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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 23-06-2018 13:18

The clock is ticking for the European Union

The euro was a tragic mistake; a generation of Greeks, Italians and Spaniards has been sacrificed on the altar of the single currency.

Human societies are complex mechanisms which are held together by laws, personal ties and shared customs. As many would-be social engineers have discovered, changing them is anything but easy. That is why most attempts to refashion societies in accordance with some abstract ideal have failed miserably. The way things are going, one of the most ambitious enterprises of this kind, the much admired “European project,” could soon be carted off to what Leon Trotsky famously called “the garbage heap of history.”

The European Union is in deep trouble because the ideologues who call the shots in Brussels insisted on going too far too fast. Had they contented themselves with nudging their project forward little by little, making sure that the public always understood and supported what they were up to, they would probably have succeeded. There are many things about the EU that even the most fervent Brexiteers and their continental counterparts think are worth retaining. Instead, the “eurocrats” let impatience get the better of them and pressed ahead regardless, taking no notice of the results of referendums in France and Holland when the majority rejected their plans for a European constitution.

The euro was a tragic mistake; a generation of Greeks, Italians and Spaniards has been sacrificed on the altar of the single currency. Equally disastrous was the decision to commit the EU to the utopian notion that, having removed most internal borders between member countries, much the same should be done with the external one. After all, the progressive minded said, if Europeans had managed to get over the ethnic, linguistic and religious prejudices that for centuries had set them at one another’s throats, there was no reason they should not be able to live amicably alongside people from other parts of the world. Though laws saying who could come in unimpeded and who should be kept out remained on the books, few governments bothered to apply them rigorously.

The consequences of such allegedly benign neglect soon began to make themselves felt, As anyone with a smattering of knowledge of the history not just of Europe but also of the wider world could have warned, those who took it for granted that in the end everything was bound to work out well, the number of people who are willing to resign themselves to the demographic transformation of the community they grew up in soon began to shrink. The “welcoming culture” hailed by Germans delighted to be given a chance to show they were every bit as humanitarian as their neighbours now looks woefully outdated.

When it became evident that only a minority of newcomers from Africa, the Middle East and further afield wanted to adopt the folkways of the natives, even Europeans who until then had taken pride in their broadmindedness started to demand that something be done to stem the flow. Unfortunately for everyone, including the immigrants and their offspring, nothing much was. Government officials preferred to let things take their course; they were nervously aware that their adversaries would be only too happy to make the most of minor incidents involving migrants to discredit them. As a result, from the north of Sweden to Malta, political movements denigrated as “extreme right-wing” are rapidly growing in strength and spreading panic among defenders of the established order.

The new Italian government, whose dominant figure is Matteo Salvini, has been the target of a great deal of abuse from those who, often without admitting it in public, are in favour of an openborders policy that, if maintained, would allow tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of African and Middle Easterners to enter southern Europe and, from there, make their way to the richer pastures of the north. Far from harming Salvini at home, his refusal to let a ship carrying over 600 people rescued off the coast of Libya dock in an Italian port has made him even more popular.

Salvini is not the only European politician who has seen his prospects brighten thanks to his willingness to take a hard line against what many see as an invasion. Much the same is happening in Austria, Hungary, Poland and other countries whose elected leaders have made it plain they have no desire to play host to large contingents of Muslims, no matter how deserving they may be or how desperate their plight. Meanwhile, in Germany, Angela Merkel, who let in well over a million migrants and encouraged many others to try their luck, is currently facing a choice between doing a U-turn and losing the support of a key ally, the Bavarian Christian Social Union.

Those who think mass immigration is good employ a variety of arguments. As well as attributing the growing hostility toward it to xenophobia, islamophobia, nativism, protofascism and other nasty things, they say Europe desperately needs an infusion of new blood because its inhabitants have lost interest in reproducing themselves and, what is more, the new arrivals will help make the work force far more competitive.

Not surprisingly, their efforts to occupy the moral high ground have met with resentment. As for the suggestion that the newcomers will help the economy, they are based on nothing more than wishful thinking. Most illegal migrants are illiterate in their own languages and will find it difficult to hold jobs, if they finally get any, in a high-tech society. There are exceptions, but apparently they are few and far between; last year, a German government minister said three quarters of the recent arrivals are likely to remain unemployed for the next five or 10 years.

That leaves their potential as breeders, but this too is proving controversial because it means that that the migrant “ghettos” that have sprung up in most European cities and are prone to become no-go areas where policemen, firemen and medical personnel are unwelcome will continue to expand.

For many Europeans, this is a frightening development. While in many places their fears may be exaggerated, blaming them on xenophobia, racialism or ignorance, as the enlightened would have it, does nothing to make them go away. On the contrary, it encourages the sense of foreboding that has spread throughout Europe and increases the risk that what was once regarded as a highly promising experiment in social engineering comes to a very bad end.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).


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