THE OBSERVER

The Europe of sleepless nights

The issue of immigration stems from having neglected the countries on the Mediterranean coast

The European Union was built upon sleepless nights. Upon millions of dead bodies and many sleepless nights, actually, to try to avert war through cooperation among the European countries. It has forged ahead, from crisis to crisis, led by an elite that has managed to keep the joint project alive, albeit late and poorly. Today the EU —and the west as a whole— is facing a wave of uncertainty over the future that threatens to focus on immigration as a destabilising factor that embodies every fear and much cowardice. Chancellor Merkel spoke very clearly this week: “Europe faces many challenges, but the challenge of immigration might determine the future of the EU”. The German leader was aware that it was precisely this issue that might put an end to her thirteen years in office if she failed to appease her Bavarian CSU coalition partners, who had urged her to come up with a European solution before the end of June. The 1.4 million people which Germany has taken on since 2015 have made her a target for the far right and Germany’s own brand of populism, as well as for populists across Europe.

Disintegration is a threat for the EU unless it can strike a balance between its founding values and the realisation that it cannot possibly welcome all the destitute in the world, all while it tackles the populists who exploit frustration and fuel identity-based nationalism. The enemies of Europe are the governments who threaten to put up internal borders that would lead to the liquidation of the Schengen area —which allows people and goods to circulate freely— and the xenophobes who have never shared the European values. The issue of immigration stems from having neglected the countries on the Mediterranean coast who —particularly in Italy’s case— have manufactured reactionary, populist responses on the right and the left that are looking for a short-term dividend and will choose propaganda over mid-term policies. The political debate was stirred by Ms Merkel’s fraternal enemies and Matteo Salvini, the Italian government’s strongman and home secretary, who lit the fuse in early June when he refused to allow the rescue boats to dock in Italy’s ports. The political spectacle has hit a high note just as the volume of migrants into the EU has dropped by 95 per cent since October 2015 and the number of immigrants and refugees entering Italy fell by 80 per cent in the first semester of 2018.

The number of arrivals has decreased, but tougher checks, internment camps in Libya and the capitulation before international law aren’t enough to quench populism. It took nine hours to draft the European agreement but we cannot be certain that it will resolve the crisis and put an end to the images of boats drifting in the central Mediterranean Sea. A fairer share may never be achieved without setting dates and the twenty-eight EU partners insist on the idea of disembarkation platforms in northern Africa, even though Tunisia and Morocco have stated that they won’t accept any such thing. Equally unclear is the way the voluntary system of “controlled” centres to manage boats from Libya would work. The European crisis is a profound one. The twenty-eight European partners include Spain, Germany and France, who coexist with Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian PM who talks about a democratic mandate and has no qualms about saying that “people need two things: firstly, no more immigrants; secondly, the deportation of any of them who are not refugees”. As a matter of fact, the Visegrád Group (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) continue to refuse to host refugees.

So far Spain and Greece have agreed to take on the 300,000 “Dubliners”, those affected by the Treaty of Dublin, which establishes that it is up to the countries through which refugees entered the EU to handle their asylum. Once again, they will try to bail out the water.

Catalan society is better off in the EU, despite the difficulties and its shortcomings. Our society should be willing to change its face and take on a darker complexion, become more varied and embrace a greater diversity of faiths. This is the future of an ageing Europe.

The EU will only make political progress by resorting to variable geometry and strengthening the cooperation between its core members, but it seems unable to do so at present. We must move forward but that won’t happen until Germany, Italy, France and Spain can reach a stable agreement on economic migrants and refugees. In the long run, if losing the eastern European countries is the price we must pay to achieve a greater integration, so be it.

Europe is no exception within the wealthy world. Donald Trump, the epitome of populism, stated his false dilemma in his very own style: “if you're really, really pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people. And if you're strong, then you don't have any heart. That's a tough dilemma. Perhaps I would rather be strong.” We will need to stay alert for what “being strong” might mean in Trump’s language, considering he has detained and separated from their parents 2,300 children on America’s southern border. Trump is a tragedy not merely for the American people —a nation built by immigrants where fear prevails— but for the entire planet. This is the same hothead who reneged on the Paris Agreement on climate change. And what does that have to do with migrations? Plenty. ACNUR has estimated that 22.5m people have been displaced since 2008 due to climate change or extreme weather events to do with the climate. Famine, floods, hurricanes in Darfur, Bangladesh and Puerto Rico. When fools get elected, everyone pays a high price in the long term.

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