“Vat is your kargo?” The German border-policeman at a check-point just hundreds of metres inland from border with Austria could have very well escaped from a high-octane H’Wood flick while his muted partner looked like he barely missed the cast of Kobra 11, die Autobahnpolizei series. It was just a few days after Germany suspended Schengen rules on its Southern border and pengovsky spent previous few hours fretting over the possibility of a lenghty Stau on the border crossing which is inclined to see bumper-to-bumper traffic on a normal day, let alone in the midst of what turned out to be a near-complete breakdown of free movement rules within the EU in the wake of the refugee crisis.
Rear-view mirror image of German border-checkpoint
But staying true to their Teutonic reputation, the procedure took less than five minutes. It was brutally efficient. Traffic was squeezed into a single lane with the first crew visually scanning incoming vehicles, another crew pulled over those selected (such as pengovsky, unshaven, driving a white cargo van), the third team then directed us to one of several two-men teams performing the actual check, in our case the Dolph Lundgren lookalike and his Danny Devito-esque sidekick. And, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, it was all over before you can say Schengen Agreement. Polite, efficient, not painful at all (provided you’re not trafficking refugees, I presume).
And yet, there it was. An intra-EU border, manned in full force. There is a generation of young people to whom a border between, say Austria and Germany or (albeit to a lesser extent) between Slovenia and Austria is but an abstract concept. Abolition of border checks and free movement of people has, as far and reality on the ground is concerned, probably the most important factor in development of a common, transnational, European identity. That and the introduction of Euro. And we all know how well *that* particular clustefurck was handled. In fact, the Schengen cascade effect was a real-life demonstration of what would happen in case of a “controlled Grexit”. A shitstorm of biblical proportions.
The visceral Visegrad Four
But, as shocking as it was, Germany should not be riled on account of closing its border with Austria. Yes, the historical parallels are not pretty and you can be excused for thinking this is what happened just before the Anschluss (nevermind the fact that just before Anschluss refugees were running the other way and, well… brush up on your history, dammit!) Also, yes, the move primarily fucks over the refugees who have already made it all this way just to be denied overcoming the last hurdle. But no, this is not a takeover of power by Bavarian hardliners in Berlin. Still, the Schengen Agreement is on life support as of last week. But rather than Germany the Visegrad Four are to blame for the predicament.
Germany got plenty of bad press over its handling of the Greek Crisis and rightly so, even though the Fabulous Duo Tsipras/Varoufakis performed quite admirably in fucking up the situation (OT and re last night’s elections Greece: Tsipras apparently did grow up in the course of the last nine months). It was therefore a bit of a poetic justice when Berlin invoked European solidarity in handling the refugee influx but was rebuffed harshly by Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland (which, admittedly is slowly caving in) and Hungary. But what should have been an instructive “we told you so” moment for Germany turned out to be a complete and utter perversion of European ideas and ideals by member states who seem to the think European Union is an a la carte restaurant where they can pick and choose some commitments and eschew others.
Because while German move to temporarily revoke Schengen is a policy move aimed at forcing other member states to either accept the quota system for handling refugees or start actively and generously participating in the relief effort on their own, Slovak suspension of Schengen rules (followed by non-Visegrad members Austria and the Nethelands) and mulled by Czech Republic and Poland is a misguided geopolitical move aimed at preventing the stream of refugees to spill over their border. As if it is not their problem.
Refugees for domestic consumption
That several Eastern European government responded to the refugee crisis in a borderline racist manner would make a good case study for psychoanalysts. Probably somewhere along the lines of inferiority complex meeting pre-modern politics meeting tribalism garnished with a splash of endemic fascism.
And elections. Croatia, for example, stopped processing refugees within two days of the wave spilling over the Croatian-Serbian border. True, the numbers are staggering and the country was apparently ill prepared to tackle the humanitarian crisis that was clearly coming their way. Slovenia, too, was slow to pull its collective head out of its collective ass, but the way Croatian system broke down was epic. Or, rather, disastrous. And once that went South and the refugees continued to go North, the government of Zoran Milanović simply threw their hands up and stopped registering newcomers. saying the refugees should go wherever they please. Which turned out to be Austria and Germany in most cases.
While Slovenian officialdom widely criticised Croatia for more or less simply passing the bucket to Slovenia, no-one mentioned that reasons go beyond the mere inability of Croatian services to handle the influx. You see, the centre-left government of Zoran Milanović is fighting an uphill re-election battle, where he is not shy of flirting with the right-wing agenda in attempts to win the centre vote. In doing this, he will join the long-and-distingusihed line of politicos who failed doing exactly that, but hey – when you’re out of ideas, anything will do. At any rate, the last thing Milanović (who tried to bluff his way though the humanitarian nightmare by saying that in allowing free passage Croatia “forced Slovenia and Hungary to tackle the problem, too”) needs three or four months before elections are thousands of refugees from Middle East and Africa. The HDZ-led opposition would in all likelihood start accusing him of “destroying the Croatian way of life, threatening security and Christian identity”. And if that sounds a lot like Victor Orban, you’re not far off. He and Karamarko of Croatian HDZ are more or less of the same flock.
Speaking of Orban, his barb-wire politics seems to be getting some unwarranted admiration around the EU, reports FT’s Peter Spiegel. The problem with this is twofold. First, the fact that barb-wire and paramilitaries patrolling it are quite unnecessary for an effective control of Schengen border, as demonstrated by Slovenian authorities which have done more or less the same by using much softer tactics. Even the lone scuffle that escalated into a cop using pepper-spray on a group of people turned out to have been at least in part provoked by an anarchist group which gets nervous every time it sees a robocop.
The Slovenian authorities were slow to react (the National Security Council only met on Friday afternoon, when the first refugees were already arriving at the border) but the responsible services got their shit together over the weekend and started registering refugees, busing them to shelters all over the country and providing basic medical care and sustenance. Slowly, to be sure, as hundreds of people were forced to wait on the Croatian side of several border crossings (and, at the same time, on the other side of the Schengen border), but over the course of the weekend the first wave was dealt with and – most importantly – the operative command of the situation was given to the Civil Protection and Disaster Relief, a higly efficient and flexible part of national security system aimed at providing disaster relief and which can be activated locally, regionally or nationally, depending on the emergency. Civil Protection usually coordinates all civilian services and voluntary organisations in any given situation and can enlist the support of the police or the army if need be. With these guys in control of the situation, chances of a fuck-up were brought down to the best possible minimum.
Random acts of kindness
And to add a bit of local colour: Twitter and Facebook trolls notwithstanding, the response to refugee influx throughout Slovenia has been fantastic. The police, while stretched to limits at certain points of border, gave their best and there was at least one heartwarming story of a family that got separated at the border but was reunited further inland, not to mention the countless individuals acts of help, be it in providing food and water for both refugees *and* the police, soft toys for children or even spontaneously picking people up and driving them to Austria, as carried out and written up by journo colleague Aleš Lednik (Slovenian only, I’m afraid)
Point being that the refugee crisis can be managed. Serbia has borne the brunt of it for the past few months. Parts of Italy and Greece are the main entry points for years on end. And here we have certain EU member states making a ruckus about a quota system for a few hundred thousand refugees which – had all things been equal – shouldn’t even begin to upset the normal balance of things in a union with five hundred million citizens (that’s, 500.000.000, five with eight zeroes)
In light of this, the only possible conclusion conclusion is that Orban’s fence (and other non-metal but similar policy initiatives) is a show for domestic consumption. The speed at which the fence was put up is breathtaking and reminiscent of the speed the Italian Fascist occupation regime put up barbed-wire fence around Ljubljana in 1942. And if that is the way Orban “defends” his country from a fictional enemy from without imagine what he is willing to do to keep “the enemy from within” at bay. Yes, the fence is a message. But not a message to refugees. It is a message to any Hungarian who dares challenge his authority.
And this is the real test the EU is now facing. Not migrant quotas per se, but whether the Union and its biggest players will allow small-time fascisms to proliferate while they pick and choose which parts of the European integration they adhere to and which they ignore (until next time).
Cameron ante portas
Even more importantly, the knee-jerk suspension of Schengen rules, especially if it spreads and continues for a while, will gravely harm the EU itself. What is to stop, say, David Cameron from demanding even more opt-outs and special treatments when tries to renegotiate the UK’s membership in the EU next year? And once he achieves that, what will stop other member states from following his example?