It is estimated that more than 750,000 refugees arrived in the EU in 2015. However, the leaders in Western and Eastern Europe are disagreeing on a particular solution on how to treat those refugees, with the West blaming the East of not doing enough or doing it wrong (e.g. the West criticizing the East of building border fences to keep migrants out).
According to some economists, the root of this disagreement about attitudes towards refugees can be traced as far back as the Black Death in the 14th century. In their book, Why Nations Fail, authors Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson consider the Black Death as a ‘critical juncture’ in history with long-lasting effects on our institutions and cultures. The argument Acemoglu and Robinson make is intuitive: The Black Death killed between an estimated 75 to 200 million people worldwide, resulting in large labor shortages. These labor shortages were particularly acute in Europe and resulted in differences between Western and Eastern European countries in the prosperity of workers. In Western Europe, sought-after workers gained bargaining power, thereby making an end to serfdom. To the contrary, in Eastern Europe the increased economic value of servants lead to even more oppression by their masters, resulting in prolonged systems of serfdom in Eastern societies.
Following the Black Death, economic and political institutions in Western and Eastern Europe grew further apart. Politics became more democratic in Western Europe with a focus on individual rights, whereas political powers stayed more centralized in Eastern Europe. According to Acemoglu and Robinson, this lead to differences in economic, political and cultural attitudes that last up to this day, including how to treat refugees.
What this suggests is that political differences within Europe are rooted deeply in its history. If this is true, no easy solution to Europe’s refugee crisis can be expected and it could even be the case that Europe’s existence as a union state becomes at risk. After Greece, could the refugee crisis become Europe’s last act?