Europe’s fortress walls and border fences are returning, along with a storm of xenophobia that threatens to shatter the post-national polity Europeans have been building, however imperfectly, for decades. Dissatisfied Europeans, rebelling against the distant Brussels technocracy, are experimenting dangerously with forms of illiberalism that national constitutional institutions seem powerless to resist.

On December 6, 2015, Marine Le Pen’s Front National scored an unprecedented victory in the first round of France’s regional elections. A month prior, an aggressive Law and Justice party was elected to form a conservative government in Poland. In the Czech Republic, the country’s populist President Miloš Zeman legitimized the hate-mongering Bloc Against Islam movement by attending its anti-refugee rally, convened—of all things—on the twenty-sixth anniversary marking the student protests that began the Velvet Revolution. Meanwhile, Viktor Orbán and national conservative Fideszhave been dismantling Hungary’s liberal institutions for years.

There are a few rays of light. Angela Merkel announced that Germany would accept almost a million asylum seekers by the end of 2015, and France—still reeling from the massacres in Paris—will keep its promise to resettle thirty thousand refugees over the next two years. There is nobility and justice in these assurances, but there is also doubt and diffidence—not because these decisions are mistakes (they are not), but because they do not represent, despite their rhetoric, a deeper, sustainable commitment. Nor do they capture with clarity and purpose a longer-term understanding of how such a policy would take shape as part of the European project and what it would mean for European society.

What is more, these ad hoc decisions seem to accept a confused and contradictory strategy, intending at once to deter future irregular migration and to secure access to asylum procedures for those who come. There are unanswered, untested questions at every turn, and the European public seems to have little stomach for an extended debate. While the European Council at the end of September approved a plan to redistribute refugees across EU states, both Slovakia and Hungary have filed complaints before the European Court of Justice and their politicians have vowed resistance. Even Merkel, at the mid-December CDU party congress, said she would work to “drastically decrease” the inflow of refugees.

Europe is not having a refugee crisis; refugees are having a ‘Europe’ crisis.

Europe is caught, then, between hesitant morality and conservative reaction, and it edges closer than ever to a return of nationalism. How did this come to be? And what does the struggle of refugees to live in Europe mean for the future of Europe itself? Despite the great risk, Europe’s response to the claims of refugees might still offer the continent’s greatest contemporary hope for a political push out of its malaise, for restoring its own sense of political freedom and identity.

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A few years ago, Italian artist Blu painted a mural on the wall of a forgotten building in Melilla, Spain, an exclave on the northern edge of Morocco: politically European, geographically African. Surrounded by border fortifications, Melilla is a main point of entry for sub-Saharan African migrants seeking passage into Europe. They desperately rush Melilla’s fences or, alternatively, head west along the shore to attempt the dangerous swim around to nearby Ceuta, another Spanish exclave. In February 2015, Moroccan security forces raided and dismantled the migrant camps around Melilla, setting fire to temporary homes and injuring hundreds.

Recasting the EU flag as a ring of wire enclosing an empty, indifferent center, Blu’s mural is a symbolic rendering of the European Union seen from the outside in. Blu’s image shows what is wrong about talk of a “refugee crisis.” This formulation missteps not only because it dehumanizes (human beings cannot themselves constitute a crisis any more than they can constitute a “flow”). The phrase also misapprehends reality; it reverses the true direction in which political responsibility runs.

For in truth, the crisis is one of Europe and its institutions, not of those fleeing hell. As Sam Kriss has noted, it is the “migrants [who] are experiencing a European crisis, one of fences and fascists and cops.” It is a crisis of European political identity. It reveals that Europeans are profoundly unsure of who they are—what they ultimately stand for and hope for. It is this void of a dream, and not any factual threats from abroad, that feeds the blind, fearful fires so eagerly stoked by opportunist politicians, sensationalistic pundits, and racist thugs.

Limits of liberal morality

The political center’s approach to the resurgence of xenophobia has been in large part to ignore the political problem. It treats the refusal of refugees as a moral failing alone, shorn of both history and politics (of the history of colonialism and military intervention, and of the political crisis of European integration). As one commentator recently summed up, “it’s the morality, stupid!” But if the conservative cultural account says too much (if it distorts and reifies political identities), the moral discourse from the liberal center says too little (it lacks an adequate account of politics).

This liberal approach views refugees first as bodies in pain, vulnerable human beings in need of protection and care. Such a humanitarian perspective is necessary and right, but it is insufficient. For it does not look deeply enough into this suffering to perceive the politics that surround and shape it. And the liberal solution accordingly takes on the depoliticized mantle of charity alone. It obscures beneath sentimentalism the necessary mobilization of state institutions as a matter of justice.

More to the point, the liberal response overlooks the need to reform European political institutions rather than merely mobilize them. Indeed, the commonplace liberal argument to protect refugees builds its case as a straightforward extension of existing European values. But this ignores precisely the crucial connection that Blu’s mural asks us to make between the claims of refugees and the need to mend European politics itself.

The liberal response overlooks the need to reform political institutions rather than merely mobilize them.

Put another way, the liberal asks Europeans to make sacrifices that remain at the margins of political life, visible and symbolic though they are—volunteerism and opening one’s home, for example. But such sacrifices do not think beyond the horizon of existing political priorities. They do not demand a reassessment of the European focus on surveillance and deterrence; they do not ask what it means for the EU to militarize its borders; they do not ask about the structural imbalances of the Dublin Convention that leave countries like Italy, Bulgaria, and Greece utterly overwhelmed at Europe’s periphery; they do not seek a common effort to ensure that refugees have an adequate standard of living irrespective of where in the EU they settle; and they do not recognize the impact of contemporary austerity on the rise of nativist extremism.

This last point is crucial: following Syriza’s capitulation to austerity measures last summer, the absence of a credible left politics within the European Union means that the continent’s working classes are much more vulnerable to racist mobilization. For there is little assurance that new immigration flows will not contribute decisively to the dismantling of the welfare state, further declining wages, and a general displacement of low-skilled labor. Xenophobia is unsurprisingly an attractive means to vent class anxieties.

Further still, the liberal response fails to register the problem’s historical and geopolitical dimensions. It does not ask for a political commitment to understand—let alone to end—the chronic political disintegration and economic underdevelopment in the Middle East, which is the result of centuries of colonization, military intervention, and self-serving interference into the political affairs of others. Such interventions continue in new form under the expansion of global capitalism, fueled to this day by Europe’s strategic and industrial interests, its energy alliances with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and its arms manufacturers.

In a deeper sociological sense, the millenarianism that refugees are fleeing is in part a violent response to the dislocations of late modernity—to the anomie and alienation faced by those whose social lives are undergoing rapid change, seemingly without sense or purpose and without political hope for the future. As Jürgen Habermas put it recently, “Jihadism is a thoroughly modern form of reaction to uprooted ways of life.” Fundamentalist ideology, then, is not some remnant of the past but rather a contemporary phenomenon deeply intertwined with a global neoliberal process Europe has rushed to embrace.

Political recognition of each of these dimensions is required if we wish to build a society in which refugee families might be welcomed and equal—indeed, where their own political struggles and experiences can be acknowledged. Yet none is adequately captured by vague blanket appeals to morality.

This failure invites an abdication of political responsibility, now emerging in the EU’s rotten deal with the authoritarian and increasingly brutal Erdoğan regime in Turkey that would push refugees from Europe. Forgetting politics and history encourages the failed rhythm of intervention, dislocation, and radicalization. As European aircraft release their bombs over Syria, war shows itself again to be the West’s principal tool for addressing political conflict and historical injustice. If the humanitarian logic results in charity at home, it too readily seeks the military campaign abroad. For once the political nature of the problem recedes (and, with it, prospects of finding a political solution), the remaining frustrated reply is violence.

The political task is much more complicated and more consequential than the humanitarian logic presumes. It will require political sacrifices, controversial changes in the European way of life, discomfort, sustained effort, and real learning. It is essential to state this point forthrightly; obscuring it invites European citizens to assume, falsely, that they can satisfy their post-national responsibilities without much work. As long as refugees are considered simply the recipients of charity—and therefore seen as a social and financial burden to be minimized—they will also never cease to be the victims of racist suspicion, discrimination, and violence.

Only by linking moral values to a coherent political response can appeals to solidarity have real substance and staying power.

The political claims of human rights

Refugees question the closure of our physical political borders, but they also question the closure of political identity in a more conceptual and symbolic sense. As a free subject withdrawn from an old political community in search of a new one, the refugee has a privileged perspective on what it means to belong and participate in political life.

Europeans should listen to that view, for if there will ever be such a thing as post-national community or cosmopolitan solidarity, among its standard-bearers will undoubtedly be these new citizens. Like Blu’s image, cosmopolitan solidarity understands the fates of those across borders to be inextricably and mutually intertwined; it demands fellow citizens to deepen and reimagine their shared responsibilities for one another. At heart, it reflects a basic, existential call of cosmopolitan right. Paraphrasing Itamar Mann, who has written penetratingly on this topic: either allow yourself to change who you are (your population’s composition, who you let in and consider worthy of recognition) or you will be forced to change who you are (the humanistic commitments you believed were constitutive of your identity). This is a paradoxical but profound conclusion: to remain who we are, we must change who we are.

The refugee has a privileged perspective on what it means to participate in political life.

This view gives the lie to both the nativist fantasy and the moralistic humanitarian impulse. It does so by historicizing our understanding of what it means to exist as members of a political community, for it implies that political boundaries and self-understandings are necessarily made and remade over time—and that change is not something to fear but to understand and participate in.

Indeed this is the founding insight of post-national politics: the nation-state is an efficient but contingent political arrangement. Though not arbitrary, it is the result of human thought and action, a social imaginary and political form that is far from natural. It is therefore also subject to political reform and transformation. This is why the response to the refugee presents perhaps as true and perfect a test as European politics has.

Traditionally, the question of identity has been framed as the question of who we are, and the emphasis has been on what links us together in our sameness. It has been a question in search of characteristics, values, perhaps institutions. But this dominant logic of identity is destructive insofar as it reduces the space of imagination, creativity, and freedom; it asks us to impose an easy, essentializing answer on complex questions of human value and political recognition. It demands that we know who is normal and who is not; who is typical and who is not; who is our friend and who our enemy. It is this point that the refugee’s claims to human rights press against and deny.

The refugee offers an alternative view of political identity, one that cultivates, rather than blunts, moral imagination. As Seyla Benhabib reminds us, this is possible only when “the self-centered perspective of the individual is constantly challenged by the multiplicity and diversity of perspectives that constitute public life.” It is in this light and in this spirit that we ought to understand our legal response to the claims of refugees. Laws—whether regulating asylum, refugee status, lawful detention, or access to social assistance—necessarily place conditions on hospitality. But they are also always provisional commitments made in the story of our political lives. They are made in the service not of a fixed community but of one that must always open itself up again.

This is precisely the sort of political identity that ISIS and all fundamentalisms seek to eradicate. As many have commented, ISIS’s strategy is to make it impossible practically and politically to hold on to our heterogeneous, open-ended identities, to survive in the “gray zone.” ISIS wishes to provoke a war in which we are forced to choose sides, blindly and violently.

This strategy was visible in the recent Paris attacks. The neighborhood around the Bataclan represents—or did, in parts of its history—such a diverse idea. As Marco Roth beautifully eulogized, the attack on the famous theatre, “a desecration like the destruction of the temple of Bel in Palmyra,” took aim at the charms and possibilities of a place that was once “full of mixed ethnicities, North Africans, Tamils, West Africans, Eastern Europeans, and mixed, mainly lower, incomes, small tailor and fabric shops, hardware stores, groceries.” Here the notion of a fixed, stable identity has to fall away; this is a place where citizens imagine not merely what identity is or has been, but what it might become.

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Hannah Arendt captured the central place of refugees in the European political project shortly after millions of Europeans found themselves stateless after the world wars. For Arendt the refugee claimed the “right to have rights,” what she also understood as “the right of every individual to belong to humanity,” to appear, speak, and act in a shared “common world.”

Arendt was herself a European refugee. She knew personally how feeble the abstract claim to human rights could be and how important political community was to securing it. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she emphasized that “we become equal as members of a group on the strength of our decision to guarantee ourselves mutually equal rights.” Arendt here intertwines the protection of human rights with the equality and freedom we achieve as citizens. While the idea that human rights are best protected through citizenship is clear enough, Arendt’s more interesting insight runs the other way. It is citizenship itself—the condition of free political life—that is best ensured by recognizing a stranger’s right to belong. Such recognition affirms that we do, in fact, act non-coercively, on the basis of our mutual promises and not by the poisoned fruits of violence. As the refugee is saved, so too is the citizen.

It takes much effort and courage to see ourselves as the kind of people who might welcome refugees, as the kind of society that might understand its own identity to be open in this way. But it is this potential for change that gives our politics its power and purpose: to end the wars, to understand and to value one another better, more fairly and justly. Our political community must affirm these things if it is to remain a place we can live.