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Anne Applebaum


In this instalment of The Next Debate, Rudyard Griffiths, chair of the Munk Debates, Canada's leading public-affairs forum, explores the political ramifications of Europe's refugee influx with Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Warsaw-based columnist with The Washington Post.

Eastern Europe has been on the front lines of the refugee crisis. How are the Paris attacks reverberating in countries such as Hungary and Poland?

We have had in Eastern Europe, in not just the last few days but the last couple of months, a great outcry against Muslim immigration and against Syrian refugees. I would stress that this outcry doesn't represent mass feeling as much as it reflects how some political parties are using these issues to create fear and to inspire people to vote for the far right. Unlike the rest of Europe, in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, there's a tiny Muslim population and very few refugees. But all over Europe people were very unsettled by German Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to change Europe's asylum law. As everybody predicted at the time, Merkel's actions inspired hundreds of thousands more people to come, and there's a sense that governments have lost control. We don't control our borders, we don't know who's coming in, and even people who would like to do something for the refugees feel strongly that this loss of control is a problem.

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What's at stake?

If borders re-emerge in Europe, and it is no longer easy to move from one country to the next, this would be a major change in how Europe thinks about itself. What's more dangerous in the medium term are the terrorism crisis and the refugee crisis, which are separate. Terrorism is caused not by refugees but by second-generation Muslims living in France and Belgium. The threat is that, over time, this dual crisis could lead to the rise of the far right. Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, a sort of neo-fascist party in France, is already ahead in the polls. The far right is leading in Holland. A far-right government has just taken over in Poland. Hungary has a far-right government, and you can think of two or three other countries where right-wing parties could form the government. I think the threat is quite real that these kinds of parties come to power and deliberately begin to break up the EU.

Europe's an aging society. What about the argument that it needs these refugees?

It is a nice idea, and it sort of does work that way already in terms of immigration. But, again, the trouble is it's a question of numbers. I can see population replacement as a possible answer [for accepting refugees] over time, but it will have to be lower numbers and it will have to happen in an orderly way so that people can be absorbed – and aren't perceived as some kind of threat.

North Americans generally think their societies integrate newcomers far better than Europe. Is this a fair assessment?

The problem in Europe is that there is a structural issue at play. How do you become Dutch? You become Dutch because your mother was Dutch and your grandmother was Dutch and your great grandparents were also Dutch and your family speaks Dutch and they've lived in Holland for several hundred years. So, it makes the whole process of intellectually absorbing people very difficult. It's also not something that's easily overcome by, say, better integration programs.

Basically, you can come to the United States and, within a generation, you can be American, and nobody really doubts that you're American. And once your children learn English and speak like American children, then nobody will know the difference. But, in Europe, you can have, two or three generations on, people who are not necessarily treated as natives – and that creates resentment and problems.

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Is Europe's other big crisis, Ukraine, the loser as all attention is now on refugees, and France is looking to Russia for solutions to Syria?

It's a little early to say that Russia's going to bring any solutions in Syria. There's not yet too much evidence that they have a plan in Syria, other than to support [President Bashar] al-Assad, which is not going to work in the long term. But, yes, of course, Ukraine is off the agenda. I mean, actually, it's been off the agenda for a while, and I think that Russia's real motive in involving itself in Syria was to take Ukraine off the table to distract the Russian public's attention from a war that wasn't going all that well, and also to distract international attention. It's now incumbent upon Ukraine to reform itself as fast as possible. It has a very small window before Russia turns its attention back to Ukraine again, which I would expect to happen soon.

Given the political fallout over the Paris attacks, how do you think Europe should deal with the refugee crisis?

Europe should build reception centres on its borders and begin to screen people. It should patrol the coast of Libya to prevent crossing the Mediterranean, simply to avoid people dying. There's going to need to be an enormous investment in refugee camps and refugee reintegration in southern Syria, Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, among other organizations, will have to be reinforced. As much as people can be assisted where they are, it's better for them – we can help far more people in Syria than we can by bringing them to Europe or the United States. This is something that we should have been doing two years ago, and a lot of the effort now may be too late. Again, an emergency opening of the gates is not useful to anybody if it brings far-right, anti-refugee, anti-immigrant parties to power, as they will end any meaningful humanitarian assistance.

This interview has been edited and condensed

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