Over the course of June and July, through a patchwork of frantic stopgap measures and pledges, European leaders fortified Europe’s borders along its southern perimeter in another push to restrict migration to the continent. This clampdown now also includes efforts to beach the last of the charity-run rescue boats that scoop up refugees out of the Mediterranean Sea–where more than 10,000 have perished since 2014.
Italy’s new populist leadership insists that it will no longer serve as Europe’s refugee dump, a stance that involves violating international law by turning refugees away from its coasts, even those rescued by its own navy. The German government wants to add Algeria, Tunisia, Georgia, and Morocco to a list of so-called safe countries from which it will accept very few or zero refugees. Hungary has even taken the step of formulating a law making the aid of refugees in the country a punishable offense.
The amalgam of restrictions, which effectively truncate the right to political asylum by limiting refugees’ access to Europe, has staunch supporters beyond hard-right populists. Many center-of-the-road liberals claim that further curbing refugee flows is the only way to arrest the nationalist right’s stunning ascent in Europe–and salvage what’s left of asylum rights.
These prickly ethical questions about ends and means are being debated nowhere more furiously than in the European country that takes pride most in its tradition of moral philosophy, from Immanuel Kant to Jürgen Habermas. In one sense, the back-and-forth in Germany–in newspapers and on television, in universities and in pubs–may be a healthy means of coming to clarity on Europe’s present moral conundrum.
But it also illustrates that, at a time of political crisis, Europe’s humanitarian principles aren’t nearly as inviolable as its citizens once believed.