Can Europe Remain Liberal and Democratic vis-à-vis the Migration Crisis?

Watching the other day the interview that Marine Le Pen was giving for France24, I noticed a considerable change of tone as well as the substance of questions put by the two French TV journalists to the leader of the Rassemblement National (until 1 June of this year the Front National). In comparison with the presidential campaign of April-May of 2017, when questions put to her where harsh, sometimes even hostile, this time the atmosphere was somewhat friendly, polite, even cosy. Most of the talk concerned two interrelated topics – Europe and migration, the issues on which Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, still Presidential candidates, a year earlier had expressed radically differing views. 

Then the political, business and media elites were relatively easily able to persuade majority of the French electorate to go for Macron. It must be admitted, of course, that Macron, as a former banker and Minister of Economics of the country, was also much more at home on the nitty-gritty matters of economics and finance. However, if a year earlier, notwithstanding that Brexit process had already started and Donald Trump was already in the White House, Marine Le Pen’s views on Europe and migration were considered by many in France as rather extreme, as something about what decent people, even if they think, don’t talk, this time the interviewers only nodded when the leader of the main French ‘populist’ party expressed her understanding on these most sensitive, and not only for the French, matters. What has changed since?

Although economic and social issues (unemployment, inequality, social protection) remain high in the list of concerns of most Europeans, worries about migration are increasing. Last Thursday (21 June) 87% of the readers of Le Figaro, being polled by the newspaper, believed that the European Union would be unable to resolve the current migration crisis while only 13% expressed their confidence in Brussels in anticipation of the EU Summit of 28-19 June, where these issues would be in agenda. 

Just a few days before The Aquarius, a boat chartered by the two European NGOs – SOS Méditerranée and Médecins sans Frontièrs, had brought 630 migrants from African countries to Valencia in Spain. The new coalition Government in Italy as well as Malta had refused the entry of the ship in their ports. However, at the same time Italy accepted a lesser number of migrants, who had been saved on the high seas by two Italian vessels (a coast-guards boat and a naval warship), also off the shores of Libya from where the migrants had embarked on their hazardous journey towards the promised land of Europe. All of them had payed a minimum of 3000 euros to human traffickers who are in business of smuggling mostly young men from Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea and other African countries to the Libyan coast, where they are taken by boats, that are not even looking seaworthy, to twelve nautical miles off the coast (e.g., beyond Libyan territorial waters) and left there adrift. The smugglers then send a SOS signal with the geographical coordinates of the boat. In most cases, though not always, the migrants who are risking their lives, are rescued either by Italian or other European naval or coast-guard vessels or by boats chartered by human rights NGOs. In a way, the latter serve as involuntary accomplices of human traffickers – the modern Barbary pirates, whose immoral business is already closing gaps in profit terms with the arms trade and drug trafficking.

Such a business has devastating consequences not only for African countries but also for Europe, to say nothing of the fate of those thousands who drown in treacherous water of the Mediterranean Sea. As these are mostly young and entrepreneurial people, who are leaving their countries to seek better life in Europe (these are not refugees from conflicts zones, like Syria or Yemen), African societies lose people with great potential, who could use their 3000 euros (a big money in Africa) in orders to start new businesses, cultivate land, raise livestock or teach children. Instead of unwillingly encouraging economic migrants to seek better life in Europe, the European Union could and should help African countries create jobs at home. This is what political leaders from those African countries also want.

Although many Western European states have encouraged during economic booms migration to compensate the shortage of their work-force (e.g., the Turkish migration in Germany since the 1960s) and many migrants have excelled in their host-countries in various domains, the difficulties with their integration have existed in all of them. Ghettoes have emerged in some big European cities that are populated practically exclusively by migrants from Muslim countries live (e.g., Molenbeek in Brussels with migrants mostly from Morocco). The main problem that such ghettoization of European cities has created is not that sometimes terrorists find refuge in them, or that some uneducated and unemployed young men (and women too) become radicalised by jihadists ideology. Most migrants, including Muslims, are not extremists and even fewer of them become terrorists, though with the defeat of the so-called Islamic State (Daesh) in Iraq and Syria (thanks, mostly to the Russian efforts in that country) many battle-hardened jihadists are returning to Western European countries, to Russia, to China and other places. However, the most serious problem is that this new torrent of uncontrolled migration, which is prompted by, and is one of the aspects of, the process of globalisation contributes to the most serious identity crises in Europe. These new migrants come in addition to the previous migration flows that most European countries have failed to integrate. Such a failure has been partly due to the apprehension of European political elites of not being accused of politics of assimilation, though by now it has become clear that without some assimilation there is no integration.

This migration crisis coincides with, and is aggravating, the inherent, though until recently latent, contradiction between liberalism and democracy. Liberalism and democracy are always in dialectical contradiction that must be carefully and wisely handled, lest it blow up in your face. This is what is happening today in some Western countries. While liberal ideas are prevalent among European elites, values of democracy are today often expressed by populist parties and movements. British author David Goodhart, in his recent book The Road to Somewhere [1], distinguishes between those Europeans whom he calls Anywheres and those who according to him are Somewheres. If the members of the first category (no more than 20-25% of the population in the West and much less in the Rest) belong to the elite that has profited from globalisation and feels at home in different places in the world, the majority (more than 50% in the West) feels a need to maintain solid links to their country, to its history, traditions and language. To the latter category belong, naturally, not only those who believe that globalisation has by-passed them. Many highly intelligent, successful and multi-lingual persons treasure their ethnic, religious or cultural origins, are patriots of their countries who cherish their roots. Although Benedict Anderson was not completely wrong when he defined nations as ‘imagined communities’ [2] since historical myths and purposeful efforts of political leaders to make a nation out of diverse communities have always played a role in nation-building. However, there is also something much more tangible, even primordial, without which nations would not and could not emerge. Shared history, cultural and religious traditions, common language, even territorial closeness - are all factors that have played a role in the formation of nations. Today, more than decades ago, more and more Europeans, being afraid of becoming strangers at home, in their own country, are in search of their historic roots.

Globalisation and the current migration tide, as one of its manifestations, are exacerbating today’s crisis of the European Union where those who can be anywhere do not understand those who want to be somewhere. Those who can be anywhere, being dominant in politics, economy and media, are behaving like liberal autocrats vis-à-vis those whom they consider belonging to the mob. Recently, French philosopher Bernard-Henry Lévy, in his London one-man show ‘Last Exit Before Brexit’, accused the populists of confusing democracy with demagogy and people with mob (plèbe), while Hillary Clinton had earlier defined Trump’s supporters as losers and ill-informed. Such myopic arrogance carries a heavy political price-tag. Without resolving this contradiction between the aspiration of European peoples to be somewhere (to feel at home in France, in Germany, in Italy, in Estonia, in Hungary) and the ambition of transnational elites to be anywhere, Europe will not come out unscathed from the current crisis. The June 28-29 meeting of the European Council, where migration is high in agenda, will test the ability of European leaders to face one of the biggest contemporary challenges to the Old Continent.

[1] D. Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics, Penguin, 2017.

[2] B. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, 1983.          


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