Europe is caught between those who want to get in, those who want to get out and those who want to destroy it. The incomers are desperate, the outbound are angry, and the destroyers are brandishing flags.
This triple onslaught has, for the first time, left the 28-member European Union more vulnerable to fracture than it is susceptible to further integration.
A near-borderless Europe at peace constitutes the great achievement of the second half of the 20th century. That you can go from Germany to Poland across a frontier near effaced and scarcely imagine the millions slaughtered seven decades ago is testament to the accomplishment. The European Union is the dullest miracle on earth.
This Europe is not at immediate risk of disintegration. But it is fraying. Let’s start with those who want to get in. They have nothing to lose because they have lost everything. In many cases they are from Afghanistan (at war since anyone can remember), from Syria (4 million refugees and counting), Somalia, Iraq, Eritrea, the Maghreb or elsewhere in Africa.
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At the end of odysseys involving leaking boats and looting traffickers, these migrants are forcing their way into the Channel Tunnel. They have blocked traffic and commerce. They have provoked a flare-up of that perennial condition called Anglo-French friction. They have drawn the ire of the Daily Mail (a trumpet for a lot of what’s worst in Britain). The paper thinks it may be time to deploy the army.
But bringing in the military, or building walls, will resolve nothing. The 3,000 or so desperate people in Calais, France, are part of a far bigger phenomenon. More than 100,000 refugees or migrants have entered Europe across the Mediterranean so far this year. A not insignificant number have drowned. War, oppression, persecution and economic hardship — combined with the magnetic accessibility even in the world’s poorest recesses of images of prosperity and security — have created a vast migratory wave. From Milan’s central train station to the streets of Calais, its impact is apparent. Give me some of that, the disinherited proclaim.
Europe has mostly shrugged. Piecemeal small-mindedness, in 28 national iterations, has been the name of the game. There has been no unity or purpose. After much hand-wringing and wrangling, and pressure from hard-pressed Italy, European leaders did agree to share the “burden” of some 40,000 refugees, a paltry number. More than 3.5 million refugees are in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, countries far less prosperous than European nations. A continent’s shame is written in the migrants’ misery.
European countries have a history of turning back desperate refugees - and regretting it subsequently. The European Union came into being to stop the recurrent wars that left millions homeless, with no possibility of return. It may seem quaint to recall the European Union’s ideals; it is also necessary to its survival. Where is the statesman’s voice that rises above the pusillanimous chorus of petty calculation and self-regard?
Sure, there are excuses. Unemployment is high, growth low or nonexistent. Freeloading on European welfare by those who have not paid for it stirs anger. But these are not reasons for closing doors. The migrant numbers, while large, are absorbable by a community of more than half a billion people. What is needed is a coordinated policy that offers a legal route for migrants — and the political determination to reimagine a can-do Europe. The current European failure is one of imagination and will. The euro crisis cannot be an alibi for inaction, both internally and in countries like Libya where European responsibility is clearly engaged. The European idea must recover its luster.
Britain, feeling threatened by what Prime Minister David Cameron called a “swarm” of migrants, is also the country threatening to leave the European Union. Europe, in Britain, has become synonymous with bureaucratic meddling and eurozone disarray. Anger is cultivated daily by the same jingoistic press that wants to refight Agincourt with the French — and clear the Calais camp by force.
A vote to leave, or so-called Brexit, in a promised referendum is possible. It would be bad for Britain and Europe. But the lack of coordinated purpose in Europe plays to the proponents of leaving. What role, the exit camp asks, would Britain have in a Europe led by a Germany that does not want to lead and split into an inner eurozone core, where the real action happens, and outliers who do not share the common currency? Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is not big on the vision thing. But Europe needs a risk-taking speech from her.
The would-be destroyer has clear objectives: a weakened Europe beset by rising leftist and rightist anti-immigrant parties, splintering at its Greek periphery, irresolute about its eastern neighbors, morally debased, navel-gazing as Moscow and Beijing plot the future of Eurasia.
His name is Vladimir Putin. He has ideas. Europe, for now, has none. That is dangerous.
© 2015 New York Times News Service