Yet again we are being told Europe is in the grip of a migrant crisis. The small proportion of the world’s displaced persons who arrive in the EU are apparently so much of a strain on its richer members that they cannot cope with the numbers arriving, cannot house or support them and cannot develop any co-ordinated policy for addressing this alleged crisis. Indeed the presence of migrants is now being expressed as a plot: wars are being fought, and refugees from those wars allowed in, and will simply destroy Europe, or so the saying goes.
One might ask how the US or Australia were able to cope when they built their countries on mass immigration. Those who see American tourists walking around different countries as if they own them, expecting the highest standards of service from everyone, understand that wanting a better life is still seen as a virtue there, not something to condemn people for. Furthermore, as Europe is supporting all the conflicts which create waves of migration, claiming these are somehow supposed to benefit local populations, it cannot very well pretend that these people have no reason to flee those conflicts – or to object to them trying to obtain the better life these conflicts are supposed to provide in some dim and distant future.
But the so-called “migrant crisis” is actually nothing to do with migrants. It is about the threat it poses to the European Project, already reeling from the UK’s decision to leave and demands for similar referenda in other countries. That threat has always been there, but there have been political reasons for pretending it wasn’t. Now, as migrants can’t vote and are thus the easiest target in a democracy which is failing to deliver for its own people, the political reason for ignoring the threat has gone, and it is being brought to the surface by the same countries that once had a vested interest keeping it buried.
Now we understand that the founding fathers of modern Europe chose to ignore one simple fact. They recognised that however much Europe’s disparate countries may agree on, each will always have its own individual character which can only change temporarily. But they could not accept that each country’s character will always be expressed through its migration policy: and thus the internal wars the EU sought to end will always ultimately be fought over this issue.
Expressing identity, rather than forging trade deals, will always be the irreducible minimum for every country. The self-proclaimed island nation of the UK has demonstrated this, and will continue to do so throughout the agonies of its attempted separation from Europe.
Not us, mate
Germany is often blamed for the present “migrant crisis”. It is accused of not standing up to the hordes of people who are allegedly hell-bent on terrorising the civilized West which bombed them out of their homes to begin with. In response it tries to impose controls by the back door, by telling Turkey it will only get more support if it stops the flow of migrants.
If Germany does what other countries are demanding it do, it will be discriminating against people on the grounds of racial origin, religious background and political status for the sake of preserving the German people. Has the world really forgotten that we have heard all this before? The German people still thank their former enemies for removing the government which based its policy on such principles, even though it took the loss of thousands of lives in World War Two to do it.
The Nazis and their works might be held to be extreme examples of immigrant-bashing. They were indeed seen as such by most of Europe in 1933, when they were taken seriously at all. Then similar parties started appearing across Europe, which either hadn’t existed before or had had different ideas but were able to profit from tapping into the fears which bred Nazism. Most members and supporters of these parties, such as the Rexists in Belgium and the FSB in the Netherlands, were not necessarily anti-immigrant or anti-foreigner in themselves, but these ideas were lumped in with others which met their concerns, and thus became attractive to people as part of a general package, in countries where electors often had to make such compromises due to their tradition of coalition governments.
It is this process which enabled the Nazis to gain power and exercise it in the manner they did. But Germans themselves eventually said “enough is enough”. They themselves decided that the evils done in the name of the German people were not what being German was about. They are no more reflective of the German people, or the German state, than Pol Pot reflected Cambodia, as Germans have a different character and must build their country on expressing that.
Furthermore, Germany has had to build a new state twice within living memory: first after 1945 and then after the reunification in 1990. It has had to work hard to discover what Germans are, and therefore what their country should be. It knows however that if every other country turned to a new version of Nazism Germany would not. Only when the country hosted the World Cup soccer tournament in 2006 did Germans feel free to fly flags again, due to the connotations with the inglorious interwar period, and therefore the last thing Germany is going to do is go down the road of discrimination again, however mild it may be in comparison with what happened before.
The person most associated with the creation of the “touchy-feely” Germany which is the antithesis of its past is Helmut Schmidt, the Social Democrat Chancellor of West Germany from 1974 to 1982. Like many of his generation, he had also been an ardent member of the Hitler Youth and as late as 1944 was being praised for his “impeccable National Socialist views”, despite being part Jewish. Like his whole country, he had to spend the rest of his life explaining that his past wasn’t him, and putting that into practice. Every German family has been through this painful process, and is not going to reverse it because immigrants want to come to their country, whatever fears they may have in private.
Not old enough to be blamed
If the rest of Europe had been through the same process Germany has over the past 70 years there would be no “migrant crisis”, however many people wanted to enter Europe from elsewhere. The trouble is, Europe is no longer what it was. Its older members have dealt with similar issues, such as decolonisation and the practicalities of having to commute across land borders to “foreign” countries on a daily basis. However the newer ones have had to establish their identities in exactly the opposite way, and are similarly unlikely to compromise on migrant questions.
The EU members which were once part of the Soviet bloc always resented their “foreign domination”, or outright occupation. In order to establish their identities now they have to rediscover what they regard as their native values. This is a process of active discrimination, in which the “local” is promoted above the “foreign”, and although this discrimination has specific targets anything regarded as non-native, such as Islam or French wine, is seen with equal suspicion.
Despite this, joining the EU, that foreign-run, multi-ethnic and pan-European organisation, is seen as one of the steps towards re-establishing the national identities which are the basis of these independent nations. Consequently they expect the EU to support them in this process, even when new national laws violate EU principles. The effort to rebuild countries, which begins and ends with finding a national identity everyone can agree on, is not going to be derailed by freedom of movement, which sucks away the young to the richer countries and leaves them with poorer immigrants from elsewhere to take care of, just as Third World countries, which EU members consider inferior to themselves, have long experienced.
Thus there are conflicts within the EU over how to deal with both migrants and internal populations. In Bulgaria one of the catalysts for the overthrow of the Communists in 1989 was the government dumping rubbish outside a mosque, and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, a pro-Turkish party which represented the country’s Muslim population, played a significant role in removing the hated Soviets. Subsequently the country adopted a law which stated that Orthodox Christianity is the state religion and all other religious groups have to register, and this law is generally regarded as reasonable, because even Muslims do not dispute the primacy of Orthodox Christianity amongst the Bulgarian people.
These differences of approach cannot be glossed over by appealing to a European ideal. The newer members never had that ideal, as EU membership simply showed they were independent and non-Soviet, and as such gave international credibility for whatever they wanted to do at home, whether it was harmonised with the EU or not. If they can get away with being in the European club but having contrary native practices, others can too. No longer can Europe’s malcontents be dismissed as intellectually and morally inferior when whole countries are doing what the elite have always said Europeans can no longer do.
These malcontents are the ones objecting to migration from those very same newer EU countries, claiming that their fellow Europeans are either desperate to live on Western welfare or taking jobs and homes from the locals, whichever accusation is most convenient at the time. Such accusations resonate with those who are struggling, who may believe in the European ideal but feel that having proper jobs and decent homes, or greater welfare in the short term, are more important right now. But it is obviously a contradiction in terms to use the same tactics used in these newer EU countries against people from those same countries. These people can’t be all bad if their own countries do the same, and increasing numbers of nationals of the complaining country go and live there despite this, taking advantage of the lower cost of living to make pensions and savings go further.
Migrants from elsewhere are a different matter. It is easy to point the finger at anyone different and say they are destroying the native culture – even in Spain, where the country was ruled by Muslims for centuries and their cultural contribution is part of what is typically “Spanish” today, or the UK, where the favourite food, according to various surveys, is curry and bastions of English tradition such as Morris Dancing and Christmas trees are of foreign origin, like its royal family. By doing this you can be both European and anti-European, having your cake and eating it too.
Inevitably therefore we are now hearing about a “migrant crisis”, and European domestic polices, rather than foreign adventures which displace and radicalise, being responsible for this. The old industries have largely gone, so migrants can’t be absorbed into them as they once were, but this is because the newer service industries won’t hire people with the old skills, however transferable they may be. There is a housing shortage everywhere, but this is because internetworking online has not been properly promoted. In Sweden it is very difficult to find legal accommodation in the prosperous areas, but hundreds of homes are demolished every year in the north of the country because the locals have long left due to lack of work. Internetworking would resolve both employment and housing problems, but also take away the blame, so there isn’t enough interest amongst those who could make it happen.
Crisis? What crisis? If there were better public services all round, for all people, there wouldn’t be any talk of this. This is contrary to the economic thinking of today, but that same thinking caused the global financial crash which is still affecting most countries. The crisis exists because no one wants to resolve it, as trying to do so would highlight the fact that Europe can never unite, but only divide, on this issue.
We’re not tired of telling you
The alleged “migrant crisis” brings largely self-supporting communities, as the shops in any country testify, to settle in new places and offer their skills. But it is having an effect simply because it is being talked about, not because most of those who hear the talk are affected by it in the real world.
When you hear something often enough, you take that something into account. For example, when NASA was conducting its moon landing programme in the 1970s this was always in the news and thus blamed for many things. Bad weather? Unexplained radio interference? Holes in the ozone layer? All this was due to all those rockets being sent up, we were told at the time, simply because this was an explanation rooted in something people knew about.
The same process which happened across Europe in the 1930s is happening again. Political groups which were not particularly anti-immigrant are adding this element to their ideology, and achieving electoral success, simply because the issue is being talked about and provides easy answers. Before the late Jörg Haider came along the Austrian Freedom Party was a member of Liberal International, but he transformed it into a right-wing “populist” party exploiting fears of “foreign domination“. Even though it subsequently split in several directions as a result of this shift the party retains this ideology today, as it is easier to connect with electors by doing this than by other means, as they hear about “migrant crisis” every day on the news.
More migrants will soon be heading Europe’s way thanks to John McCain’s attempt to ramp up the conflict in Ukraine. Europe has seen this before too: after World War Two, and various other conflicts where the West identified a “good” and “bad” side, the migrants these conflicts produced were heroes who deserved all the support they could get, even if only for a little while. How will the “good victims” of further fighting in Ukraine be treated? Europe cannot take a stand one way or another for fear of exposing its own weakness, so it is likely that there will be a huge disconnect between the rhetoric used about these people to justify the war, and the way they are actually treated on the ground when they try to enter the countries which spout it.
The European ideal is what is in crisis, not immigration controls. The EU only has itself to blame for this, as it blithely assumed that every aspiring new member had this ideal as its highest principle, when in fact they had completely different reasons for joining. The EU will only resolve this problem by deciding what it really is and what it should be, as each of its member states has done and is doing. If it can’t do this, it has no future. If it can, it will no longer feel threatened by migrants – so we will soon see for ourselves what is really going on in those mysterious corridors of power the EU so loves to protect its own public from.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.