On Bridges and Fences

“Building Bridges” – that was the slogan under which Austria proudly presented itself when hosting this year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Vienna. Only a few months later, however, another event challenged this claim of openness and connecting people: Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’ could no longer be kept within the coastal states and reached the Austrian frontiers. And while the billboards of the song contest disappeared, public discourse shifted from ideas of unity and tolerance to border controls and fence constructions.

bridges and fences_1Looking back at the course of the crisis, Austria did not get international media coverage before September of this year. At that time, the country experienced an unprecedented influx of refugees due to the spasmodic polices of its neighbour Hungary.
However, Austria’s problems in managing the provision for newcomers started way earlier: the situation in the Erstaufnahmestelle Traiskirchen, Austria’s largest transit camp, is exemplary for the failure to agree on a clear allocation of responsibilities between the national and provincial governments. While the national government claimed that it would be the duty of its local counterparts to provide housing to the new arrivals, the heads of the provincial governments complained about a lack of resources and too little support from the state. In the case of Traiskirchen, the result of these policies was an administrative chaos: supposed to host a maximum of 480 people, at the end of June, the camp accommodated approximately 1.300 refugees, forcing some of its residents to even sleep outside the building. As a consequence, the oppositional parties and the public voiced sever criticism, leading to investigations by Amnesty International in August this year.

Therefore, the new course of Hungary’s Prime Minister, Victor Orban, was an opportunity for the Austrian government to distract from the shortcomings of its own policies. The regained self-confidence may also explain Chancellor Werner Faymann’s comparison of Hungary’s measures with “our continent’s darkest period” in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel. Backed by the efforts of a strong civil society that emerged out of the demand on volunteers and medical staff at the Hungarian border, Faymann found himself in a save position for such allegations. Conscious that most of the new arrivals, in any case, wanted to continue their journey to Germany, he was more or less freed from any major responsibility.

However, as the influx of people continued, short-term solutions of waving people through became increasingly inadequate and also international critique increased. Bavaria, Germany’s most southern federal state and a direct neighbour of Austria, accused the Austrian government of violating the Dublin regulation and complained about a lack of communication. Meanwhile, further organizational problems at the Austrian-Slovenian frontier became apparent and left the government in need of proving problem-solving competence itself. Yet, first solutions do not seem to be more promising than in other parts of Europe: Recently, Austria’s Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner announced to take “structural measures” that shall grant a secure and ordered crossing at the Slovenian frontier. As turned out later, these measures primarily entail the construction of a fence – formerly the main critique point towards the Hungarian government. According to Mikl-Leitner, this step has become necessary particularly with regard to the criticism from the Austrian population. Despite their tireless efforts, volunteers, NGOs and the police bemoan to be constantly overburdened by the situation which changes almost every day and which is only deteriorating by the ongoing controversy between the state and the provincial governments. The way this dispute is fought out publicly, gives rise to notions of fear and insecurity among the population. Those contribute to xenophobic tensions and fuel the populist discourse of the political right, most prominently the one of the Austrian Freedom Party. Although the latest federal elections left them, again, without major governance competences, the way their claims influence the public debate is astonishingly strong. Moreover, it slowly infiltrates the policies of the social-democratic and conservative circles of the government.

This is particularly true with regard to Austria’s new refugee law, which should come into force, retrospectively, with November 2015 and grants refugees only a temporary right to stay. Furthermore, it tightens the conditions for family reunification. This leads back to the question of who fuels what and whether it isn’t only the political right, but especially policies like these new regulations that strengthen and reaffirm already prevalent prejudices among the local population: by sending people back, as soon as the conditions in their home countries allow it, the law presupposes a lack of interest on the part of the newcomers to fully integrate themselves. This may further serve as an excuse to reduce investments in education and training that would be needed in order to gain access to the labour market. Additionally, limiting the possibilities for family reunification denies refugees the possibility to spare their family members the dangerous, illegal routes to Europe and could be used as an affirmation by the far right, who claim that a large proportion of single men would deliberately leave their wives and children behind. By stating to only react to the anxieties of the people, the government seems to abdicate from its own responsibilities and neglects that the discussed fears may themselves be a result of the policies of the ‘moderate, political middle’.
Overall, it seems as if the allegations amongst the different parties, and especbridges and fences_2ially the dispute between the state and the counties, mainly serve to conceal the inability of either of these actors to handle the current situation effectively. Similar observations can be made for the European Union itself: The insufficient division of competences between the different member states and the commission makes it difficult to agree on a unified response to the current dilemma. This indicates that the ongoing crisis is not so much a refugee or solidarity crisis, as it is often referred to. Rather, the current situation reveals the institutional and structural shortcomings, not only of the European Union, but also of its member states, as the case of Austria shows. This leads to a virtual political standstill, apparent in a culture of doing the least and going a middle way, which brings neither improvement for the people fleeing their homeland, nor does it stop the increasing spread of xenophobic tensions within the continent. However, this must not necessarily mean that we will witness the end of the European project: Isolating oneself from one another by building new fences and walls will not prevent the influx of people as long as war and terror in their own countries do not come to an end.

To conclude, neither for Austria, nor for Europe itself, granting people refuge is a question of ‘yes’ or ‘no’. People will find new ways to enter the European Union – with the only difference that those may be even more dangerous. We are confronted with a structural crisis and whether we are able to overcome it depends on the willingness and capabilities of European and national leaders, and is not so much a question of the population’s solidarity. How we cope with it, nationally and on the European scale, will show whether we can still adorn ourselves with the image of a ‘bridge building’ continent.

By Carina Vogelsberger

Image Credit:

Picture 1: Michael Gubi licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Picture 2: Josh Zakari licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0