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The Philosophical Essence of the European Refugee Crisis

October 20, 2015
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The purpose of this blog post is to provoke thought about the core issues regarding the recent massive influx of peoples into Europe. These issues are politically, socially, religiously, and morally sensitive, which makes them particularly divisive, yet this is exactly the reason that it is imperative for the citizenry of every republic to actively wrestle with these issues.  Philosophically, these issues are nested in the complexities of two main ideas: 1) the entities’ motives, and 2) the “rights” of entities concerning the social contract.

Europe in Context: on Republics, the Social Contract, and the EU

Throughout history there has been an evolution of political organization from “chaos” and tribal warfare to kingdoms, from kingdoms to states, from states to nation-states, and from nation-states to supra-national federations/unions.  These transitions are usually formed in tension, under pressure, and are adaptive responses to competition. Below is necessarily concise, and thereby insufficient, discussion of the evolution of Europe.

Hobbs described how and why people form a government, arguing that humans naturally live in the state of nature, which is effectively a state of anarchy.  With no political order and rule of law, humans have unlimited freedom while living in a state of survival of the fittest and are free to plunder, murder, and rape as their strength permits.  Hobbs theorized that to avoid this “war of all against all,” naturally free men join together in a social contract and willingly give up some freedoms to an absolute Sovereign to gain stability, creating a political community manifest in a civil society. The absolute Sovereign has the monopoly of violence to maintain the order, freedoms, and stability in the social contract, thereby creating a bubble of familiar stability in the un-ordered dog-eat-dog natural state of the wild.

Over time, the Sovereign transformed from an individual monarch into a bureaucracy that was representative of the public will.  The states that make up the EU are fundamentally republics, meaning they are representative governments.  As Rousseau described in the mid-1700s, the purpose of a republic is to carry out the general will of the citizenry.  Nation-states formed as a result of the spread of industrialization, urbanization, linguistic and cultural homogenization, and governments’ attempts to create a dominant single identity for those living within their respective boundaries.  As a sovereign, this often was done by coercion or outright force.  Over the course of a few hundred years, Europe has evolved into an amalgamation of nation-states that are largely stable, are culturally and linguistically homogenous, have separated the power of religion from republic functions, and developed a stasis.

Since 1945 the nation-state republics of Europe began to create economic ties, reducing tariffs, and opening various forms of free trade.  The financial benefits for each drove political decisions.  With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, this only accelerated, culminating in the official formation of the EU between 1993 and 1994.  For the last 20 years the EU has gradually integrated economically, somewhat politically, and allowed the free flow of citizens within borders.  However, the European Union is more of an alliance and less than a Sovereign. Sovereignty is still held within each nation-state republic, there is no serious attempt in Europe for a unified identity via language and culture.  With this evolutionary context, we shall dive into the core issues regarding the recent massive influx of peoples into Europe.

The Motives of the Mover

Why do people move? As an obvious but important premise, people move because it is either in their short-term or long-term advantage to do so.  People may move to gain some type of freedom and avoid some type of intolerance: religious freedoms (i.e., pilgrims to early America), escape ethnic/racial discrimination (i.e., Jews in Europe and Russia), and even gender discrimination (i.e., Sudan).  People may move for economic reasons, such as the lack of jobs, low wages, high prices, or corruption stealing their earnings, or even excessive legitimate taxation. All things being equal, domestically or internationally, people have incentives to move where there is an increase in the number of jobs available, higher wages, lower prices, less corruption, and lower governmental taxes.  Finally, people will move when why feel sufficiently unsafe, usually due to war. One of the key questions that citizens of the European republics must seriously evaluate is “What are the specific motivations of people crossing our borders?”

The Motives of the Citizens of a Republic

When do governments want and allow people to move into their territory?  More specifically, under what conditions is it in the interest of the citizens of a republic to allow foreigners to come?  In gross generalization, foreigners are welcome when the republic has a specific need and the foreigner brings something to the table.  This is reflective in immigration policy, giving priority to those with higher education, especially advanced degrees in sectors of the job market where there is a shortage.  On the other end of the educational-economic spectrum are unskilled laborers, who often fill jobs at comparatively low wages that “natives” will not perform. Due to the demographics in much of Europe, and in particular in Germany, the negative birth rate has created a huge demand for workers (and spenders) that the native population is choosing to not produce.  Germany’s recent willingness to admit so many Syrian refugees is largely due to the economic fuel that they will inject into the economy.

Another motive is religious or moral persuasion.  Since there is a separation of church and state in Europe, religious motivated compassion is anathema to the system and relegated to individual agency. Moral motivations, often called “humanitarian” assistance, however, are within the state’s purview.  Another question citizens must ask is, “What degree of moral obligation do we, as a republic, have to admit foreigners into our social contract?” As well as “do we have different degrees of moral obligation based on the motives of the foreigner who desires to join?”  This is a much more philosophical question than it appears at first glance, as it has to do with whether or not individuals and a citizenry, as a cultural entity, believe that “morals” and “rights” are natural or they are human cultural inventions that are open to change.  If the citizenry hold that they are natural, then it requires one to demonstrate the historical consistency of those morals and human rights.  If they hold that they are human made, then the morals and human rights are only those of a given time and place, subject to modification according to the general will, and are obligated only to the degree the group decides.

Thus, a second set of fundamental questions States must ask are, “what benefit do we citizens of the republic receive by admitting certain foreigners, and which foreigners would be disadvantageous to admit?,” and “under what circumstances do we have a moral obligation to admit foreigners into the social contract of our republic?” The answers will be different for different states, at different points in history, all based on the needs of their citizens in the social contract.  The EU as a cluster of sovereign nation-state republics has not been able to solve this problem together, leading to tension among members.

The Rights and Obligations of the Mover

From a legal aspect, the rights of individuals desiring to move to another state depend on their motivation.  Refugees are defined as persons fleeing persecution and armed conflict.  As a result of being signatories of various UN charters and treaties, refugees are granted a specific status under both domestic and international law, which obligates states to provide special consideration for people fleeing for their lives and/or from the risk of collateral damage during war.  Migrants, however, are desiring to leave their homes and move when they are not under risk of physical harm or persecution, but rather desire to leave their homes and move to economic advantage, to reunite with family, or pursue education.  Migrants fall under normal immigration laws and policies.  In order to accurately classify a mover under the law, movers have an obligation to state and prove the reason they are moving.  They also have a right, if they are a refugee, to safe haven.  Whether an immigrant or a refugee, citizen or permanent resident, foreigners wanting to move into a republic’s territory have an obligation to conform to the laws of that land, and conform to the laws of the social contract between a citizenry and the sovereign government.  As individuals living under the protection of the republic, they are also obligated to submit to the general will of the citizenry.

The Obligations and Rights of the Citizens and Their Republic

When does the citizenry (via the state) have an obligation to permit foreigners entry?  As discussed, it legally depends on the motive of the individual mover, and morally depends on the belief system of the citizenry (natural or socially constructed rights and obligations). In principle, as a citizenry has a social contract in a republic, and the existence of the state (the people) and their identity are encapsulated in their shared social contract, cultural norms, and statute and customary law, it is essential that states have a right of exclusivity.  In short, states do not have to be inclusive, but by definition are exclusive.  On what basis do they exclude?  This depends on what basis they define themselves, and as such, every citizenry of every nation-state republic must ask itself, “Who are ‘We’ and how are ‘We’ different from ‘Others?’”  “On what issues will we define ourselves?”

In exchange for inclusion and protection of the social contract, “What do and should citizens of a state expect from foreigners desiring to move in?”  Since the number one role of a republican government is to protect and serve the citizenry, it is imperative for the government to screen and evaluate immigrants and refugees to determine if they are in any way a threat.  In the medical field, practitioners do not attempt to assist someone if doing so is to risk their own well-being.  Similarly, citizens should demand of that their governments have a plan for evaluating the safely of assisting specific people and determining whether or not they poses a threat.

Finally, there is the issue of identity and values. It is exceedingly difficult to define what constitutes culture, but in practice everyone knows intuitively when they recognize someone from “their” culture, as well as when they meet someone who is from a “foreign” culture.  This identity is largely due to language and shared values.  Since the movements of peoples around the world is nothing new, what happens when peoples successfully move into a new identity group, and when they do not?  One of the major issues that the citizenry in each respective nation-state republic in Europe, and the EU as a whole will have to determine is, “In exchange for offering foreigners the ability to move in and join the ‘We’ and the social contract, to what degree will We demand people integrate in order to become ‘Us?’”  This is the most core question at the heart of the crisis in Europe, as it relates to how the individual republics and the Union chose to define themselves.

This means that movers have a right to be permitted to assimilate and integrate into a republic and its citizenry, and it means that the citizenry have an obligation via their republic institutions to construct mechanisms to assist in the assimilation of outsiders.  In a similar way individuals marry into the family, at some point they need to be treated and feel like part of the family (one of us) and the family needs to be seen and feel like the new member acts like a member of the family.  Citizens must wrestle with how they will conduct the delicate balance between requiring and assisting assimilation, while not overreaching in degree or speed of integration and thereby causing resentment or even violence.

At its core, the “European Refugee Crisis” is a crisis that is forcing the European Union and the nation-state republics within it to define themselves, their identities, and what it means to be European, and whether this massive influx of Muslim movers will forever alter these defining characteristics.

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