This article examines the threat to European liberal democratic values posed by the current asylum crisis. Drawing on a historical analysis of European asylum policies, it examines the origins of the post-Second World War refugee regime and the sources of the current challenge to its liberal universalist premises. The argument discerns two dominant forms of critique of the liberal model in twentieth-century debates on refugee policy: welfare protectionist nationalism, and ethno-centric or racist nationalism. Both of these justifications for restricting asylum have resurfaced in contemporary debates, used by—respectively—centre-left and far right parties. Having considered why these arguments have resurfaced, the article suggests three scenarios for future European responses to the asylum crisis and their implications for liberal universalist values. It argues that the liberal approach can only be sustained through more effective EU burden-sharing and the reorientation of EU external policies to incorporate refugee and migration issues.