Turning the tide: how fear will make People Flow obsolete

Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
9 July 2003

In August 1993, at the bar of the Novotel in Libreville, Gabon, I had an encounter straight out of a Graham Greene novel.

Julien Joo, an official of some rank at the French Ministry of “Cooperation” (in reality, Aid), offered me a drink and congratulated me on the courageous performance I had just given. The performance consisted of arguing in front of fifty officials from the energy ministries of francophone Africa that electricity sector privatization, on the British model, could and should be applied to sub-Saharan Africa. I argued for financial controls, for metering of power, and against the view that electricity is a human right that corrupt governments should supply poorly.

Monsieur Joo – although I did not realise it then – had taken the biggest assumption in my argument straight to heart. There are just two “logics” for Africa, he said: we Europeans recolonise and run the administrations, or we play a more distant game of appealing to this local interest or that, protecting our own but allowing investment-stifling mistakes and wastage on a huge scale. He was saying that my argument relied on good administration, on a few basic rules being followed, and that this could not be achieved without “recolonisation” – or at least a thorough westernisation of government.

Tony Curzon Price comments on earlier articles in People Flow:


Even a “simple” operation like the supply of electricity requires long-term capital commitments to be honoured, and underneath them a whole pyramid of shorter-term commitments, like the agreement to pay a monthly bill, or the adequate policing of theft from the grid. For Joo, nothing less than the logic of recolonisation would supply this.

In contrast to the consensus prevailing in Paris (and, at that time, London), he associated recolonisation with a radical agenda emerging from Washington. I thanked him for the drink, offered him one in return, and tried to see if there might be any work from the Ministry of Cooperation for a young freelance economist (there never was).

His conversation turned to the joys of sailing and fishing off the lush Gabonese coast, just beyond the hotel. The man from the Ministère sits on a yacht between the coast and the oil platforms. If he manages local interests right, he no longer needs to fire cannon into the jungle in fear, as Joseph Conrad saw and chronicled it: he can cast his rod and pick out fish – maybe a few big ones – for his or Elf’s pleasure, one by one.

A coalition of the fearful

The last two years of US foreign policy have shown Joo’s characterisation of the Washington position to be on the mark. International terrorism, and 9/11 in particular, has found the US very willing to recolonise the badly-governed in Afghanistan and the Middle East in the interest of US stability. The Middle East and its environs are today’s threat to the US. But others are sure to follow. There is a large stock of misfortune to be exploited and cast into anti-US ideology. As the badly-governed in other parts of the world also export deadly frustration, so the empire of US-maintained oligarchs, in the mould of the benign Hamid Karzai, will grow.

It appears that the European way, at least with respect to the fears induced by terrorism, will be different. With a bloody post-second world war history of decolonisation and a habituation to terrorist acts on European soil and against European interests, the ‘war on terror’ does not require a brigade of élite ‘enarques’ (graduates of Paris’s Ecole National d’Administration) running the administration of every shaky client state. The fear for the integrity of Europe has not been aroused by terrorism as it has been for America.

But to conclude that Joo was right, and that these two irreducibly different views will coexist, strain transatlantic relations, but never meet, ignores the impact of the phenomenon that does make Europe fear for its integrity: immigration.

From a modest, and hugely ambitious, proposal…

In People Flow, their openDemocracy/Demos pamphlet, Theo Veenkamp (a Dutch civil servant writing in a private capacity) and his co-authors, recognise the fear:

“Many Europeans implicitly resist [more liberal migration policy] because it threatens aspects of life that we hold dear. Migration touches the shifting sands on which our identities are grounded. The steady arrival of new people with unfamiliar habits and alien faiths in our cities and on our streets provides the most dramatic focus for our anxieties about the ways in which the world is changing.”

Indeed, the contribution to the ensuing openDemocracy debate by Anthony Browne is a clear and passionate statement of this fear:

“But at what point are people of the west allowed to say that enough is enough, it is time for us to be allowed to preserve our culture?”

Veenkamp and his colleagues have a civilised, humanist and characteristically Dutch reaction to the problem: they propose that Europe recognise the un-policeability of its borders and pursue policies to accommodate the inevitable flow of economic migrants from the global south and east. This is the equivalent (for migration) of liberal decriminalisation policies on drugs: if there is such a willingness to supply the good in question (heroin, cheap manpower) and such a demand for it (recreational self-medication, in low-skill jobs), then prohibition only breeds corruption and profits for organised crime.

People Flow has an honourable goal:

“We prefer to simply accept this changing reality [caused by increased migration] as a departure point and have no ambition to reshape it fundamentally. From this acceptance logically follows a modest integrative ambition: just to establish and maintain peaceful co-existence would be a significant achievement.”

But the tone of the “modest proposal” may mislead: “just to establish and maintain peaceful co-existence” is an ambitious aim, and the authors know it. In reaching for what they outline as necessary to their goal – deep changes to welfare, education, “narrative-making”, economic objectives, some “grand projects” with the southern Mediterranean countries – the authors reveal the truth of their honourable and civilised proposal: if anything like this is achieved (and in their proposed form, it will not), it will only be after a long and sometimes nasty political game of trial and error leading to the conclusion that “there was no alternative”.

…to a practical, even optimistic vision

But there are alternatives. Let me offer a guardedly optimistic case: an alternative that I predict will happen and would, moreover, be not too bad an outcome.

Franck Duvell derives the following requirement for a just outcome to the immigration problem:

“To satisfy [moral equality and individual freedom] requires a global realisation of basic rights and basic goods, for example a form of basic income and a form of cosmopolitan membership, temporary citizenship or globally obligatory and enforceable universal rights. Both would replace the need to migrate by the free choice to migrate, and would therefore certainly also reduce migration pressure. Combined, these measures have the potential to reconcile the sedentary and the mobile and would mark the only true way to global social justice and equality.”

What is essential in this vision, and what I believe the European nations will eventually work hard to achieve, is a state which “replace[s] the need to migrate by the free choice to migrate”. And this is so not because of any moral qualities to this outcome, but because it is the only one which will reduce immigration to the level politicians will need to achieve.

Europe’s fear of immigration will join forces with the US’s fear of terrorism to force a liberal, interventionist development policy which will improve the condition of the badly-governed just enough to keep immigration at an acceptable level. Just as welfarism-in-one-country arose in Europe during the 20th century out of the right’s fear of communism (as Eric Hobsbawm among others has argued), so a tough, liberal development policy will arise out of the fear of an extreme backlash against immigration. With the US and Europe united in the means required to achieve their respective ends, the badly-governed can look forward to better days.

How will this happen? Even more than in the war on drugs, we can expect public policy to be inventive to the last before adopting the sort of simple, decent but ultimately utopian liberalisation that People Flow proposes for migrants.

Franck Duvell describes some of the currently popular schemes in western policy circles for “global migration management”. These include demand-side measures, with stronger penalties for those who employ illegal migrants; and supply-side measures aimed at making Europe a less attractive place for the enterprising and mobile from the poor world, including more policing of borders and various types of internment for those caught.

In the alternative proposed by Achilles Skordas, unforced immigration is driven by the demands of the labour market in the ‘home’ country, while assimilationist policies are recommended to mitigate tensions in the host country. This is a sensible proposal to try to match supply and demand better. But this scale of measure will do nothing to stem the flow of immigrants, and the voters’ reaction is not likely to be forgiving: fear of extremism, and its appearance in national politics, will force centrist parties into meaningful policy.

The way ahead: building the ‘welfare world’

This is the point that Peter Brimelow did not consider in his contribution to the debate: that immigration cannot be stopped. It is virtually impossible to stop the pressure towards large-scale migration from the badly-governed to the better-governed world. Even if liberalisation of labour movements becomes the accepted long-term goal (which Nigel Harris foresees in his analysis of the emerging global market in labour), the only expedient way towards it will be to make sure that not too much migration from south to north ensues.

This will require making the south more attractive, not the north less so. The EU’s expansion to the south and (with enlargement in 2004) to the east is an example of the successful application of this policy – the free movement of labour is accompanied by a large transfer of funds and the imposition of a passably competent bureaucracy to administer them. The prospects for the new EU entrants are good enough, and the short-term incentives reliable enough, to ensure that most people continue to plan their lives locally.

Contrast this to the German Democratic Republic (GDR) under its last leader, Egon Krenz. Months after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, I attended an Oxford seminar where there was much learned discussion of the (then) two German states evolving along separate paths, and the prospects of a ‘soft landing’ for both polities on a ‘third runway’.

Even as the seminar progressed, the GDR was losing its people, especially the young, who continued to pour into the Federal Republic to the west. Only integration would stem the flow – a strong commitment from West Germany that East Germany was on a path to join the West. This meant political integration, parity conversion of Deutschmarks, and huge financial transfers and aid to the East.

The implication is clear: the only way for Europe to liberalise its policy to immigration without causing a xenophobic backlash will be to become serious about improving the prospects for the world’s poor. The waste and corruption involved in foreign aid today is legendary – it reflects Monsieur Joo’s policy of “fishing off the coast”. The old style aid will not help with migration policy, because it is mostly for the benefit of elites, who are not the ones likely to emigrate (or who have trouble doing so).

The newly interventionist American style of foreign policy (Monsieur Joo’s “re-colonisation” alternative) will create worthy recipients for the sort of constructive aid that will mitigate migration flows. The sequence is as follows: the badly-ruled pose a threat, the US intervenes, and the EU provides funds and “administration building”. In this division of labour, all find their interest: better government, a sense of territorial safety, and a working policy to limit immigration.

Thus, the American war on terrorism and Europe’s attempts to manage immigration will become natural allies in the building of the ‘pax Americana’. The European right’s fear of communism made the welfare state in the 20th century; the same right’s fear of invasion will make the welfare world in the 21st century. It is only once the welfare world has made it virtually unnecessary that the People Flow policy recommendation will be considered.


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData