The refugee crisis: Europe’s failure

A huge migration from the Middle East and Africa scarred by conflict is underway. It finds Europe, with rare exceptions, indifferent and in denial about its own past and responsibility.

Francis Ghilès
9 September 2015

Europe's divisions and lack of a coherent, or any, foreign policy have long offered a sorry spectacle. But never, since the European Economic Community morphed into the European Union in 1993, have they so disgraced the old continent. Even as tens of thousands of families flee civil war and violence in Syria, Afghanistan and African states, then stagger ashore in Greece and Italy, political leaders in France and the United Kingdom wring their hands in despair - or even worse, speak of a “swarm” or "marauders”. The attitude of disdain that the great legion of the unwashed dare seek refuge in this civilised Christian continent is palpable.

“Gouverner c’est prévoir” runs the French adage. In this case, European leaders' lack of foresight has many strands. The failure to anticipate that the millions of Syrians who have fled to neighbouring Turkey and Lebanon would eventually seek asylum in Europe; their blindness to the predictable outcome of their ill-thought through plans to build democracy in Afghanistan; the neglect of their obligation to Libya after the death of Muammar Gaddafi; the sheer dumbness of the United States and the United Kingdom's "shock-and-awe" therapy in Iraq in 2003, and the inevitable increase in Iranian influence that would follow. All suggest that European and American statesmen have lost the capacity to think through the medium-term consequences of their policies.

German leaders, notably Angela Markel, and their peers in Sweden, are rare voices who dare to reaffirm their commitment to collective action and Europe’s shared allegiance in upholding human rights. Perhaps mindful of the Nazi era and the waves of suffering refugees in Europe after 1945, the German chancellor is unafraid to reaffirm Europe’s obligations to those who seek refuge from violence and terror. Italy and Greece have done what they can to help. By contrast Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orbán - who resembles a cheap version of Vladimir Putin - stoops lower than most in arguing that the refugees are a threat to European civilisation and can only be contained by a razor-wire fence. Can he have forgotten that thousands of Hungarians who fled Soviet repression after 1956 were welcomed in the west?

France's premier Manuel Valls, himself a very young economic refugee from the grinding poverty of the Franco dictatorship in Spain, sounds like a politically-correct version of the right-wing National Front leader Marine Le Pen: a pseudo-socialist wolf in sheep’s clothes. His government’s reluctance to take in Syrian refugees speaks of the fear of the outside world and the "other" that has gripped France in recent years. Another "economic migrant" from Spain is mayor of Paris, but Anne Hidalgo is incapable of rising to the occasion. Not for her any reiteration of the rights of man proclaimed in Paris after 1789. As professional politicians, Valls and Hidalgo are mindful of the fact that more than half of French people do not want to accept more foreigners. One lone French hostage in the Middle East or Africa whips up more frenzy in the French media than the current 4 million Syrian refugees.   

Britain's premier David Cameron drifts aimlessly, oblivious of the fact that the UK was fully party to and indeed helped create the troubles in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria (even if Syria is more homegrown). His initial misjudgment of the crisis, and refusal (until forced to alter course) to accept any more refugees from Syria in particular, is damaging his reputation internationally. When Boris Johnson, a senior Conservative, was mayor of London, he used to welcome foreign workers to the city, whatever their creed or colour. The Tory party today is in the grip of an extreme form of "little Englander", characterised by a meanness of spirit which has elevated fear of foreigners into a guiding principle and sees the future of the United Kingdom as more secure outside the European Union than within it. The party's former leaders Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan must be squirming in their tombs at the paranoia of it all.

The grip of amnesia

The current crisis deserves to be seen in the context of a broader narrative of how the United Kingdom and France have behaved in the Middle East since 1918, and indeed of many European countries’ ignorance of their imperial past. A lecture by the former shadow foreign secretary Michael Ancram - "How the West Lost the Middle East", delivered at Georgetown University on 1 October 2013 - noted that “for all our asserted interests in Arab identity and rights our constant Israel-centric foreign policy has undermined their faith in the integrity of our assertions.”

Ancram, as the Marquess of Lothian now a pillar of the British establishment, noted that people of the region “know from bitter experience that when they have trusted us we have too often betrayed that trust.” Too often the west has indulged in what it calls "degrading insurgent military capability", a cynical military phrase that has become a euphemism for “slaughtering enemy forces often without too much regard for collateral damage to innocent civilians on the way. We often treated the Arab in the street with undisguised contempt while paying court to their leaders as royalty. Yet even as we backed strongmen leaders who could keep the lid on unhelpful dissent at the next moment we would almost casually aid and abet their downfall without any real appreciation of what was likely to replace them.”

Nicolas Sarkozy, who as French president led the charge against Gaddafi in 2011, still boasts of his brilliant achievement. Senior French diplomats have yet to come to terms with the ineptitude and cynicism of the policy, for it was at root designed to increase France’s stake in the development of Libyan oil (which has also failed). His successor Francois Hollande is only too keen to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and Egypt while doing all he can to avoid France opening its doors to those seeking refuge in Europe. He claims France’s proud inheritance of liberté, égalité, fraternité but his reaction to the tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean does not match those noble ideals.

Europe prides itself as being the largest economic market in the world and has flourished its new-fangled foreign policy based on soft power. Today, a strong humanitarian tradition that allowed thousands of Jewish refugees to take refuge in France and Britain in the late 1930s, and thousands of Vietnamese in the 1970s, is in tatters. What the world now witnesses is a continent contemptuous of human rights, often indifferent to outside suffering and incapable of thinking strategically. In this perspective, are François Hollande and David Cameron really any better than Viktor Orbán?

Europe is in the grip of historical amnesia. Britain, France, Spain, Belgium and Holland have airbrushed from their textbooks many crimes and atrocities they would do well to remember. The huge enrichment they derived from their four centuries of imperial adventures which impoverished India, China, large tracks of the Middle East, Africa and Latin America is largely buried. In France, children are taught the glories of Versailles and the Sun King, but not the massacres in Algeria in the 19th century. In the United Kingdom, children are taught of the boldness of the Tudors and the wars against Napoleon and the Nazis, but not of the tens of thousands of Indians who were massacred after the Indian uprising (or "mutiny") of 1857. In Spain, the ethnic cleaning of the Jews and Muslims after the fall of Granada hardly figures. In Belgium, there is no apology for the cruel exploitation of the Congo, a personal fief of King Leopold II (10 million Congolese died from 1885-1908), nor in the Netherlands for Dutch behaviour in Indonesia, nor in Germany, some carefully chosen words apart, over Namibia.

Kurtz, the lead character in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, said it all. It is doubtful however whether Nicolas Sarkozy and Manuel Valls, let alone David Cameron would bother to read such a book. Few Europeans acknowledge the traumatic experience Africa suffered over three centuries as millions of enslaved people were sent to work in the plantations of America. Few today do anything much to help the Palestinians.

This amnesia makes it unsurprising that media and politicians alike put a positive spin on imperialism and that western states remain blind to the suffering of those who are fleeing extreme forms of violence on the eastern and southern rim of the Mediterranean and beyond. Many are the direct consequence of the west's recent foreign policy. Not all Europe’s imperial history is shameful but until it is more honestly understood and taught , there is little chance that European leaders will be capable of improving their humanitarian conduct. In the meantime, European (and American) leaders should abstain from preaching democracy and dig deeper into their pockets to help those who are in need.

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