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EU culture wars: Legal debate over refugees masks deeper, explosive issues

EU culture wars: Legal debate over refugees masks deeper, explosive issues
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“Our age is enlightened... How is it, then, that we still remain barbarians?”

― Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805)

Getting a clear picture of what is really going on in a post-Brexit EU may be ultimately no different than trying to get to the bottom of why many things in the U.S. seem to be coming unglued. There are layers and multiple angles to take in, if we want to size things up properly. It's like looking at an impressionist painting. Get too close, and you're lost in clumps of intense color and seemingly unconnected elements. Stand too far away, and it's all a blur.

How to find focus?

Take the legal proceedings launched by the European Commission this summer against three European Union member states that refused to take in refugees. Brussels has accused Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic of not fulfilling their obligations from a 2015 plan.

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I know from recent trips to Berlin that plenty of Germans are grousing plenty about the lack of "solidarity" from Central European neighbors. Fair enough. Germany has opened its doors to roughly a million refugees the past three years. Yet the case of refugees is hardly a single dimensional one.

For one thing, there's the not so small issue of sovereignty. There has been a tug of war since the 1991 Maastricht Treaty, which started a path to deepening integration and ever greater European supranationalism. But in France, Maastricht passed in a referendum by a wafer-thin margin (50.8 percent). In Denmark, it failed the first time. Britain decided against joining the euro — a central part of the Maastricht vision — as did the Danes and the Swedes, while on a range of questions having to do with "how much Europe," opinion in Central and Eastern European countries has been divided.

For example, Viktor Orban, Hungary's prime minister, has always been a critic of ceding what he views as inordinate amounts of sovereignty from national capitals to European institutions. It's no surprise, then, that Orban would want Budapest, not Brussels, to decide on refugees.

But step back further. British writer David Goodhart argues that across the West today we're witnessing a bigger-picture struggle today between what he calls "anywheres" and "somewheres. "Anywheres," for Goodhart, are well educated, well traveled, tech savvy and mostly liberal, agile and entrepreneurial elites. "Someheres" tend, on the other hand, to be more locally rooted, traditionally patriotic, religious, and generally cautious about social change.

In his new book, "The Road to Somewhere; The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics," Goodhart notes that of the planet's 7.3 billion people, only about 3 percent reside outside their country of origin. When then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon told an audience last December in Carbondale, at the southern tip of Illinois bordering Red states Missouri and Kentucky, that "national boundaries have no meaning. ... Forget about where you come from," one wonders just who the globalized, multi-lingual, Harvard-educated, South Korean diplomat — who declines, incidentally, to speak about religion or God — was thinking of and trying to connect to.

Back to refugees. I was in Garmisch-Partenkirchen this summer, guest of the George C. Marshall Center for Security Studies, and the pristine, picturesque Bavarian alpine village had changed since I was last there. The town known for Weissbier and Gemütlichkeit has taken in 1,600 refugees. The tired and downtrodden in this case have made their way from Somalia and Ethiopia. They are nearly all young men, not working, riding bikes around to keep themselves busy. Who stays? Who goes? When, and to where? And for those who remain in Germany, how will they assimilate?

It's not just some Central Europeans who fret about refugees. The populist AfD — Alternative for Deutschland —is now in the German Bundestag with more than 12 percent of last Sunday's national vote in part because mainstream parties and elites have failed to tackle sensitive, yet vitally important questions ordinary citizens have about about security, values, and social cohesion.

In a speech at the Sorbonne earlier this week, French President Emmanuel Macron doubled down on European integration. But his position is viewed skeptically in Germany and almost certain to fuel the wrong kind of populism across Europe.

Dangerously, many a German and European populist politician thrives in demagoguery and traffics in xenophobia. In the case of Orban in Hungary and the Law and Justice government in Poland critics have credibly argued that these EU and NATO members have been drifting away from pluralism, rule of law, and democratic governance.

At the heart of all this, lies a conundrum. Small "d" democrats across Europe must take a stand against growing illiberal, authoritarian trends. At the same time, though, failure of mainstream elites to make room for a decent sort of populism and liberal forms of nationalism will mean increasing amounts of the truly vicious and malign stuff.

Jeffrey Gedmin is senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and senior adviser, Blue Star Strategies.