows that the EU was not able to cope with anymore. At the G20 Summit in China, the European Council president Donald Tusk delivered a speech mentioning that Europe is “close to its limits” of its ability to accept waves of migrants.[2] However one thing is certain, the flow of refugees coming to European countries won’t stop, unless civil wars and internal turmoil cease.

Another aspect of this humanitarian crisis is the “battle” of words used by media to describe refugees and the crisis more generally. The migration terminology is complex and various. European media is not calling this a “refugee crisis”, but rather a “migrant crisis”. Using such terminology, Western media encouraged their governments’ discourses. The term “migrant” is used by European media in order to avoid the accountability under International Law. It is important to make the distinction between economic immigrants and political refugees. A proper usage of these terms would help avoid any misinterpretations and alleged biases.

A key reason for the unwillingness of European leaders to take a more coherent stance towards the refugee crisis was the continuously growing wave of anxiety in the European society. The announcement of mandatory quotas for member states spread panic among these countries and took them aback. Thus, according to the proposal of mandatory quotas, some 160.000 refugees were expected to be relocated throughout the European Union. The biggest part of the refugee influx was expected to be taken by Germany, France, Spain and Sweden. However, four Eastern European countries like Romania, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland voted against accepting these mandatory quotas. While there is clearly no unified Europe, many scholars wonder what makes Europe so dispersed, broken from inside, but still willing to be shiny from the outside.

Religion as the bone of contention in the European refugee crisis

The constant refugee waves in European Union countries awoke only fear of Islamisation, ethnic problems, cultural scepticism, but more significantly it exposed the European moral vacuum from religious points of view among the European citizens. Western European countries have managed their Muslim population by applying multiculturalism (Great Britain, northern countries) and assimilationist (France) models. However, both these models, especially after 9/11 events, are in crisis, mainly because of the sensitive relation between religion and culture as sources of values and habits.

Religion was one of the main “ingredients” of anti-immigrant political speeches. For example, Slovakia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs agreed to accept and shelter up to 200 refugees, but would strongly prefer non-Muslims, claiming that Slovakia’s population mainly consists of Christians and there are no mosques on its territory. Also, countries like Poland, Bulgaria and Estonia have said that accepting Muslim refugees on their territory might create only problems between the locals and the newcomers, due to their different cultural and religious background which might burden the newcomers to fit into a Christian society.

Protests against the “Islamization of Europe” erupted throughout all Europe. In countries like Poland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Austria, and also Australia,  the protests were numerous and loud, launching slogans such as: “Europe, close your borders”, “Merkel, resign”, “No to migration – stop the merkelization”, “Islam is not a religion, but a Nazi ideology”, “We won’t give our Europe to our enemies”, “We like the bacon”, “Who the hell is Allah?”. Protesters showed hostility towards refugees by saying that these people are only “veiled Muslims”, thus they represent a real threat to the national security. In this war of slogans, there were protests against movements like PEGIDA and other extremist organizations in Europe.

Europeans’ fear of being overwhelmed by Muslims have been triggered by media reports, which were depicting the refugees as a “rush of refugees”, “flood”, “influx”, “stream”, “flow”, and more generally the refugee crisis arguably “the biggest threat to European values”. For example, the Syrian migrant wave has been seen as just the “tip of the iceberg” and “It is clear that the greatest tide of refugees and migrants is yet to come.”

The European Union now has to make a choice. Will it choose to live in a multi-racial, multi-religious democracy, or will it continue to spread racism, ultra-nationalism and xenophobia? Learning to live with people from different cultures and religion educates us, makes us feel more compassionate towards people in pain and makes us more tolerant. The essential idea of Europe, proclaimed during French Revolution, is not only about Liberté and Égalité, but it is also about Fraternité. Every crisis might bring an opportunity. The European Union, now more than ever, has to recall its history and has to show to the entire world the commitment and ability to solve the refugee crisis, thus proving that its values such as the respect of human rights and principles go beyond its borders.

Violeta Stratan

PhD candidate, Marmara University (Turkey),
Faculty of Communications, Journalism


[1] BBC News (2016) “Migrant crisis: Migration to Europe explained in seven charts” , retrieved from bbc.in/1N7F6YJ.

[2] DailyMail (2016) Europe is ‘close to the limits’ of its ability to accept waves of migrants, top EU official warns, retrieved from dailym.ai/2cw9ErU.



Frantziou, Eleni; Staiger, Uta; Chaytor, Sarah (2014) Refugee Protection, Migration and Human Rights in Europe, London’s Global University

Myrdal, S., Rhinard, M. (2010) The European Union’s Solidarity Clause: Empty Letter or Effective Tool? An Analysis of Article 222 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, Published by Swedish Institute of International Affairs.

Morilass, Pol (2015) Europe and the refugee crisis, 10 side-effects, Barcelona Center for İnternational Affairs.

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