JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 4.9.15.
LATE AT NIGHT, a couple of days before the publication of the picture of little drowned three-year-old Aylan Kurdi that has become the defining image of the current refugee crisis: and on the radio, two men are debating the European Union’s response to the hundreds of housands now crowding towards its southern and eastern borders.
One of the two sounds like a standard Eurocrat, talking the talk about how the free movement of people among EU countries is an essential principle of the Union. The other, though, is a UKIP man; and his voice is full of a terrible gloating energy, as he highlights what he sees as a colossal failure of the EU he despises. He supports his leader Nigel Farage’s view that the 30-year-old Schengen Agreement, allowing free movement among most continental European countries, has now “hit the buffers of reality”, and is falling apart. And chillingly, he sneers at the idea of “the people of Europe all living together in peace and freedom” as a ridiculous bureaucratic dream; clearly, he prefers the idea of a Europe restored to the “reality” of 80 years ago, criss-crossed by borders, riven by potentially lethal conflicts, and full of restrictions on the free movement of individuals.
Now it is difficult to know where to start in pointing out the various inconsistencies in this UKIP argument; apart from anything else, since Britain is not part of the Schengen Agreement, this opportunistic assault on Schengen as one of the pillars of the EU is of limited relevance to the UK’s long-standing immigration debate.
UKIP is right about one thing, though; and that is that the present refugee crisis presents the European Union with a defining challenge, and one that will determine whether it has any future worth fighting for. In confronting this crisis, Europe’s leaders face two tasks, the first relatively simple, the other monumentally difficult. The first is to devise a way of registering and processing the current influx of refugees, and of fairly sharing the task of receiving and caring for them across the EU’s 28 member states. The second is to start work on a huge stabilisation programme for the region from which they come – a scheme on the scale of the postwar Marshall Plan, which would aim, at whatever cost, to make amends for some of the egregious errors of recent western policy in the Middle East.
And what history requires of the European Union now – with no ifs or buts – is that it should be seen to make an honest start on the second of those goals, and that it should succeed comprehensively in achieving the first. If the wealthy EU, with its 500 million relatively prosperous citizens, fails now to find a way of welcoming these refugees – if it cannot reach agreement on the practical details, if too many countries fail to accept their share, or if the Union bows to the politics of petty xenophobic begrudgery that now has such a strong foothold in all member states – then it will essentially have reached the end of its story, as a force for peace and freedom in Europe and the wider world; its moral authority will be gone, and its politics will dwindle, for as long as they continue, into nothing more than a bitter and bickering endgame.
It must be a matter of some disappointment to UKIP, though, that that unhappy ending is not yet a foregone conclusion. It’s true that the European Union has powerful enemies within its power-structures, as well as outside them – notably those authoritarian and anti-democratic high priests of a failed economic orthodoxy who made such a global spectacle of themselves, earlier this year, with their determination to bully into submission the elected Greek government.
Yet the paradox of the current refugee crisis is that it has galvanised some serious signs of hope within the EU, as well as highlighting some weaknesses. In the first place, this crisis has highlighted the exceptional role played by some EU member states – including the Union’s biggest member and economic powerhouse, Germany – in absorbing refugees from global conflict zones in recent years; their record puts any recent influx into Britain into humbling perspective, and makes the self-obsessed immigration hysteria of the UK media look childish, ill-informed, and increasingly out of time.
Then secondly, the crisis has finally switched the spotlight away from the anti-immigration voices of the European right, and onto those very different armies of citizens who have been turning out, across the Union, to welcome refugees, to give them practical support, and even to offer them accommodation in their homes. It’s self-evident that people joining these efforts in Britain have more in common with their fellow-citizens doing the same thing in Italy, Germany or Sweden than they have with their own government.
And in that sense, this display of progressive people-power, across the EU, might come as a timely reminder that when the people of Europe find common ground and speak with a clear voice, they can change the direction of the Union that, for all its flaws, has delivered two generations of unprecedented peace and prosperity across western Europe. A few weeks ago in Bosnia, I found myself on Sarajevo television, being asked – on the 20th anniversary of the terrible Srebrenica massacre – whether Bosnia should accept Angela Merkel’s offer of a fast track to EU membership. And just for a moment, there at the scene of one disastrous failure of EU diplomacy, I struggled with the fierce internal argument that many people in Britain will be having over the next year or two, as we face our own referendum on EU membership.
In the end, though, I heard myself saying yes – yes, come on and join us. But remember that as with every other political structure, it’s always up to the people of the EU to come together and keep fighting for reform: for a union that, in future, will bail out its people rather than its bankers; and that rescues and helps those in need, who are drawn to our shores not because the European Union is the failure UKIP would like to imagine, but because, in its unspectacular and often ill-tempered way, it has been such an outstanding success.