Can Europe Make It?

Porous borders allow migrants into Germany. And?

Many are desperately trying to get into a country that’s perceived as Europe’s best. Politicians thrive in the petty-minded zeitgeist of those who noisily complain. Do true democrats need to worry?

Alessio Colonnelli
24 May 2015

A member of the newly formed HoGeSa group. Wikimedia. Public domain.Consider HoGeSa, Pegida, and Bavaria’s recent complaints about a sieve-like Italy, unable to choke off the influx of migrants travelling beyond the Alps. These are visible symptoms of a deepening malaise: Germans worry there are too many foreigners in their country and that many more are coming through porous borders. Politicians masterfully stoke resentment for political gain.

“We are not the social services for the whole world,” Horst Seehofer almost shouted in February. The prime minister of Bavaria and leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU) summed it all up with his inflammatory, populist utterance: conservative forces all over Germany seem to agree with these words and tone, according to the main media outlets.

Munich paper Süddeutsche Zeitung explained that Seehofer’s statement was “almost literally quoting  campaign slogans by Alternative for Germany [AfD] and the National Democratic Party of Germany [NPD].” AfD is a fiercely anti-immigration organization akin to the UK Independence Party; NPD places itself on the very edge of extreme far-right politics (and perhaps beyond). All of which says a lot about CSU itself.

But are immigration-afraid ordinary citizens – the ones paying for Seehofer’s wages – wrong in feeling the way they do? No, of course not. These are unprecedented times for everyone: for those hoping to improve their lives, opportunities are aplenty; while for those, who are supposed to accept newcomers and just get on with it, it is also a new thing.

Some travelling souls are happy-go-lucky and call themselves fortunate enough to have reached Italy, Greece, or even Bulgaria. But often they’re exploited as cheap labourers. If you can, you’d rather avoid breaking your back by picking strawberries all day for literally pittance.

Understandably others aim higher: at Europe’s kernel; maybe Scandinavia. Can you blame them for being ambitious? Southern Europe, in fact, can put immigrants off (and not just them). A young Eritrean committed suicide in Switzerland not long ago: authorities there ruled he must head back to Italy. He didn’t want to; they found him hanged. This speaks volumes about the levels of psychological stress migrants undergo. They are tough, sure, but there’s only so much even they can put up with. It’d be worth raising more awareness among western audiences on this neglected aspect.

If you’ve proved yourself through bravery and stamina – as anyone who’s crossed the Mediterranean has – then surely you don’t think twice about going the extra mile. Northern Europe seems quite naturally within reach.

So that’s the attitude which rich and suspicious Europe is being confronted with. You can see through the phenomenon and spot the human capital in it: many migrants are young, fit, hungry for life. Just take a look at them, if you can, in one of the hotspots en route.

In South Tyrol, for example, in an effort to leave Southern Europe for good, you find them desperately trying to board a Deutsche Bahn train. They all brim with youthful energy and ingenuity, and become visibly disappointed when policemen brusquely stop them. A roll of the eyes is all they do, though.

You’d expect these young immigrants (mostly men) to complain vehemently, but they don’t; being used to being pushed around, they couldn’t care less. In fact they know they just have to wait for a window of opportunity. They’ve already come a long way. What’s another 500 kilometres?

Maybe they’ll get on the next train, a local one. A few lucky ones manage to hire a taxi, according to Bavarian public radio station BR Aktuell. They’re getting closer and closer to the target, anyway. Some might have a contact waiting for them in Germany; or another place in the north. They’d call it the ‘promised land’ if they were Christian.

The majority of them are not. A conspicuous minority of Europeans find this troubling. Pegida was mentioned at the beginning. Reams upon reams have been written on this movement, verging on the racist (some may argue Pegida is actually downright xenophobic.)

HoGeSa looks even worse. It stands for Hooligans Against Salafists. A hilarious choice of words. Are these guys actually taking the mickey out of Pegida, the way Monty Python might’ve done in its day?

If only. They’re damn serious. Multiculturalism is obviously not their thing. Their motto: “We don’t want a theocracy!” Who does in 2015 Europe? Such words conceal the anguish of ordinary individuals, who deep down feel in competition for resources with immigrants; the latter can also access Hartz IV, the German long-term unemployment benefit system. Has this anything to do with widespread resentment?

Muslims invading the sacred Old Continent is another, age-old cliché. But how can you possibly equate ordinary people to warring medieval tribes? And ‘Salafist’, how silly and even highfalutin is that as a choice of word? Is HoGeSa suggesting it’s intellectually serious and should be trusted for moral guidance? A broad democratic discourse ought to allow all that, supposedly. One is nevertheless left wondering where the boundaries of free speech lie.

In Europe burgeoning ageing populations are set against ever fewer young people struggling to contribute to ill-devised pension systems; many can’t see that the influx of energetic individuals – mostly willing to comply with Europe’s rules and pay their tax – are in this respect a (secular) blessing.

Immigrant numbers are relatively quite low: European societies can absorb them. Think for a moment of our continent in its entirety, with its numerous languages (Maltese is Semitic!), histories, traditions, sensitivities and religions (Islam is a lesser, indigenous faith of our southern fringes): surely, collectively, we should enjoy and welcome diversity. It’s about who we are; and it’s what we need to continue thrive. Forget about porosity.

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Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

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