Some years ago, Thomas Friedman brought us the news: „The World is Flat“. It is flat because it has less and less obstacles for the flow of human beings and knowledge between nations and societies. But as we can see, new borders, fences and walls were and are built. Nevertheless from time to time people in the peripheries try to overcome these old and new obstacles in order to reach countries in the center. Insofar the world became more flat in spite of nationalistic policies to build new and tight borders with the purpose to prevent immigration into the centre.

Berlin Collage Hannes Swoboda

Hegemony and dependency

One such centre is Western and Northern Europe with its higher income and wealth in relation to the different peripheries inside Europe and in Europe’s neighborhood. Few people from the centre go to the periphery to make business and profit. Many more people from the periphery leave their countries partly to save their life, partly to earn higher incomes and receive higher benefits and social services, than they could ever get in their home country.

In addition to big and growing economic differences we see a long tradition of arrogance and prejudices of the centre towards the periphery. With this attitude the centre – via domination, occupation and wars – decided the fate of the periphery at least in the past. The centre even transformed neighboring countries into its periphery. That is true for the periphery inside the EU, inside the non EU Europe like the Balkans and the periphery outside Europe. There always existed and still exists speak an unequal relationship between the hegemonic centre and the dependent periphery.

Also Russia acted over centuries as such a centre by dominating the periphery by force or by offering protection to its neighboring countries and people against possible enemies. Again in these days Russia is trying to exert influence by attracting at least Russian speaking and Russian orthodox people in its periphery. In some of the countries with mixed population like Ukraine but also Georgia and Moldavia a conflict between these two European centers is the result of competing attraction.

Economic and social periphery in the centre

But also inside the EU centre we find people living in the periphery. It is an economic and social periphery where the poor, many unemployed and also people with precarious working conditions live. And part of this „central“ periphery are people who have been immigrating from a periphery outside the centre some time ago. A neo-liberal economic policy and a one sided austerity policy enforced also in the geographic periphery – especially in the South unemployment and poverty. This caused additional migrating flows of young people into the centre but also into peripheries far away from Europe, in Africa, Latin America etc.

Fighting for a place in the centre

In the mean time new flows of migrants from the European neighborhood especially from the Middle East left this periphery and came into the centre. The efforts to distribute these refugees to all EU member countries met strong resistance from the EU periphery especially in the East.

With this resistance it became obvious that the biggest confrontation and conflict exists between peripheries. The countries of the EU periphery with lower incomes, with their own internal periphery of poor people, especially the Roma and being less used to diversity by immigration were not ready to accept new migrants. And the same is true for the periphery inside the centre. People still in a underprivileged economic and social situation or people who have just started  to „make it“ feel themselves particularly vulnerable – and rightly so. So we are less confronted with a fight and competition between center and periphery. The major conflict exists between people from the different geographical and economic/social peripheries for a place in the centre. It is periphery against periphery.

An increasing income gap is always dangerous for the cohesion of countries and societies. But the combination of strong migration and economic and social inequality is a strong threat for new and still contested entities like the EU. Furthermore it is this economic and social conflict which is misused by right wing forces. They are not interested in solving the conflict by fighting for more equality but are interested in attacking the „political elites“ especially those of the European projects. So Europe’s elite has to learn to manage in a fairer way the social issue with respect to the already existing periphery and the new migrants coming from the outside periphery.

Ethnic conflict instead of social conflict

The old and new social antagonism is transformed and enlarged by an „ethnisation“ of the social conflict. Right wing forces, especially in the centre picture this conflict between peripheries not as a social one, but as an ethnic one between people from different national, cultural and religious backgrounds. And they argue that the migrants coming from the – geographic- periphery are of lower cultural level. They give the people in the centre – including those of the inner periphery – the feeling of superiority. Consequently they enhance the fears of losing this supremacy due to immigration: the migrants are taking away jobs as well as social services and benefits from the people in the centre. Furthermore some of them like the Roma people and especially the Muslims are trying to undermine the values and rights of the modern societies in the centre.

So we can find two elements of rejections in the centre. The one is the confrontation with poverty which according to the official ideology has been overcome due to economic development and social policies, which many even see as too exaggerated. On the other hand we find extreme political forces with a discriminating ethnic and cultural appeal to all citizens in the centre – poor and rich – which is overshadowing the social conflict and strengthen the fight periphery against periphery. All the different inner European peripheries are put into confrontation with the outside peripheries and with the people trying to move into the centre. In the mean time also some political forces in peripheral countries use the same arguments.

Partnership instead of confrontation

Only a new comprehensive policy of partnership between the centre and the different peripheries could overcome these antagonisms. These policies must include strategies to reduce the differences and gaps between the centre and all peripheries. Firstly, we must give the fight against poverty and unemployment inside the centre more attention. With the recent additional migration from the Middle East, a successful integration of these and the migrants of recent years is only possible, if the centre starts a new investment and jobs initiative. Otherwise we will be confronted  with new and extended social conflicts and confrontations, sometimes under a ethnic cover.

Secondly, such a initiative must also include the geographic periphery inside the EU with special attention to the „excluded“ like many Roma and other poorer parts of the society. Thirdly we must extend such a policy towards European regions outside the EU. Today we can see, that the neglect of the Balkan region in the last years was a mistake. Old conflicts can easily be nourished by nationalistic forces. Therefore the initiative started by Germany and Austria for giving the economic and social development of that region more attention must find wider support and help also from other EU countries.

Fourthly, the new investment and jobs strategy must include the neighboring periphery outside Europe as well. The „strategy“ of military intervention and enforced democratization from the outside failed. Economic development, exchange programs for students and teachers, twinning programs etc. must be in the center of a new overall partnership program. And of course in the short run it must include support for many countries in the immediate neighborhood of wars to deal with the refugees in a human way. Because countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey bear the heaviest burden of giving refugees shelter and protection.

Different approaches for societies with diversity

All these inner-European strategies and programs must take into account the different peculiarities and characteristics of the countries of the periphery. The center has to abandon its position of arrogance and superiority. We can no longer suppose, that only the ideas and methods, which worked in the centre can and must work elsewhere. And the programs should be – as far as possible- joint programs formulated and implemented in partnership with the periphery.

Only such a comprehensive plan could strengthen the link between the centre and its peripheries. We need a new economic and cultural strategy linking periphery and centre. Diversity needs to be accepted as well in the centre as in the different peripheries. And social conflicts have to be seen and solved as such and must not be transformed into an ethnic, cultural and religious incompatibilities. Finally the relationship of dominance and dependence has to be transformed into one of mutual support and partnership.