Russia, Eurasia, and the West

How the Refugee Crisis changed the conception of European identity

March 30, 2016

            The Refugee crisis stroke the European Union at a time it was already under pressure from the rise of right and left wing populisms, the possible exit of the United Kingdom from the EU, the ongoing economic crisis, and much more. Once again, the EU seems unable to cope with this challenge. On the one hand, the 1951 Refugee Convention and its principle of non-refoulement binds the EU to accept refugees; on the other hand, governments have to respond to their people’s anxieties regarding change and diversity. Therefore, to what extent is the Refugee Crisis altering the conception of European identity?


            The reactions of European countries have been poles apart. Hungary made clear that migrants were unwelcomed and built walls and fences[1]; thus reflecting the idea that refugees are not deserving peoples and that they are threatening the functioning of an ‘imagined homogeneous Europe’[2]. Germany practiced an ‘open door’ policy and opened the way to go-it alone policies, which made a coherent and united EU response almost impossible to reach.


            If most responses were based on economic concerns, some countries – in particular those with a Catholic or Orthodox ethos - reacted according to religious considerations. Slovakia announced it would take only Christian refugees and not Muslims[3]. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán stated that ‘those arriving have been raised in another religion and represent a radically different culture’, adding that ‘Europe and European identity are rooted in Christianity’[4]. The Financial Times also raised this issue:  ‘A motif of cultural self-defence, of Europe as a Christian fortress justifiably barred to Muslim hordes, runs through the rhetoric of many EU leaders’[5].


            However, if the idea of a huntingtonian ‘Clash of Civilizations’ re-emerged, the problem is rather directed to the conception of European identity. Communitarians for instance, consider that cultural homogeneity is essential for a European identity. The common Roman political-legal traditions, or the Christian, Greek and Judaic cultural heritages seem to unify EU members. Conversely, liberals and republicans conceptualize European identity as being embedded in the values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law[6].


            If a liberal conception prevailed over the first in the last decades, events such as the refugee crisis tend to reinforce a communitarian approach to European identity. Indeed, a renewal and reinforcement of identity politics has become more visible recently, with people identifying to one culture, religion or ethnicity. In Europe, the renewed visibility of religion can be seen as an effect of immigration, which brought less secularized populations[7] to the continent. But it also shows the importance of religion in society and politics more generally.


            As a result, three main challenges to the further development of a liberal European identity emerge. First is the religious and ethnic diversity caused by immigration, second, the rise of ethno-national and regional identities, and finally, what the new nationalisms reflected in the rise of the far-right parties across Europe[8]. Yet, 26 million of migrants in the EU are Christians against 13 million Muslims[9]. This gap highlights how anxieties of Europeans are conveyed through discourse, emphasizing the distance between the two cultures. This unfortunately impacts the reception of immigration by the public opinion, and the policy that is to be implemented by the EU.


            Even if the EU is strongly dedicated to separation between religion and politics and that its identity - on paper - is ‘pluralist, flexible, rationalist and claiming universality’[10], religion still plays a role in permitting traditional, Christian people[11] to have more legitimacy in the policy-making process. Secularism can thus serve the purposes of the majority religion and encourage restrictive policies towards immigration.


            Debates about immigration are always intertwined with religious concerns. As a consequence, the EU should favour a liberal conception of its identity in order to lessen the rejection of cultural ‘otherness’[12]. It is also crucial that countries offer asylum to refugees without discrimination based on their culture or religion, which is a duty for an organization championing the respect of human rights.



[1] Godfrey Baldacchino and Carmen Sammut (2015): The Migration Crisis: No Human is Illegal, The Round Table, DOI: 10.1080/00358533.2015.1112092

[2] Seth M. Holmes and Heide Castaneda (2016) Representing the ‘European refugee crisis’ in Germany and beyond: Deservingness and difference, life and death, American Ethnologist, vol 43 n°1

[6] C. Gould and M. Messina, (2016), Europe’s contending identities, Supranationalism, Ethnoregionalism, Religion, and New nationalism,Cmbridge University Press, Chapter DOI:

[7] Casanova in François Foret and Julia Mourao Permoser (2015) Between faith, expertise and advocacy : the role of religion in European Union policy-making on immigration, Journal of Euroepan Public Policy, Vol 22, n°8,

[8] Maria Sobolewska (2015) Europe’s Contending Identities: Supranationalism,

Ethnoregionalism, Religion, and New Nationalism, West European Politics, 38:6, 1362-1363,

DOI: 10.1080/01402382.2015.1065070

[9] François Foret and Julia Mourao Permoser (2015) Between faith, expertise and advocacy : the role of religion in European Union policy-making on immigration, Journal of Euroepan Public Policy, Vol 22, n°8,

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid


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