Will the Migration Crisis Destroy European Democracy?

The chauvinist demons of European history only ever seemed to sleep. Keeping them chained while limiting migration and integrating Muslim populations will be the greatest challenge Europe will face in the decades to come.

In a detailed legal argument widely cited by the German media, Udo di Fabio, a former judge of Germany’s Constitutional Court, warned this month that in opening Germany to the enormous new wave of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government have “created a historic breach of law”, involving a direct conflict between present government policy and the constitutional obligation to defend the country’s borders, territorial integrity and democracy.

Only a few months ago, such a statement would have come only from the right wing of German politics. Today, it increasingly represents the views of the German – and European - mainstream. It is difficult to exaggerate the effect on European opinion of the combination of the vast increase in migrant numbers, the Islamic State terrorist attacks in Paris, and the mass criminality in Cologne and elsewhere. Commentators have begun to warn about the possible collapse of key features of the European Union (especially of course the guarantee of free movement), or even of the EU itself; but the danger goes far beyond that. Over the next decades, it is European democracy itself which will be in peril.

The present nationalist reactions in Europe do not stem chiefly from the immediate refugee crisis. As the steady growth in the extreme right wing vote across Western Europe over the past decade and more demonstrates, this reaction was already growing strongly. It came from a combination of concern over the effects of immigration on the welfare state, housing and wages, a growing perception that the integration or assimilation of Muslim immigrants had to a great extent failed, the threat of Islamist terrorism that appeared after 9/11, and a growing belief in sections of the indigenous populations that the political, administrative and cultural elites were simply ignoring these issues and the concerns of the electorates.

Looking back to the period between the 1950s and the present, future historians may well shake their heads in bewilderment at how anyone could think that mass non-European migration to Europe was likely to turn out well. The oft-cited example of the successful record of the USA is irrelevant. The Unites States is historically a country of immigration, which during its formative period was able to accommodate new immigrants on land conquered from the Native Americans and Mexicans. It has an exceptionally strong and historic state identity based on ideology not ethnicity.

Most important of all, the great mass of American legal and illegal immigrants today are Latinos. This is causing severe reactions from many conservative Americans, but then again the migrants are Christians, with a long history of successful integration. To create a parallel with Europe, one would have to imagine Central America as a Muslim region – in which case (to judge by the chauvinist Islamophobe hysteria displayed by the leading Republican candidates for the presidency), the United States would be in a state of psychological and political meltdown and US democracy would be at an end.

Attempts to draw encouraging parallels with past waves of migration within Europe are also largely irrelevant or, in one instance, deeply worrying. EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has referred to the religious refugees of the 17th century, but this is absurd. These were French Protestants fleeing to Protestant Prussia, Holland and Britain to escape persecution by the French Catholic state, and Irish Catholics fleeing to Catholic France, Spain and Austria to escape persecution by the Protestant British state. Not merely was there no problem with cultural integration, but they were naturally absolutely loyal to the states that gave them refuge.

A more revealing parallel with the present wave of migration is that of the huge wave of migration in Europe in the second half of the 19th Century, which brought millions of Irish to England and Scotland, Poles to western Germany, and Poles and Italians to France. Over time, these populations became completely integrated, though the difficulties involved were very real. After all, the Irish were moving to England at a time when Irish nationalists were fighting for independence and carrying out terrorist attacks in England. Poles were moving to the mines and factories of the Rhineland at a time when German nationalism was increasingly hostile to Slavs and bitterly hostile to Polish ethnic claims in eastern Germany.

Unfortunately, the differences with the situation today are crushing. The 19th Century migrants were overwhelmingly Catholics from the poorer rural parts of Europe – and the Catholic Church was absolutely determined to integrate them into their new societies, to boost its own power and to strengthen the forces of religion and conservatism in the battle against socialism. Because they were Catholics, once the initial barrier of language and ethnicity had been overcome, there was no problem with friendship and intermarriage with the indigenous populations.

This was equally true on the socialist side, where migrants working in the industrial economy were automatically drawn into membership of trades unions, other working class organisations, and mass political parties (including Catholic ones). Membership of these organisations for many then provided the road not only to integration but to social and educational advancement and eventually to political power.

Today, there is an important problem with cultural differences between the Muslim and “White” populations. As documented by Innes Bowen for Britain (Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam, 2014), even many moderate Muslim clerics deeply opposed to militancy have warned their congregations against forming friendships with non-Muslims. From their point of view, they are obliged to do so: because in contemporary British culture, such friendships will indeed probably lead to visits to the pub, and sexual relationships with non-Muslims.

And just as in the 19th Century, aspiring middle class immigrants would seek respectability through membership of churches, in Muslim societies, strict observance of Islam has also been a key marker of middle class social advancement. Much more important however is the collapse of the industrial economy which not only integrated migrants in the 19th Century, but drew Muslim migrants to Britain, France and Germany in the 1950s. The end of the old economy (coupled with deliberate actions by Mrs Thatcher and her imitators elsewhere) has been to destroy the whole social fabric that integrated former migrants.

In the old industries, workers from different backgrounds worked together in the factories, and struggled together in the trades unions. They literally could not get away from each other. Today, not only across the post-industrial areas of Europe is there often an acute shortage of any jobs, but – with the exception of the state sector – what jobs there are often do not require people of different backgrounds to work together.

A Muslim working in a Muslim-owned shop or for a small family-owned Muslim business has no need ever to work alongside non-Muslims. In all too many areas, Muslim women do not work at all. The existence of TV channels in Arabic, Urdu and so on means that increasingly people of immigrant background do not even watch the same television as the mass of the population. In England – terrifyingly – much of the Pakistani-origin population gets its perceptions of current events from Pakistani TV news.

Furthermore, in all too many parts of post-industrial Europe, unemployment, despair, and the collapse of the old society with its social and cultural disciplines has led to a local white lumpen proletarian culture so vile that no decent and sensible Muslim would want to integrate with it. On the other hand, many young lumpen male elements in the Muslim population are attracted by this decadent culture, but add to it among other things their own particular dash of savage and cynical misogyny – thereby stoking still further the fears of the White middle classes.

For the young and disaffected, just as Irish proletarian kids from the slums of Dublin in the 1970s and 80s would often join the IRA as an honourable alternative to joining drugs gangs, so a young unemployed Muslim may well see dying in Syria as a preferable alternative to dying from an overdose or a rival gang’s knives in a Brussels slum. I always remember the answer given to me by a British Muslim teenager whom I met at a madrasah in Pakistan in 2010. I asked him whether he did not find his life there restricted after living in England. He looked at me with a deep contempt compounded of class, economic, regional and religious resentments, and said in a flat Midlands accent, “You wouldn’t know anything about that of course, but being unemployed in Leicester is no bag of laughs, neither.”

Apart from the obvious need for enhanced counter-terrorism and police measures, is there a social, economic and cultural strategy that will allow Europe to at least manage this gathering crisis, while preserving pluralist democracy? In Russia, Vladimir Putin has emphasised a combination of cultural pluralism with loyalty to the state and respect for the Russian language and culture as the state’s central element. In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn has called for a revival of the trades union movement to enlist immigrants while protecting wages, and a massive programme of new house-building.

Corbyn’s is not a bad programme as far as it goes, but there are two huge problems. The first is that true to his utopian socialist ideas, Corbyn has coupled this with a class for Britain to be open both to refugees and other migrants. This alone is likely to make him unelectable – not least because British taxpayers who are themselves facing acute housing shortages in southern England are hardly likely to want to pay for the housing of unending numbers of new arrivals. The second problem is that, as already stated, the industrial economy which brought about the classical trades union movement no longer exists and seems impossible to recreate.

One thing that will certainly happen fairly soon whether we like it or not is the end of the right of asylum, and much stronger barriers against refugees. The attempt to assess the legitimate claims of asylum seekers and distinguish them from refugees and economic migrants has become a cruel farce. European officialdom cannot possibly generate either the staff or the knowledge to assess individual claims among the numbers now arriving.

And in any case, there is no point. Between Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and so on, there are tens of millions of potential migrants with every legitimate reason to fear that they may become victims of violent persecution. A continued declaration that they have the right in principle to seek asylum in Europe is a political suicide note for the EU and for European democracy.

Reducing the numbers coming in also only deals partially with only one part of the problem. In Britain, the Muslim population has been increasing by more than 50 percent each decade for the past half century, not mainly because of new migration as such but from a mixture of a higher birth rate and generous rules concerning family unification. The same has been true across much of the rest of western Europe.

The other side of the question therefore is how to integrate the already existing Muslim populations while containing the growth both of Islamist extremism and of extreme anti-Muslim ethnic nationalist forces – a problem likely to be made even more difficult by measures to restrict new immigration. The terrifying thing in this regard is that European countries – including Russia – have adopted a very wide range of different strategies in this regard (including for many years deliberately ignoring the problem, if that can be called a strategy); and none of them have worked, beyond a limited stratum of Muslim intellectuals, journalists and politicians who in the process of integration have often lost touch with the mass of their co-religionists. Russia has some very valuable lessons to offer – but Russia too is facing its own chauvinist anti-immigrant backlash, in the form of Alexei Navalny and his supporters. The difference between Russia and France in this regard is that for the moment at least, Navalny will not be permitted to win elections.

If – as now seems not just likely but probable – extreme right-wing movements take power in France and elsewhere and adopt more ferocious measures of police control and deportation, then the alienation of the Muslim minorities will become even greater, with an even greater risk of individual and spontaneous acts of terrorism. There is every possibility therefore of a spiral of retaliations leading to the end of European democracy as we have known it over the past half century. And I must honestly confess that beyond a few limited palliatives, I myself have simply not been able to come up with what I can honestly believe is an effective strategy. If readers have useful ideas of their own, I do hope that they will write in and put them forward.

Earlier, I described the successful integration of late 19th Century migrants. There was one group however of which this was very true in some ways, and catastrophically, horribly false in another. The East European Jews fleeing to Central and Western Europe from poverty and persecution in Russia and elsewhere were tremendously successful economically, culturally, and in their contribution to the socialist movements. But due to a mixture of traditional Christian prejudices and new social, economic and ideological fears and resentments, their arrival also caused the appearance of modern anti-semitism, which – after the First World War and Communism had brutalised populations and vastly increased middle class fears of revolution – led eventually to Nazism.

Muslims of course cannot be accused of contributing to socialist revolution, but as far as the chauvinist Right is concerned, Islamist extremism is a perfectly adequate alternative. And while impoverished Muslim have not created the social resentments caused by Jewish economic success, their numbers and proportions of the population are vastly higher than those of the Jews ever where – ten times or more in the case of France, and growing fast. The chauvinist demons of European history only ever seemed to sleep. Keeping them chained while limiting migration and integrating Muslim populations will be the greatest challenge Europe will face in the decades to come.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.