Over the past few months we have all seen pictures of migrants crossing Europe’s troubled waters or making the trek via land. While the leaders of the European Union struggle to figure out some sort of border protection system, organisations such as w2info.eu promote freedom of movement by openly providing migrants with help on how to navigate different EU countries’ border controls and reach their dream destination.
What is the use that borders serve? I would argue that borders are closely linked to maintaining political order, which is the prime responsibility of the state. The well-known German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber defined the state as “a human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” Borders define who the state can claim power over, whether it be to defend its community against outsiders or maintain inner civil peace.
European countries, however, sit in an odd position because within the European Union there is the free movement of goods, capital, services and – yes – people. However, for those outside the European Union, access into EU countries is far from easy, which creates both “insiders” and “outsiders”. Borders are therefore both discarded and reinforced.
The current migrant crisis brings into question these borders and if and when it is justifiable to defend them. It also shows the different conceptions of who the “community” is that the state has responsibility towards.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel believes the German state has a responsibility to the larger “human community” and should welcome those taking the perilous journey to Germany, while Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán defends the state’s power to regulate who enters into its territory and who does not, in defence of its own Hungarian community.
The tension has also been played out at the level of the European Union, with many Eastern European countries opposing the mandatory refugee redistribution quota supported by Merkel. Why the opposition? As one Czech Member of Parliament said: “We were under the supervision of Moscow once…Now a lot of people have the impression…that the same thing is happening in Brussels.”
While Merkel’s position is more readily accepted in Western circles, Orbán’s is often misunderstood. A key to unlock the puzzle lies partly in his view of the state. Some of us may remember the controversial speech in 2014 in Tusnádfürdő, Transylvania, where he coined the term “illiberal state”. His comments made waves in the press and attracted criticism from EU leaders. The phrase has become one that will forever be hung around his neck. What did he mean?
Orbán argues that the financial crisis ushered a regime change which questions the sustainability of liberalism – understood as the ideal of being free to do anything as long as it does not impinge on another’s freedom. To him, Hungary’s 20 years of liberal democracy have led to the stifling of those with a weaker voice to the main advantage of the corporation and the bank who have stronger weights to throw around.
On the national level this has also meant that liberalism could not serve the national interest. The Hungarian state had one of the lowest levels of public wealth in all of Europe, a large amount of debt to international financial institutions and a banking system with very little ownership by Hungarians. In this case, the state was the one with the weaker voice in the liberal order.
For Orbán, therefore, liberalism has not provided the appropriate framework to organise society and the national community, nor has it been able to serve the national interest. The future lies – to him – via an “illiberal state”. He argues that a democracy does not have to be liberal, nor does a state.
Indeed, there are other varieties of conceptions of the state: nation-state, welfare state and liberal state just as there are varieties of ideas of democracies – Christian democracies, social democracies, popular democracies, etc. Looking to the future, Orbán believes the most competitive way to organise a state and society will entail one that protects the national interest, while still respecting Christian values, freedom and human rights.
Fast forward to the 2015 migrant crisis.
When we look around at how other countries have responded to the migrant crisis, we find that actually many states asserted their power to protect their borders, in both the physical and cultural senses. The most obvious evidence of the former is Hungary’s fence construction along the border with Serbia and then Croatia, for which it has attracted widespread criticism from Western European states.
However, there are many other examples: Bulgaria’s fence along the Turkish border, France’s fence in Calais to stop migrants crossing the Channel, and Slovenia’s recent fence along its Croatian border. This is not an unprecedented response to migration – across the Atlantic, the United States also built a fence along its Mexican border.
Moreover, border controls have been enforced – or borders even closed temporarily – between European countries to manage the flow of migrants, for example between Germany and Denmark, Austria and Germany, Austria and Hungary, and in January 2016, Denmark and Sweden.
What about the idea of cultural borders? Hungary has voiced the desire to preserve the Christian identity of Europe, drawing on centuries-old rhetoric of being the protector of Christianity from its southern neighbours – and at times invaders – the Ottomans. Safeguarding Christian heritage is also a concern of countries such as Poland and Slovakia, which only wanted to agree to take in refugees as long as they were Christian.
However, this cultural preservation argument does not find sympathy in Western Europe’s arguably post-Christian societies. As a result, the European Union today is struggling to make sense of its Christian identity, heritage and ideals, all of which were embraced and encouraged by the European Union’s founding fathers such as Robert Schuman.
The gap in cultural viewpoint highlights a significant divide in the ways Eastern and Western Europe think about pluralism. Western Europe has experienced a more extensive history of multiculturalism and immigration since World War II, and has been wary of encouraging nationalism given its World War II track record. Eastern Europe’s challenge has mainly been the treatment of historical minorities. Moreover, nationalism was a positive force for many during communism and contributed to its fall.
Looking towards the future, all countries will have to consider an integration model to use, but the options on the table may be fewer than before: many political leaders – including Merkel herself and UK Prime Minister David Cameron – have been quoted for acknowledging, in 2010 and 2011 respectively, that multiculturalism has failed. And they are not alone.
However, the necessity of finding a successful integration model which encourages social cohesion is becoming all the more urgent. Integration policy will also need to address the unique demographic feature of this migrant crisis: the high proportion of young men.
In Sweden for example, 71 percent of asylum seekers in 2015 were male, and the sex ratio between unaccompanied minors was 11.3 boys to one girl. After the New Year’s Eve sexual attacks in Germany and other parts of Europe, many are wondering what is going on.
Wrapping our heads around the migrant crisis is not easy given its multi-dimensional nature and humanitarian concerns. Yet, as writers from both left and right sides of the spectrum have noted, replying with sentimental humanitarianism can be reckless humanitarianism.
With the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in many Western European countries – including Germany and Sweden – the question becomes whether their political leaders can navigate between the definitions of the broader human community and national community.
Rather than decreasing state power, what is needed is a strong state which can control its borders and implement an intelligent integration policy. We have entered unchartered waters, and the stakes are high.

Susan Divald is a PhD student in Politics at the University of Oxford. She previously worked for the United Nations.

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