Who could have imagined that Syrian children would be washed up drowned on an Aegean beach, or that whole families in transit from the Middle East and Africa would be struggling with police forces at railway stations in Macedonia, Serbia, or Hungary? Good people everywhere feel pity. It’s human in a crisis to take the position that something must be done and the authorities are there to do that something, whatever it might be. Unfortunately the authorities are responsible for the crisis, don’t like to say so, and haven’t any idea what to do next.
The so-called Schengen Treaty allows free passage across the frontiers of the signatories, that is to say countries in the European Union. Former police and customs buildings and checkpoints have been dismantled and closed in the name of freedom of movement. This takes no notice of the reasons that might impel non-Europeans to cross from one country to another — it is a utopian wish-fulfilment for a state of affairs that does not, and could not, exist.
Johannes Hahn, the EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiation (there’s glory for you) says that 20 million refugees are waiting on the doorstep of Europe. Among them, there are of course Syrian, Afghan, Eritrean, Iraqi and other genuine refugees in flight from civil war and tyranny. But there are also human traffickers extracting quite large fees from those who can pay to emigrate to the Europe of Schengen, which is seen — misperceived? — as El Dorado. Those coming from Albania or Kosovo are not escaping from anything. Those who have destroyed identity documents evidently are fabricating some story.
The huge majority of those 20 million refugees are Muslim, and would at least double the number of Muslims already in Europe. At this point, what George Orwell calls “doublethink” takes over. Germany offers immigrants such favorable prospects that it looks set to have an even higher percentage of Muslims than France. Aiming to defuse angry criticism on the rise, Chancellor Angela Merkel is trying to impose refugee quotas on other countries — wish-fulfilment again. What she likes to present as the shared solution appropriate for the EU, to many others seems to be merely off-loading the issue for fear of a revival of pre-war German nationalist identity. Nazi and then Soviet occupation in living memory gave Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia a strong sense of nationality, and these EU member states are not about to weaken it by introducing a Muslim population. Islamic terrorism has driven the Spanish government to reject the idea of quotas.
Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, is alone to say loud and clear: “What is at stake is Europe, the lifestyle of European citizens, European values, the survival or disappearance of European nations.”
The desired common identity of the EU, in short, sets up rivalry between independent nations, exactly the outcome it was designed to prevent. The lesson has to be relearned all the time: Reality in the end always overcomes sentimentality.