This crisis will destroy Europe… but not how most people think

It is true that Europe’s future existence is ‘threatened’ by the refugee crisis. But this ‘threat’ does not come from any refugees. It comes from Europe itself

I have no idea if French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve was consciously quoting Gandalf the Grey when he said last June (of some 6,000 refugees who had crossed the border from Italy): “THEY MUST NOT PASS!”

On the remote off-chance that there may be one (maximum two) readers out there who didn’t watch Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of ‘The Lord of the Rings’: that line echoes one of its most memorable scenes, in which Gandalf (a wizard) confronts the Balrog (a ‘demon from the ancient world’) on a narrow stone bridge above a bottomless abyss.  

I’ll keep the description brief; you can always watch the full scene on YouTube. Suffice it to say that Gandalf does successfully stop the Balrog’s advance, by breaking the bridge with his staff with the cry: ‘You… shall not… PASS!” (thus giving birth to an enduring Internet meme at the same instant). 

But we all know what happens next: as it plunges down into the darkness below, the falling demon somehow manages to take the wizard down with it. And as far as the rest of the cast is concerned at the time… that was the end of both wizard and demon, in one spectacular CGI conflagration.

Allright, enough of fantasy and onto reality: which is beginning to resemble a work of implausible fiction for more than just the occasional one-liner. There is, of course, a limit to how far you can hammer an analogy into place. In fiction, ‘wizards’ and ‘demons’ can be comfortably categorised into neat little labels called ‘good’ and ‘evil’. No such classification can be applied to reality: especially a reality categorised by millions of people displaced by war and misery, and thousands dying unthinkable deaths on Europe’s doorstep. 

What unites both scenarios, however, is an inherent sense of self defeat. The wizard’s actions are unwittingly self-defeating (at least, in their immediate effect) – in destroying his adversary, he also ‘destroys’ himself. The same is true of Cazeneuve’s actions in France; which are incidentally representative of a broader tendency among governments across the rest of Europe.

The only difference is that this example of ‘self-destruction’ is not as spectacular as in the movies. It is more like the gradual opening of multiple cracks in the structure… cracks that, in time, will bring down not just the bridge, but the entire mountain range as well.

But self-destruction it remains. Europe is slowly destroying itself in its attempts to halt the inevitable with a flash of its magic staff. And I mean literally destroying itself: in the above case, it was France versus Italy; and in a parallel case on the other side of the same national borders, it is Britain versus France… where thousands of asylum seekers now choke Calais in a doomed attempt to cross the channel. 

In refusing to take on more asylum seekers from their neighbours, both these European countries (Britain from France, France from Italy) are effectively perpetuating a vicious cycle whereby individual European countries are invariably left to fend for themselves: even when dealing with an issue that ultimately affects the Union as a whole. 

I believe the French expression for this attitude is ‘votre salade’: anything that takes place across the border is ‘your problem, not mine’. Until, of course, the same problem surfaces on your own territory, whereupon the solidarity you denied to others is likewise withheld from you. Then across the next border, then the one after that, etc.

Judging by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s latest outburst, all of Europe is currently at loggerheads with itself in exactly the same way. The EU recently formulated a plan to ‘share out’ refugees according to an agreed ‘quota’; but as Merkel later pointed out, only five out of 28 member states actually complied. 

Likewise, the European Commission recently launched a ‘common plan of action’ to address the growing horror of thousands of people dying in the attempt to reach its shores. At least, that’s what it claimed; on scrutiny, the declared aim of this plan was actually to ‘strengthen Europe’s borders’… with ‘saving lives’ thrown in only as an additional, bonus objective. 

But the EU proved fractured and disjointed even when pursuing this limited, inward-looking aim. Member states withheld assets and resources; mutual resentment between European countries deepened; and naturally, the number of corpses floating around in the Mediterranean also increased.

Even today, with three-year old toddlers washing up on its beaches, the European Union seems spectacularly incapable of acting in any ‘unified’ way. And this incapacity for action manifests itself at all levels. Where European countries enthusiastically supported the overthrow of Libya’s Gaddafi in 2011 – supplying weapons and assistance to the same militias that would later plunge the country into chaos – there was no analogous intervention of any kind in the Syrian civil war. 

And while there is plenty of talk of the ‘need to involve countries of origin’ – that’s a direct quote by Joseph Muscat, by the way – well, how does one ‘involve’ a country like Syria (home to thousands now fleeing towards Europe) without also ‘involving’ oneself in its internal conflict?

Admittedly these are not easy questions to answer. Military intervention would almost certainly exacerbate this crisis in the short-term. But as things stand, Europe is not even talking about a long-term solution at all… in fact it talks of nothing but the need to build higher walls to fence itself in. 

Even from a logistical perspective, Europe has failed to meet expectations of even the most fundamental kind. There has practically never been a war or conflict on this planet that did not result in an immediate refugee crisis of the kind we are now experiencing. And yet this perfectly predictable wave of refugees from Syria – where civil war has been raging for four years – seems to have taken the whole of Europe by surprise. 

Even now that the death toll has reached utterly unacceptable levels, there has been no acknowledgement that Europe’s asylum infrastructure is not up to the task. We still cling to hopelessly outdated treaties such as Dublin II – about which Malta has complained for years, and now Germany has started grumbling, too – that were devised to accommodate an entirely dissimilar, incomparable ‘immigration’ scenario.

Why has Europe’s asylum procedure not been updated to reflect the new reality? For much the same reason that Europe would rather destroy itself altogether than adopt a common approach to a common problem. Individual member states cannot agree on new procedures, because – despite the so-called ‘unity’ of the EU – their own national interests invariably come first, and these interests are intrinsically different across the 28 member states.

Despite all the treaties and ‘acquis comunautaires’ that supposedly unite us, in reality the EU is nothing more than a collection of squabbling, unfriendly countries: each sweeping the dust from its backyard onto its neighbour’s… then complaining when its neighbours do the same.

What makes the EU’s approach to this issue so self-destructive, however, is the fact that its internal chaos does not reflect broader European opinion on the same issue. I won’t go into the merits of whether it is ‘ideal’ for world opinion to be so dramatically skewed in any direction by a single image – speaking for myself, I try (often unsuccessfully) to avoid the kind of emotional entanglement that provokes instant outrage or revulsion, if only because it tends to distort the discussion. 

But I’ll admit it’s not exactly easy when confronted with the image of a dead three-year-old child lying face-down in the sand. Even if, at heart, I know it to be but one isolated instance of a chilling reality gripping large parts of the world today – where millions of children die every day due to war, disease, famine and poverty – I can still acknowledge the power of a single image to play the part of a game-changer in any debate.

In this case, the part of the game that has arguably changed concerns the public’s perception of the crisis. Admittedly I can’t substantiate this impression with exhaustive evidence; but there are indications of a widespread double-take at popular level. 

This week some 20,000 protested in solidarity with asylum seekers in Vienna, while similar protests were held in various other European cities. In the UK, a petition to increase the intake of refugees attracted 200,000 signatures in a space of a few hours. Here in Malta, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station reported a 15-fold increase in international donations after that single photo went viral. This may not add up to a seismic shift in European or world public opinion; but it does cement the view that it is not just the rabid anti-immigrants of the far right who are deeply concerned about the issue.

And yet, European governments remain steadfastly out of tune with the shifting trends of popular mood. People look from the harrowing image of that little boy on their PC monitor, to the people they once entrusted to administer European policy as a whole… then shake their heads in disbelief, as their governments doggedly insist on the same old failed policies, even in the face of unthinkable loss of life. 

And what are these policies, anyway? The French Interior Minister, quoted above, gives us a pretty clear indication. “The Schengen rules must be respected,” he said when turning back 6,000 refugees to Italy (a country which had taken in tens of thousands that same year). And we got the same overall drift from the European Union’s ‘action plan’, too… which naturally prioritised the ‘control of Europe’s borders’, at a time when corpses were washing up all over the Mediterranean.

I suspect this in part accounts for the sheer revulsion that photo so evidently inspired. It illustrates the unbridgeable gulf that now separates European politics from even the most basic requirements of humanity. 

Little children are drowning at sea and washing up dead on our beaches… and the only concern expressed by European governments is to ‘strengthen their borders’? What do ‘borders’ and ‘border policies’ mean to little children, anyway? How are they expected to understand that, by crossing into Europe, they will suddenly be in breach of some obscure paragraph in some obsolete EU treaty that most Europeans don’t even know exist?  

This, more than any financial crisis, is what I think will ultimately unravel the European Union in the end. There is a growing, gaping dissonance between what this obscure political entity actually stands for, and what actually concerns its 500 million citizens… the vast majority of whom is infinitely more humane than the tiny fraction whose antisocial views tend to dominate the media.

A point will come – and to some of us it came a while ago – when people will question the need for a colossal, supra-national bureaucratic institution such as the European Union… when this institution always proves perfectly useless when it comes to addressing serious issues. And besides, if each country is ultimately alone when dealing with its own ‘salade’… what’s the point in remaining members of a ‘Union’? We would all be in exactly the same boat (ahem) if the EU suddenly ceased to exist. If anything, the ability of individual countries to do something useful might actually increase: they would no longer be shackled by systemically flawed treaties, and constrained by EU regulations which fail to actually ‘regulate’ when the need arises.

So ironically, the scaremongering of the anti-immigration lobby may well come to fruition in the end, even if for very different reasons. It is true that Europe’s future existence is ‘threatened’ by the refugee crisis. But this ‘threat’ does not come from any refugees. 

It comes from Europe itself; in particular, from its inability to ever converge on a single purpose… even when that purpose involves fulfilling the single most fundamental requirement of any civilised society.