Opinion: Refugee quotas and missed opportunity for Eastern Europe

Proposals to agree on terms for relocation in European Union countries were rather often met with opposition and reluctance, especially in Eastern Europe, which can be best exemplified by positions of a country like Hungary that wrote a plain zero on the paper when asked how many refugees it would take in from Italy and Greece. Similar expressions were also seen in Lithuania, with negative opinions on the potential arrival of refugees dominating in the media. It seems that officials (and electorate) of a number of Eastern European states, including Lithuania, do not want immigrants to be relocated in their countries. However, could it be that by this behaviour Eastern Europe is missing an opportunity to gain value for them in deeper politically strategic sense?

In this case, the benefits of relocation can be two-dimensional. The first aspect is the potential offered by the refugees themselves. It is understandable that refugee relocation can cause cultural and social anxiety in countries like Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. These countries are not used to many incoming migrants. However, if well managed, the new people can become productive members of the society. Those who are scared of the new cultures that refugees are bringing should understand that it is a two-way deal – it depends not only on the refugees how they integrate into Latvian or Slovakian society, but on the society of Latvia and Slovakia too.

Past experience of Western European countries has shown that when properly integrated, immigrants from outside the EU can have a positive effect on those countries’ economies. Considering the fact that populations in Eastern European countries are contracting, these people have a potential to share the burden of labour, especially when the number of pensioners in a country is rising and the number of working-age people is decreasing.

The benefits also include the potential to build a more diversified identity in Eastern Europe. Of course, it is important that local cultures remain dominant and be respected, but if the eastern part of the EU wants to become like its counterpart in the West, their opinion on the refugees has to change.

Eastern European countries want to become more Western, a goal often repeated by elected officials, and the populations seem to support it. However, at the same time it is often forgotten that immigrants, sometimes illegal, from outside the Union helped to build those Western European countries. There was a moment in history when Lithuanians, too, were considered EU outsiders, but our people struggle to find any hospitality for the new people with similar fate.

If Eastern Europe truly wants to follow the road of its Western brother, it has to be more open to diversity and understand that one can still have a strong cultural identity and manage to coexist with the other ones. Understandably, there are risks. If the refugees are not willing to integrate or are met like outsiders and excluded from any opportunities to become part of the society, social problems are to arise. These problems are concerning, but at the same time they are small when compared to the potential benefits if the refugee situation is managed well.

Therefore the key is good preparation and people management. Allowing for new people to come and helping them to integrate can be a small, but important step in the progress of such countries as Lithuania.

The second dimension of potential benefit could be even more valuable. In this case, this potential is not so much in the immigrants themselves, but in the action of agreeing with the quota terms of the EU and its effects. For countries such as Lithuania and its regional partners (probably except Hungary) the refugee crisis in the EU is not the main political concern. For these countries, the main source of worry is in the East and the expanding influence of Russia, followed by the current conflict in Ukraine.

Political leaders have expressed many times that Russia is the main threat to the stability of the region. At the same time, they have expressed dissatisfaction that the western counterparts do not react with enough concern to this threat. This, however, is quite understandable, as the refugee crisis is much closer to home for Western Europe, as opposed to Eastern Europe. This is where the countries concerned with the influence of Russia, such as Lithuania, are missing a huge strategic opportunity.

As much as the Western European countries can be criticized for having ideas to ease sanctions on Russia and treating it too softly, the Eastern European countries can be criticized for not helping the rest of the EU to manage the refugee crisis. Both sides are like two ships passing at night, unable to communicate, although both could achieve their respective goals more effectively through better coherence.

For instance, if Lithuania agreed to accept not 250 refugees, as it is currently planning, but, let’s say, 750, it would show that it is looking forward to helping the EU partners who are struck by this crisis more. Sure, it would be followed by cultural and social anxiety, but when you think of it, 750 people is not a high number for Lithuania, as it is equivalent to just more than 0,2 percent of the population.

At the same time, such a small “price” of accepting this number of refugees would let Lithuania voice its concerns about Russia from a better standing. It would allow Lithuania to ask from these countries more understanding for itself and the reality of the Russian threat. If all of the countries that are in a similar situation as Lithuania were willing to search for such compromises, not only would the refugee crisis be better addressed, but the potential threat for Eastern Europe and its needs would receive the attention it deserves.

Willingness to share the refugee burden more responsibly would also enable the eastern EU members to stand as more trustworthy partners of the Western countries, showing that the region can take initiative and be a central piece in problem solution for the entire Union. At the moment, this is not the case in a number of states, as prevailing opinions in them are that refugees are lazy welfare seekers who only want to benefit from the richer part of the population and should not be accepted. But if that is truly the case, such countries as the Baltic states and other Central-Eastern European countries are no better than the refugees – they are freeriders who live off Western funds and are not willing to put up their own contribution to the well-being of the Union. The refugee issue is an opportunity this is not the case – and it should be embraced for the sake of well-being of both Eastern Europe and the EU.

As stated above, the refugee crisis in the EU can be seen from many points of views. Contrary to the most usual pessimistic ones, I call to look at the situation as an opportunity. It is an opportunity for the Eastern European states and the European Union itself. The EU, being such a massive institutional body, cannot escape from international issues and has to learn to act accordingly for problems to be addressed together. So far it can be noticed in multiple issues, such as the Ukraine war, the Greek debt or the refugee crisis, that the Union lacks coherence among the states. Time will show if this opportunity will be seized upon, but it is very likely to be the next step in the European progress.

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Julius Zubė is a fourth-year student of International Politics and Development Studies at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania.

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