One of the most important concepts is fear in the ‘refugees/migrants versus Europe’ debate. It is not entirely clear whether Europe is against the migrants, or migrants are against Europe. But it is more than obvious that at the level of generalization both sides fear the other contrary to Jean-Claude Juncker’s call for collective courage. He is worried by ‘the fear directed against these people by some parts of the European population’ and concludes that ‘Europe fails when fear prevails’. As if it was simply a matter of choice.
One must admit that we social scientists – just as human rights activists – know very little about fear regardless to our knowledge on its consequences, such as violence, war, population movements, suicide and so on. Politicians, at least as much instinctively as cynically, know much better what fear is about in Europe thanks to the various public opinion polls. The language spoken for example by the Hungarian PM, Viktor Orban is seen much less unrealistic and provoking today than a month ago. His arguments are at least as much, if not better, shared by a significant part of the European public (opinion) and politicians as judged by others, certain media outlets, journalist, politicians, scholars or activists included. Orban’s gambling builds not only on how many people in Hungary think about foreigners coming from remote countries, but also on a more general European resentment rapidly growing against the new-comers let them be migrants or refugees.
When Le Figaro, the second second-largest, right-leaning national newspaper in France asked whether its readers agree with the Hungarian decision to build a fence on the Hungarian-Serbian border (to keep refugees and migrants away), 88% of the respondents said yes (the sample is not representative, but big enough, the number of voters was as high as 56250). On a more representative side, the latest available Eurobarometer survey (the poll was conducted in May with over 30,000 people interviewed) found that immigration jumped to the top of the most frequently cited EU-level concerns with 38% (+14 points). It is now way ahead of the economic situation (27%, -6 points) and unemployment (24%, -5 points) too. While the immigration of people from other EU Member States evoked a positive feeling for more than half of Europeans, the opposite was true in the case of immigration of people from outside the EU. Their (economically-motivated) immigration evoked a positive feeling for only about a third of Europeans (34%) and a negative feeling for 56%. It is not surprising that close to three-quarters of Europeans said they were in favour of a common European policy on migration (73%). Results of the next survey (due in November) will likely be even more ‘anti-European’ and fearful in light of the late-Summer developments in Europe.
What is fear? Fear is a very normal human emotion induced by a threat or any negative stimulus. Neuro- and cognitive science says that fear is automatic, unconscious, spontaneously generalized and resistant to extinction. The perception of threat leads to neural changes in the brain and indirectly in behaviour as well: it leads to hiding, freezing, or running away from traumatic events. It is fear which makes people run away from Syria, Afghanistan or Turkish refugee camps. And it is fear – and not simple hatred – which makes other people, Europeans, reluctant to receive and integrate them in large scale. Is this fear real or imagined? It depends. But new arrivals bring not only their human rights with themselves. They also carry their history, collective memory, tragedies and traumas, culture and religion and a lot else. And while there are generous and ‘fearless’ European individuals being busy with offering a helping hand, a great part of the general public is quite much concerned about opening borders and integrating strangers with complicated past. One of the most important human feeling – fear – seems to be shared by refugees and Europeans as well. Describing fear as abnormal, coward, egoistic or anti-European may take into consideration some significant political events of European history. However, it ignores not only other, less glorious historical facts, but scientific evidence on human nature as well. Fear is not only very normal, but hardly a matter of choice. Equally, it is not simply a matter of moral(ity). If Europe needs more refugees and immigrants – but even if the opposite is true, there is no straightforward answer to this question – it should focus on understanding this very human feeling instead of building further rhetorical fences and trenches.