Refugees are a natural byproduct of revolution. Stripped of status and security in the throes of political change, the masses will tend to sacrifice a life of familiar faces, customs and places and flock to foreign lands in search of simple things: a place to live, earn and provide for their kin in peace. But in that search for the path of least physical and political resistance, migrants cannot avoid disturbing the peace along the way. Their names, clothes, accents, languages and religions — everything that gives them a sense of place and belonging at home — make them "the other" in the eyes of their new hosts and thus undeserving of the rights and privileges of those with whom they are expected to assimilate. For the many who end up in Europe, assimilation will instead occur in the ghettos, where migrants already pushed to the fringes of society cling to rose-tinted memories of the life they left behind, widening a chasm in which radical ideas can fester for generations.
These are the conditions that threaten to radicalize and mobilize migrant offspring in France, Belgium and elsewhere. These were also the conditions endured by waves of displaced Goths who flooded the Roman Empire to flee their Hun invaders and of the millions of Eastern Europeans whose identity cards could scarcely keep up with the borders changing beneath their feet in the fervor and confusion of the world wars (the great "migration of nations," as Polish-born writer Aleksander Wat named it). In each mass migration, identities were lost, traded or hijacked along the way. As deeper phobias develop and moral restraint wears away, inventive and often dangerous schemes are developed to "solve" the problem of "the other." In 1926, the League of Nations had the idea to relocate former czarist emigres from Russia to the interior of Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru, an offer only briefly taken up by a few hundred Cossacks who warned their countrymen that a persecuted life in Europe, or even suicide, was still preferable to the exotic dangers they encountered in malaria-infested jungles. For the Third Reich, it was the ideological pursuit of lebensraum, or living space, through aggressive territorial expansion and genocide that would be framed in Nazi propaganda as an answer to Germany's post-World War I travails.
Europe Struggles to Find Its Balance
If refugees are a product of revolution, then the product of mass refugee flows is often a blend of economic stress and ethnic nationalism, the foundation of many transformative geopolitical events in our time. It would therefore be prudent to think through the deeper consequences of the large numbers of migrants fleeing lawlessness in the Middle East for a European Union that was sliding into an existential crisis before the most recent wave of migrants even showed up.
Over the past century, Europe has swung dramatically between two poles. After taking a destructive leap into ethnic nationalism, years of industrial-scale killings exhausted Europe to the point that states developed the extraordinary will to sacrifice their national sovereignty for the sake of avoiding conflict and pursuing prosperity in a union of European states. Europe's storied past, in a sense, would be overcome only by pushing nationalism under the rug and focusing on making money instead. That worked only until the promise of prosperity was crushed in the financial crisis of the early 21st century.
As economic pain grew from south to north and west to east on the Continent, the Euroskeptics calling for taking care of one's own before bailing out the distant relatives in the union gained popularity and strength at the expense of the Europeanists advocating an ever-closer union. Whether the message came from the right or the left or from the creditors or the debtors of the crisis, the idea was the same: When livelihoods are threatened, a state must look after its own interests before making sacrifices for the other. Even before Syrians, Libyans and Afghans began arriving en masse on European shores, the European Union was struggling with the idea that Germany shared the identity and fate of Greece. The suggestion, then, that a German taxpayer would now have to make sacrifices for a Syrian on the run was simply a bridge too far.
The Paris attacks did not send Europe into an entirely new direction; they catalyzed the long-running and arguably inevitable trend of European fragmentation. The debate over borders — lines that distinguish one's own from the other — is a logical flashpoint. As part of the European Union's efforts to forge a common European identity, the Schengen Agreement was designed to eliminate physical borders, a policy anchored in the bloc's foundational principle of allowing free movement of Europeans across national boundaries. But as more countries from the farther reaches of the Continent joined, fears grew of Balkan peoples straining social welfare systems and bringing crime into the core of Europe. The influx of refugees from the Middle East only deepened European disillusionment with Schengen as Syrians, Libyans and other migrants took advantage of weak border controls in the Balkans to make their way north. In the wake of the Paris attacks, the potential for militants to camouflage themselves in migrant flows only reinforces Europeans' paranoia over the security of their borders.
While lengthy, sophisticated and ultimately ineffectual debates over Schengen were taking place in Brussels, the countries on the front lines of the migrant crisis took matters into their own hands. Hungary and Slovenia built fences, and border controls were reimposed throughout the Schengen zone. No one was about to wait around while Brussels tried to come up with a 28-member consensus on how to deal with the problem. The danger now is that as Greece continues to funnel refugees northward, as Hungary and Slovenia shut off their non-Schengen neighbors to the south with fences, and as the Carpathian Mountains create physical difficulties for rerouting to the east, a bottleneck will develop in the Balkans. Already, some Balkan countries are trying to cherry-pick which refugees they will accept based on nationality and religion. This is a region where numerous unsettled issues from the 1990s can spark ethnic riots that a distracted Europe will have trouble containing.
As the Schengen pillar of the European Union comes crashing down, logically we should give the foundation of the European Union — France and Germany — a closer inspection. The European Union, after all, is a form of grand compromise between Paris and Berlin whereby they put aside their historical competitive impulses along the North European Plain and economically tether themselves to each other as a form of mutual containment. An economically stagnant France is more likely to identify with its southern Mediterranean roots as it grows more alienated from its economically healthier European peers to the north. Both France and Germany will face elections in 2017. In France, the nationalist and Euroskeptic currents underpinning Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front and Nicolas Sarkozy's center-right Republicans are likely to continue strengthening as economic stresses persist and as security concerns overwhelm the state. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel's voice is already being drowned out by her more Euroskeptic Cabinet members and coalition partners who are showing less inhibition as they assert German rights in violation of pan-European interests.
Elsewhere in Europe, the United Kingdom is in the process of negotiating additional distance between itself and its European peers, creating political space for Poland to also go down a reverse-integration path. The Dutch have recently put forth an idea to create a mini-Schengen of culturally like-minded states with the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Austria, a grouping that harkens back to the Holy Roman Empire of the late 18th century. The fact that European elite are comfortable openly discussing a break-up into smaller blocs of culturally and historically harmonious entities and the ejection of more awkward elements such as Greece should not be taken lightly. Indeed, the debate over a "Grexit" is bound to resurface as a politically fragile Athens continues to struggle to implement reform. Germany's irritation will reverberate throughout the eurozone once again as Greece tries to leverage the growing number of refugees bottled up within its borders to negotiate a more lenient bailout timeline with its creditors. Only this time, the term Grexit and proposals to form new blocs is no longer taboo.
A Cycle of Division
A divided Europe will not necessarily replicate the horrors of the early 20th century. History will rhyme, however, at the intersection of several trends running in parallel. The splintering of Europe overlays the erosion of central authority within the Sykes-Picot borders in the Middle East — borders that the Europeans created to divide the region and tighten their colonial grip. With those territories in prolonged conflict, the weakening of those regimes and the radical ideologies borne out of power vacuums will risk drawing a minority of European Muslims into battle while driving migrants into the heart of Europe, accelerating Europe's path toward fragmentation.
As the core powers of Europe become more skeptical of the benefits of the European Union, compromises on issues ranging from migration to bailout policies will become elusive. A resurgent Turkey will leverage its position as the migrant gateway to Europe to exact concessions from the West while reassuming its imperial responsibilities in northern Syria and Iraq. Russia will use European divisions to its advantage as it tries to temper a Western encroachment in its former Soviet space even as it remains just as susceptible as the Europeans to the ethnic frictions and security threats emanating from mass migrant flows.
The global hegemon, by definition, will find itself at the center of this oddly familiar set of challenges afflicting Eurasia. The United States already shoulders most of the burden in extending a security buffer against Russia in Central and Eastern Europe and in trying to put a lid on conflicts in the Middle East. But an even bigger challenge may not have fully registered on Washington's radar: the darker side of a Europe willing to re-embrace nationalism in response to a fear of the other.