Under the pressure of the migrant crisis countries across Europe have closed their borders, while xenophobic parties thrive. TP O’Mahony reflects on a new book which captures the unravelling of the EU’s liberal dream.
Hurst & Company, £9.99
Dream of Europe can’t die on its borders
JUST as the world was shocked in June 1972 by that photograph of 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, running naked with her clothes burnt off along a highway in Vietnam after a misdirected napalm attack, so was all of Europe shocked by the image of a little boy dead on a beach in Turkey in September 2015.
Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi drowned, along with his five-year-old brother Galip and their mother Rehan, when the rubber dinghy that was meant to carry them from southwestern Turkey to the Greek island of Kos capsized a few miles off the Turkish coast.
The photograph evoked much sympathy across Europe, and there was an outpouring of generous offers to take in immigrants fleeing from the bloody conflict in Syria.
To her credit, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was to the fore here, even though this created political difficulties for her at home.
Since then, the climate, both in Germany and elsewhere across Europe, has changed.
Attitudes have hardened and popular sentiment has turned against the immigrants, fuelled in part by fear of terrorism.
Right wing parties have exploited the crisis for their own ends with xenophobic agendas.
“Europe has shown no signs of abandoning the fortress model of border enforcement that has had such grim consequences across the continent,” Matthew Carr says in his new book, a book through which flow unmistakable currents of both sorrow and anger.
“On the contrary, both the European Union and many of its member states have stepped up their attempts to reduce and prevent immigration in a continent that has become increasingly hostile and inhospitable to towards both legal and undocumented migrants.”
Apart from the huge loss of life during the war in Syria, millions of its citizens have been forced to flee their homes in the biggest displacement of population since World War II.
The mass migration to Europe has created an enormous humanitarian crisis, and one that has also created great stresses and strains within the EU.
The war, we are told, has displaced 12 million people; at least 250,000 people have been killed.
The Syrian catastrophe is having wide-ranging repercussions.
In the process, we are all becoming more and more alert to how destructive the Syrian war has been for European unity.
As people keep flooding out of Syria and other ravaged places, the problems for Europe will intensify, calling into question the dream of a borderless EU.
In 1985 ministers from five governments met in Schengen to launch a bold experiment in border-free travel.
The village in Luxembourg acquired renown as the birthplace of a free travel regime that eventually embraced 26 countries.
Under the pressure of current events that border-free travel regime is already unravelling. Germany re-established border controls in September amid an unprecedented inflow of refugees.
France did the same after the Paris terror attacks. Nicolas Sarkozy, the ex-President of France who hopes to reclaim the post in 2017, has declared “Schengen is dead”.
Just recently, Ian Traynor, writing in The Guardian newspaper, observed that “all across Europe the proponents of closed national societies are gaining ground against those favouring liberal, open regimes”.
The prevailing mood in Europe was reflected in a recent statement to the Australian parliament by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, reiterating Australia’s harsh anti-asylum policy: “The line has to be drawn somewhere — and it’s drawn at our borders”.
The situation that Europe faces is dire. The US Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking at the Munich Security Conference on 12 February, said the crisis in Syria posed “an existential threat to Europe”. At the same event, the French Prime Minister
Manuel Valls warned that “the European project could collapse if we are not careful”.
All of this forms the background to Matthew Carr’s timely book, at the heart of which is his reporting from remote borderlands as well as detention centres.
He seeks to remind us that migrants are not barbarians at the gate but human beings who, like us, aspire to a better life. He also highlights the spread of criminal, abusive, exploitative, and human trafficking.
The real question is — what to do? The UN-sponsored talks in Geneva have created a glimmer of hope that the war in Syria — which has raged now for five years — might be brought to an end.
Carr’s book, of course, was published before the talks in Geneva and Munich got underway. If they were to bear fruit by starting a process that would bring an end to the civil war in Syria, then the flood of immigration would ease.
Nevertheless, the problem is already a huge one, and is indeed threatening the European project. And even if the Syrian conflict is halted, the flow of migrants won’t cease altogether.
“Faced with poverty, war, state collapse, and authoritarian governance, men and women will continue to move as long as they believe they have a chance of finding something better, because in the twenty-first century the prospect of a potential safe haven is always visible, and we are all much closer to one another than we have ever been before,” writes Carr.
“Europe’s ‘walls’ will not keep them out, but these barriers may yet become not just a fortress but a tomb, where the best and noblest aspirations of the European Union are buried and where its attempts to transcend the barbarities of the twentieth century are displaced by the permanent imposition of barbarism at its contested borders.”
He ends with a plea: “Rich countries cannot insulate themselves or sever their connections to a fractured, unequal, and violent world that they themselves helped to create”.
Instead, they should recommit themselves, he urges, to “the search for creative, humane, and imaginative responses to the complex challenges of twenty-first century migration.”
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