Until mid-September, the half-million migrants who had been marching northwards into central Europe seemed like the Old World equivalent of Hurricane Sandy survivors. Families uprooted by the war in Syria were seeking safety, according to this view of things. It was sad to see little girls sleeping by the side of the road, but inspiring to see European volunteers, with their clipboards and their bags of snacks, their water bottles and Port-a-Potties, showing such compassion and logistical expertise.
German chancellor Angela Merkel never seemed prouder. Her announcement in mid-August that Germany could accept 800,000 refugees—vastly more than anyone had assumed possible—gave momentum to the mass migration. This was the new Europe, one not afraid of showing brotherly love to its Muslim neighbors. “To be honest,” Merkel said, “if we reach the point where we need to apologize for lending a helping hand in time of need, well, that’s not my country any more.” Americans will recognize this rhetorical device as the Barack Obama who-we-are-as-a-people technique, which implicitly threatens anyone who disagrees with the leader with ostracism from the national family.
But on September 15, this picture changed. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary, the easternmost outpost of Europe’s so-called Schengen zone, sought to restore order to his country’s border checkpoints, which had been overrun. New laws required newcomers to file asylum applications, and introduced criminal penalties for those who entered the country unlawfully. Almost immediately, groups of migrants rioted outside the town of Röszke and were driven back only with the help of water cannons. Gone were the little girls—because, however photogenic little girls may be, the lion’s share of the travelers are young men, and now they were heaving rocks at the authorities and showing up on YouTube videos shouting Allahu Akbar. Gone, too, were the stories of Syria—because only a fifth of those coming to Germany are from Syria in the first place. The rest are from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and other places, and they are following a route on which large-scale smuggling operations have carried all sorts of migrants for months and even years.
Two visions of Europe’s place in the world are clashing. For Merkel, the migration looks like a charitable opportunity. For Orbán, it looks like a portable intifada. In mid-September, it was Orbán’s assumptions that were being borne out.
Merkel’s invitation to 800,000 of the Muslim world’s tempest-tossed won her accolades around the Middle East. Arabic social media called her “the compassionate mother”—not an epithet often applied to her last winter, when she was wringing every last obol out of a Greek government that had been bamboozled into a draconian debt-servicing program by European officials. Germany seldom gets credit for its big heart on the world stage, and its citizens reveled in the adulation. The ZDF television chain held a “Germany Helps” telethon. Dieter Zetsche, CEO of Daimler, enthused that migrants who were ready to pull up stakes and leave behind everything familiar were “exactly the kind of people we’re looking for at Mercedes and everywhere in our country.” Although Merkel got 100 percent of the credit for this generosity, other countries would share the price for the immigrants she lured. Since the signing of the Schengen agreements in 1995, there has been free movement within most of the European Union. Orbán and the leaders of Poland and Slovakia announced themselves unwilling to take extra migrants, adding that they preferred that the ones they took be Christian.
European leaders have generally mocked Orbán for his provincialism, then denounced him for his immorality, and then pursued his policies to the letter:
n In Austria, the Social Democratic premier Werner Faymann likened Orbán to the Nazis. Faymann leads a coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, who joined forces two years ago to keep the hardline anti-immigrant Freedom party (FPÖ) out of power. Now the FPÖ appears to have a shot at winning the municipal elections in Vienna in early October, and Faymann has imposed his own border controls.
n In Croatia, a new EU country not yet in the Schengen zone, President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic has long professed herself shocked at certain of Orbán’s policies. When Orbán introduced controls at the Hungarian-Serbian border, she offered to let the migrants pass on an alternative route leading through Slovenia. That idea lasted barely a day. As we went to press on September 17, her interior minister said Croatia had reached capacity and could accept no more refugees. Grabar-Kitarovic herself had put the army on alert. (Slovenia closed its own border with Hungary shortly thereafter.)