Firstly, let me apologise for the length of this post. I simply couldn’t have written this more concisely.
I wanted to start this week’s instalment to say that I thought that various official reactions to the crisis in Lampedusa was funny. However, the more I thought about the situation the less I was able to make such a pronouncement. Now, I have a pretty dark sense of humour, and I have a talent for seeing the ridiculous in situations, but something bothered me about these tragedies. I believe the root of these problems to be systemic within the nature of European identities and societies.
It isn’t very outrageous to say that Europe suffers from an identity crisis. Even the term “Europe” isn’t very descriptive and could be referring to anything from the EU28 to all of the countries from Iberia to the Urals. Specifically, I think Europe is conflicted on its place in the world. There are people who think the EU should embrace its hard won relevance in the international arena and those who harbour no such ambitions. We see the EU expanding its role in the international arena, for example with its advanced participation rights in the UN and we see efforts to claw back competences from the EU. Another area in which I think Europe and, by and large, Europeans are confused is migration.
Refugee Migration and Immigration are two very different phenomenon, and I don’t mean to confuse the two. That said, both represent problems in Europe, within and without the EU, because of a root reluctance to adopt foreigners in large numbers into European societies. This isn’t to say that there isn’t immigration or successful asylum claims; Germany and the UK are not far off from the USA in terms of immigrants compared to total population. Sweden (15.9%) has a higher foreign born population than the USA (14.3%), as does Croatia (17.6%), which makes nice segue to Canada (20.7%) and Australia (27.7%). Naturally, one also has to ask how much of Europe’s immigration come from intra-European migration, but that is another, much lengthier question. I would hypothesise that the strength of the European identities makes integration trickier in general compared to “immigrant” countries such as Canada.
I’ve been very lucky to be welcomed into the cultures of the countries in which I’ve lived, but I can understand that not every one living in a new country can adapt so easily. Often we tend to seek out the familiar, and sometimes create enclaves of expatriates. I can also understand how these people could be perceived as a threat to national culture. This isn’t purely an academic issue for me either; one of my dear friends is a Breton. Whether or not there legitimately exists a threat to a way of life, I can understand why some people might perceive large movements of foreigners as a threat.
The problem is that a lot of people can be motivated easily by fear. I was talking, non-confidentially, tonight with a fellow who was elated that I was not a foreigner, and that my job is being done by a Canadian. It’s easy to point at India or China and say “Foreigners are stealing our jobs.” It’s easy to find someone in our societies that doesn’t reflect our own familiar microcosm and hold them up as doing something wrong, and doubly so in a society with a strong sense of identity. I honestly don’t know what is Canadian. There are a large number of us, especially on the east coast, who are of Anglo-Celtic decent, but that’s not integral to being Canadian. What’s being Canadian is a respect for the rule of law and for rights and freedoms, which is hardly uniquely Canadian. I know what people think is Canadian and I know what I should bring as a gift when I get off a plane from Canada (maple syrup and/or lobster), but beyond that? I really have no idea.
The electorate aren’t the only people who are susceptible to fear; their representatives are also mere-mortals, which is why we see so many half measures. This fear of foreigners is such an easy thing to understand that it is no wonder that it takes root in times of economic difficulties. Therefore, it is not unusual to see elected and highly public figures being motivated by a need to appeal to these populist forces, especially if they feel that their position of power is threatened (For more of my theory on the effect of public opinion on decision makers, please read my Master’s thesis: The Effect of Public Opinion on European Foreign Policy: Decision Making in Interventions and Humanitarianism which should be available from the KU Leuven central library. I should host it independently if I’m going to mention it so often.) I hypothesise that because of this fear, decision makers are often paralysed between making effective policy and decisions in migration cases and fear of upsetting a powerful force within the electorate. That said, I do not wish to reduce the situation to simply pandering to the fearful or implementing an effective policy. Firstly, as I said, Migration is a huge idea and the causes, conditions and nature of immigration shouldn’t be confused with refugee migration. Secondly, forming an effective and long term policy in regards to either is much more difficult and complicated than simply willing it into existence. However, I do not think that in the case of Lampedusa that a refugee centre for 250 could be considered an effective response to the issue of 1,000 refugees camped out on the island. I’m not an expert on Lampedusa or on refugee migrations, but that’s how it seems to me.
Why is this important? It’s important because Europe is being hurt by it’s somewhat exclusive identity in terms of its potential. Innovation is something which is mentioned often in the news in regards to EU lagging behind relative to Japan and the USA, and I would hypothesise that the semi-exclusive nature of many European societies is a factor. It also hurts European prestige to put itself out in terms of being a leader in human rights and foreign aid, only to let people drown within the territorial waters of an EU member-state. Many countries, including European countries, developed to their fullest by taking in talent from other countries. In the 19th century, we didn’t see people like Chopin turned away from Paris because he was Polish, and we saw people like Marx go to the UK for the liberal and open society. Of course, there was no passports when Chopin lived, but Liberalism and openness are not material things. They aren’t something you can point to and say “there is liberalism.” They are ideas.
People want to come to Europe: for ideas. I want to come to Europe for the ideas that Europe says it represents. Maybe those who fled Libya were more concerned about the stable and safe nature of Europe than the public focus on ecology and that dignity that I have found when I lived in Germany and Belgium. The different between viewing security from a societal or individual is immediately obvious. Even the most powerful of European countries feel the need to protect their cultural identities from foreign influences, e.g. The French language policy. As a North American the notion of protecting a culture from foreign influence seems almost absurd. Cultures grow and change with time, and often borrow terms for new ideas from other languages. This is an issue on which I am clearly someone outside looking in, but it remains that people want to come to Europe. Some will be talented, some will not. They might not speak your language well at first, or even at all, but until Europeans can decide who they want to be as Europe and the EU, they will continue to have problems with people wanting in.