In the past few days my Facebook feed has been crammed with English friends demanding that the borders be opened and Polish friends demanding that they be closed. The difference is striking.
Why do Eastern Europeans not want to accept refugees, asks the Guardian’s Natalie Nougayrède. Ms Nougayrède appears to think that this is a tough question. It is not. Our species has been tribal and exclusionary for much longer than parts of it have been cosmopolitan and it is the latter trend that is hard to explain. Nonetheless, I shall offer some thoughts by way of explanation.
Western Europeans have enjoyed telling themselves that their cousins to the East broke the chains of communism in a kind of liberal fever. It was not so. There were Havels, of course, but there were other trends: nationalism, Catholicism and the unideological grievances of poor and inhibited peoples. As they strove for membership of NATO and the EU it was less about progressivism than protection and prosperity. Given what they had experienced, who can blame them?
In Poland it is clear that modern trends have gathered force. Church attendance is declining. Divorce rates are on the rise. But, still, more than three times more people go to church that in Britain – even with the latter’s influx of immigrants – and more than twice as many British couples get divorced. Traditions run deeper, and this includes national traditions.
Poles, who were the people furthest east to be surveyed in a recent Pew study, do not tend to be against immigration per se. I have had few problems and, indeed, found a warm welcome. Yet they are more likely than the British, French or German to be wary of outsiders, like Muslims or, to a lesser extent, Jews.
Much of this is human nature. We have spent most of our existence in tribes, and tribes, dependent on resources, spent a lot of time protecting their resources or appropriating those of other tribes. Nation states have moderated such aggressive tendencies but not, of course, without the great industrialised outbreaks of slaughter that explode when interests clash and compromises fail. We are creatures of ingroups, and suspicious of outsiders.
Western cosmopolitanism has, I think, a lot to do with its enjoyment of extended peace. We have had such minimal exposure to conflict that we find it difficult to imagine. Ms
What threats, one might scoff. We are talking about less than half a million refugees, making up less than half of one percent of Europe. Yes, but the Syrian crisis is not going to be the last. As new crises erupt in the Middle East and Africa there will be more refugees, and as their populations swell there will be more migrants. Poles, Hungarians and Slovaks are taking a stand before, in their opinion, it becomes too late.
More recent events have been also been influential. People to the East observe Western societies with interest. It is not just pop music and video games that they find. Poles, at least, are keen followers of the Western news. When terrorists stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo it was talked about for weeks, and I have no doubt that the same was true of the bombings of London and Madrid. Whatever one’s personal opinion of the benefits and drawbacks of European immigration it is foolish to deny that these have been its most sensational images and they linger in the minds of Eastern Europeans as they are asked to accept the risk of such attacks. It looks bad.
European authorities should bear all of this in mind. For obvious reasons, the newest arrivals into its ranks wanted rich and powerful friends, but they could change their minds about their value. Public approval towards the European Union has declined in Slovakia, Slovenia and Poland, and remains, I think, low considering the millions that have poured into such countries. They do not want to be pushed around by the Western powers any more than by the Eastern power and will react against it.