Josef Haslinger · Germany

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The Europe I dream of

The era of confrontation and division of Europe has ended. We declare that henceforth our relations will be founded on respect and co-operation. Europe is liberating itself from the legacy of the past. The courage of men and women, the strength of the will of the peoples and the power of the ideas of the Helsinki Final Act have opened a new era of democracy, peace and unity in Europe.

These sentiments, which have such an anthemic ring that they might be a political paraphrase of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”, really were a chorus of jubilation. They go back exactly 25 years, and are enshrined in the Paris Charter of November 1990. This document was signed by the heads of state or government of 35 nations, among them all the countries of Europe including ex-Yugoslavia, as well as the former Union of Socialist Soviet Republics, the United States of America and Canada. It not only declares that the Cold War is over but also contains a comprehensive commitment to human rights, democracy, the rule of law and peaceful co-operation. This invocation of a new age of democracy, peace and unity mirrors the short-lived euphoria after the fall of the Iron Curtain. We were so impatient back then, so tired of the time-worn narratives of the Twentieth Century, that we imagined we were entering a new century ten years too early. Half a year later, following the declarations of independence of Croatia and Slovenia, the Balkan wars began. We succeeded in chucking away the new century before it had even begun. And from then on there was one war after another. Sometimes more quickly, sometimes more slowly, sometimes more openly, sometimes more blushingly, we threw our gains away. And meanwhile a new Iron Curtain was gradually going up along Europe’s outer borders – one that was now welcomed by the very European countries that had just escaped from its predecessor. They did so because its purpose was not to shut people in but to keep others out.

Since then Europe’s asylum policy has been hallmarked by constant wrangling in which member states have sought to palm refugees off on one another. To breathe some order into this madness, an agreement was signed in Dublin. This allowed member states to disclaim responsibility and shunt refugees around Europe like so much human cargo. For most of the refugees the journey ended where they crossed the European border, in countries that were totally overwhelmed, and where asylum seekers were locked up even if they were minors. European asylum policy was a policy of exclusion, of a lack of solidarity and – after the Dublin Convention – of an unjust division of the effort and expense involved in taking in refugees that was henceforth set in stone. Once the people finally washed up in countries that were unable to get rid of them because of the agreements in place, the bickering began at domestic level, between regional and local authorities. For decades now, we have been treated to the spectacle of this shameful political game in which the winner is the player who shows the most disregard for international treaties and human rights obligations. The warnings of the UNHCR that food rations in the refugee camps would have to be cut, and food assistance withdrawn altogether from tens of thousands, went unheard – until the refugees set off on their journey.

What is currently pushing European leaders into nervous discussions is not the plight of the refugees but their own plight in the shape of their inability to cope with the crisis. The refugees’ privations have led mainly to defensive measures that have been so protracted and so systematic that there is no longer any legal means for these people to reach Europe. We have offered no alternative to the Mediterranean boat people, thousands of whom have drowned, other than to abandon all hope of a better life.

Anyone unwilling to entrust themselves to human traffickers and travel illegally has had no chance of making it to Europe. Take the Syrian journalist Thaer Al-Nashef who now lives in a Salzburg refugee camp. He fled to Egypt eight years ago to escape his impending arrest by the Assad regime. For seven years he strove in vain to enter Europe legally, until he understood that, “evidently you only get asylum in the EU if you have crossed the sea and come close to drowning.”

Let’s be honest, it was a cheap trick. On the one hand, the EU upheld the much vaunted “European values”, the Convention on Human Rights and the Geneva Refugee Convention, to which all member states continued to subscribe; on the other, every effort was made to prevent those for whose protection the conventions had been signed from ever falling within their ambit. If the politicians had had their way there would actually have been a “European fortress”, from which member states could occasionally emerge to enjoy the smug satisfaction of a humanitarian halo by letting in so-called “quota refugees”. Wherever possible, these would be people who would “fit in”, as has constantly been demanded. In other words, they would be Christians – despite the fact that practising Christians have long been a minority in Europe.

But the trick did not work because the refugees were not deterred by closed outer EU borders, barbed wire fences, and well equipped land and seaborne border forces. True, they were no longer able to manage the trip without help. The policy of complete lockdown and the interdiction of all legal escape routes to Europe created a burgeoning escape facilitation business, worth billions of euro every year. It was only logical that combating this industry soon became the prime objective of European asylum policy.

This, in turn, prompted the people smugglers to hike their prices, and the exploitation of refugees’ distress became ever more brazen. It was the longstanding efforts of interior ministers to bolt the door on refugees that spawned the – without doubt unscrupulous – human trafficking trade in the first place and caused it to flourish.

Even a year after the boat disaster off Lampedusa, when over 300 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean, there was no sign of any change in European asylum policy. There was still no legal means for refugees to reach Europe, and on the EU’s outer borders they continued to be treated like enemies who must be repulsed. This went on until last spring, when there were a number of shipwrecks within a short space of time, and a new outcry in the media. In the Press and on posters there were collages depicting people with outstretched hands drowning in the sea.

That brought the European ministers of the interior back into the picture. They conferred about new measures, and came up with the bizarre idea of sending armed frigates to the coast of Africa to destroy any boats that could be used to ferry refugees. This plan was a non-starter for many reasons. At this time, at the instigation of the German PEN Centre, 1,200 European writers signed a petition appealing to their governments and the European institutions to create lawful escape routes for people in desperate straits. People who are in immediate danger should be able to establish direct contact with the embassies of European nations in their country of origin, so that they can apply for humanitarian visas, the petition says. As the European writers’ appeal put it, Europe should see itself as a common protective area, driven not by national interests but by a spirit of solidarity and a sense of responsibility.

The petition proposes the creation of a European refugee fund, paid for by member states according to their means, so as to ensure that the treatment of refugees is not exposed to the vagaries of short-term shifts in public opinion, and instead permit the application of mandatory European asylum laws.

These demands went unheeded by European heads of state and government, but found a hearing in Brussels. Those who are today clamouring for a common EU asylum policy, as though its absence were a failure on the part of Brussels, should remember that they themselves blocked such a policy on the European Council. Now the refugees have overwhelmed the old system. On all sides we hear the metaphor of a torrent that is swamping Europe. And the response calls to mind attempts to divert a flood away from one’s own territory. Floodgates are opened and closed regardless of whether a neighbouring country will be inundated as a result. Our South-East European neighbours have become people trafficking states that are arguing about who is passing the buck to whom. The Austrian electorate are just as unenthusiastic as their Hungarian, Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian and Greek counterparts about this “flooding“, and the politicians of all these countries periodically go in front of the microphones and try to sooth voters’ nerves. “Don’t worry,” they say, “Hardly any of them are applying for asylum. Fortunately they all want to go to Germany.”

Others say Germany itself is to blame. Merkel should not have announced that Germany would offer sanctuary for war refugees from Syria. But it was not just Angela Merkel who said that, it was all the heads of state and government who signed the Geneva Refugee Convention in 1951 and the Protocol in 1967. The German chancellor only let her remark slip when she saw that other countries were walking away from the Dublin Convention. The alternative would have been to announce that Germany was going to seal off its borders and organise mass transports back to the refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. That would have been completely unthinkable for Germany. Angela Merkel took the only correct course of action: she reminded her own country – and hence its neighbours, as well – of its duty.

The failings of the past, which included thinking that we could shirk our contribution to the aid efforts in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, have created a new reality on the ground. This cannot be wished away by racist demonstrations and maverick voting behaviour. Europe will not go under if it accepts two million refugees, but it will have perished if it throws its shared humanitarian principles over board. Europe must step up to the challenge of becoming a functioning immigrant society in which migrants are not endlessly cooped up in camps but are given a chance to stand on their own feet and make something of their lives as soon as possible.

In the present situation the most helpful step would be the introduction of properly conducted asylum procedures that meet common European standards. In the long run, it will certainly be an illusion to think that the migrant flows can be stemmed by drawing strict distinctions between: people who are persecuted for political, religious or ethnic reasons, and who are alone entitled to an open-ended right to asylum; war and civil war refugees who only enjoy “subsidiary” protection and can be sent home when the conflict they have fled is over; and lastly, economic migrants, who are seen as little better than common criminals. It is as though it were a crime for someone to set out on a quest for the means of survival.

The climate change caused by industrial countries’ CO2 emissions has so far mainly led to internal migration in the countries where the worst poverty is concentrated, but the more severe the problem becomes, the more this will change. Do we want to let the economic migrants starve on the way to Europe?

The expression “economic migrant” ceases to be a relevant legal term where countries are unable to assure their own citizens’ subsistence. We could hold serious negotiations on a more just distribution of the world’s riches. That would be a possible means of preventing migration. However it is more likely that we will go on ignoring the problems of the so-called “economic migrants” for as long we can – just as we simply wanted to lock out the millions of refugees under way from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria until they suddenly turned up on our doorstep. The old notions of nation states and homogeneous cultures still haunt people’s minds, but even before last summer these were mere phantoms of the past and were divorced from reality.

At present there is a lot of talk of the fears that the migrants arouse among the host populations. Unquestionably, there are fears that are deliberately stoked for ideological reasons, but the main anxieties are rooted in real life: people are afraid of growing criminality and of dropping down the social ladder. In principle, there are effective remedies for both worries. The answer is not to send a therapist round. As regards the former fear, it is to ensure that immigrants gain entry to our society as quickly as possible and are not sidelined in ghettos. The way to deal with the latter concern is for governments to throw off the fetters of international finance and start paying attention to the needs of the disadvantaged again. The call for this is being heard loudly and clearly in a number of European countries.

Now is the time to consider a common European policy that regards immigration not as a nightmare but as a development opportunity for our borderless association of states. Now is the time for Europe to learn to take its place in the world. And that includes going beyond providing the USA or Russia with military back-up assistance, and embarking on a systematic peace policy of our own that has more to offer the people of the Middle East than weapons, bombs and refugee camps.

Francois Hollande was right to speak of a war after the Paris terror attacks. That war has been going on for the past 15 years. People in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon have no illusions about that, and in Syria they will soon have been aware of it for five years. We are only prepared to acknowledge this reality when it occasionally spills over on to the continent of Europe. The conflict has a military arm which has not paused since the Christian West took it upon itself to export freedom and human rights by force of arms, of all things. And it has a civilian component which makes itself a part of the war economy when it places itself in the service of the efforts to ward off refugees and of surveillance of the home population. This is just what the holy warriors of Islamic fundamentalism want: to drive a wedge between the populations of Christian and of Muslim descent. When people take to the streets in German cities week after week to protest against the alleged “islamicisation of the West” and shout “We are the people”, and when Czech, Hungarian and Polish government ministers, and Austrian, Dutch and French opposition figures see no room for Muslim immigrants, they are willing accomplices of the islamist hate preachers. They become the living proof that the West is conducting a war of cultures, and that when it talks of liberty it means only its own freedom and not that of others.

The Europe I dream of would return to the point reached in 1990, when a fresh start was made and for a few months peaceful co-operation between the major powers appeared possible. The Europe I dream of would show it deserved the Nobel Prize it won three years ago for its contribution to peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights by turning its face towards the world instead of curling up and showing its spikes.


Translation from German: Roy Fox