Illegal immigrants are seen sleeping at a detention centre in Zawiyah, 45 kilometers west of the Libyan capital Tripoli, in June 2017. Photo: AFP

Iconoclastic historian John Lukacs once commented that when Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich collapsed, some 10,000 Germans, not all of whom were Nazis, committed suicide. Conversely, when the Soviet Union imploded and Communism crumpled, there is no record of even one Communist committing suicide.

The reason for this discrepancy was underlined by no one less than Josef Stalin. One week after Germany invaded the Soviet Union and as the Soviet army was retreating in total disarray, Stalin went on the radio to exhort the nation to resist the Nazis with one caveat; his call to arms did not refer to the defense of Communism or of the Soviet Union. Fighting the Nazis would come under the heading of “The Great Patriotic War.”

Nationalism had trumped ideology, and for a good reason, too: Russia, like Germany, was a country. Communism was an ideology. Giving one’s life to defend Mother Russia was in the order of things. Getting killed in the name of Dialectical Materialism was not.

Though the context is different, Stalin had instinctively understood what a whole generation of Western European politicians had failed to grasp, namely that it takes more than a few treaties to change a people’s psyche and that when all is said and done, nationalism is the bedrock on which nations are anchored.

The Cold War created, for all practical purposes, two Europes. Eastern Europe, enduring under the fetters of a Soviet-imposed system, went into social hibernation. Issues like nationalism, anti-Semitism and multiculturalism, which had dominated the political landscape until the closing days of World War ll, were swept under the rug by the countries’ respective Communist parties on instructions from Moscow.

Man is a social animal who lives in tribes and, given the chance, will preferably share his territory with those like him, those with whom he shares a common language, common values and customs and, if not a common at least a dominant religion. To a large extent it is the tribe that binds individuals together and which provides them with a common denominator they can all refer to.

Tribes are in essence territorial, and while they might harbor members of other tribes, they have a keen sense of the space they occupy and in which they are the dominant group.

The tribalization of Europe reached its pinnacle with the end of World War II in 1945. All the German minorities that had drifted east over the centuries had been driven back to Germany, and overall the borders of Europe’s nation-states matched the borders of the dominant tribes: Poles in Poland, Magyars in Hungary, Germans in Germany, Romanians in Romania, Italians in Italy and the like.

While Eastern Europe was frozen in time, Western Europe slowly embarked on an integration process that started with the treaty establishing a Coal and Steel Community in 1952.  While the community was purely an industrial endeavor, the six member states – France, West Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Luxembourg – represented a Western European core of nations that shared a common vision of human rights and democratic institutions. It was this communality that induced the same six states five years later to adopt the Treaty of Rome that saw the creation of the European Union and its Commission, based in Brussels.

Western Europe, with Germany in the lead, embarked on a process of re-evaluation of the social and ethical archetypes that had led the continent into fighting two world wars. While the re-evaluation was extensive, albeit not fully comprehensive and gaps were left unfilled, what emerged was the semblance of a common understanding: The future was not to be held hostage to the ghosts of the past, and the likes of democracy, tolerance and the respect of others should not be smothered under the dictates of nationalism and dictatorship.

Over the subsequent decades the EU proceeded to grow by including new members such as Spain, Portugal, Greece, Austria, Finland and the United Kingdom. While these countries had all very much their own make-up, they were also part of a common family of shared values such as democracy, social tolerance and free speech that had largely overcome the divides that had led to World War II. This obviously did not come about overnight but gradually developed during the 45-year period that went from the end of the war to the fall off the Berlin Wall.

The implosion of the Soviet Union released its Eastern European vassal states from the dictatorships imposed on them by their respective Communist parties and their Soviet overseers. This newfound “freedom,” as well as the urge to distance themselves from a potential Russian zone of influence, fueled the longing of Europe’s new independent Eastern states to join both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Community. This process, and especially its speed, was viewed with some concern by some of the founding states but, egged on by the United States, 11 new members had joined the EC by 2007.

What the EC’s new members shared was not only a deep antipathy to Russia but also a deficit of 45 years of kinesis as regards the practice of democracy and the development of social norms consonant with those practiced by the other members of the European Community. The end result was that by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the European Community, which until then had been an amalgam of individual nation-states sharing a common vision, had morphed into an alliance comprising two very different constituents with at times mutually exclusive aspirations.

This divide, which proved the price that the core EU had to pay for its accelerated and often thoughtless expansion, could not have happened at a worse time for the alliance.

The European Community was the brainchild of the center-right neoliberal vision that prevailed in Western Europe after the end of World War II. It was predicated on the wearing away of national borders among the member states and the creation of one single market, one single currency and one customs union. This single market, which would entail the free movement of goods, capital and people, would have a leveling effect that would slowly erode national and cultural identities, which would be amalgamated into an as yet undefined “European” personality.

The basic requirement of a single market is that the goods that are offered fit a set of common norms. In order to define what became known the European Norms (EN), the European Commission went into overdrive. Over the decades, practically everything that could be standardized, from garage doors to protective gloves to fuel for stoves to helmets for cyclists to cork floor tiles, was. Most of the standardization, such as the one pertaining to cloth sizes or car safety features, made sense. Others, such as those pertaining to how curved a banana should be, less so. Others showed the disconnect between the faceless bureaucracy of the Commission and the social reality of its member states.

Flooring in Southern European countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece is mostly of tile. In England, the material of choice is carpeting. Attempts by the Commission to standardize the suction power of vacuum cleaners at a lower setting to save power were met with howls of protests by those countries of Central Europe where carpeting was the rule. The same happened when the Commission sought to standardize toasters and tea kettles. And while the outcry in England was disproportionate to the deed, it did reflect an undefined but growing feeling throughout Europe that an anonymous entity based in Brussels was in the process of depriving the people of Europe of their national identities.

In its urge to standardize, and motivated only by commercial considerations the Commission, over the decades, developed into an a body which operated by its own rules and proved increasingly disconnected from the psychological makeup of the grassroots components of the member states.

This disconnect would probably have endured as a minor nuisance, albeit one that gave rise to considerable mirth, had it not dovetailed with two major crises. The first was the Greek debt crisis, which came close to bringing down the euro and which was ultimately contained as a result of German intervention. That the European Commission did not see the crisis coming and proved ineffective in bringing it under control mostly escaped the attention of Europe’s public opinion. What did not was the migration crisis.

The conflict in Syria resulted in some 11 million Syrians being displaced. Of this number, 6 million were displaced internally while 5 million sought refuge abroad, initially mostly in Lebanon and Turkey. In a subsequent movement, close to a million Syrians moved from Turkey to Greece and from there to Germany, where in 2015 Chancellor Angela Merkel chose to grant them asylum. For the German chancellor the decision proved a watershed for in essence two reasons.

On the European level, the unilateral decision by Germany illustrated the glaring absence of a comprehensive EC asylum policy. Thus Germany was left to act alone. On the national level, Merkel’s decision, hailed in some quarters as “humanitarian,” provoked a massive negative backlash among a large segment of the population, which substantially increased the votes of the anti-immigration far right.

Merkel’s decision, irrespective of its potential humanitarian dimension, underscored another failure of the EU system. Freedom of movement is one of the foundations of the EU. With countries like Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy having massive unemployment rates and countries like Germany having labor shortages, one would expect unemployed Italians to fill the German labor gap. In practice, however, this expectation was not fulfilled. And while a considerable number of Poles in the construction industry moved to Britain, where their skills were in short supply, the average unemployed youngster from southern Italy preferred to stay home with his mother doing nothing rather than moving to Germany to learn a new language and acquire a new skill.

But not so the Syrians. Thus, ultimately, and irrespective of the humanitarian dimension of her decision, by opening her doors to the Syrians, Merkel was fulfilling a need provoked by a pressing labor shortage. Germany’s industries applauded the move. The grassroots did not. Politically it was a cost from which her popularity never recovered.

In parallel to the Syrian crisis, another massive irregular population movement developed through the Mediterranean.

During Muammar Gaddafi’s rule, between 1 million and 2 million sub-Saharan Africans would come every year to Libya to work. Among this group the majority would return home, while an estimated 30,000 would try to move illegally to Italy. The Italian government had an informal agreement with Gaddafi by which all the African migrants intercepted by the Italian navy on the high seas would be returned to Libya, thus keeping the movement under control.

The overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011 not only deprived some 2 million Africans of a source of revenue but also turned Libya into a major avenue for irregular movement from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe. With people smugglers capitalizing on Libya’s state of anarchy, literally millions of sub-Saharan Africans took to the sea on mostly unworthy boats or rubber rafts in the hope of reaching Italy, and from there the likes of Germany, Switzerland or the UK.

The reactions of the European grassroots were not predicated on numbers. For Western Europe, receiving foreigners is an ongoing process. In Germany, some 6% of the population, equivalent to some 16 million, is foreign. In the UK the number reaches 14%. And as for Switzerland, a country where anti-foreigner feelings are practically non-existent, 24% of the total population is foreign.

Ultimately, however, it is not so much the number of immigrants but their origin that proved an issue. Thus in Switzerland, some 95% of the foreign residents are German, Italian or French and basically come from the same cultural and ethnic origin as the local population. Both visually and culturally they blend in with the local population, and while differences endure, they are not perceived as antagonistic by the indigenous population.

Conversely, the arrival of massive numbers of Africans or Arabs of Muslim faith can have a destabilizing effect on societies, which are in essence Caucasian and are imbued with Judeo-Christian traditions. The fact that the arrivals are irregular, are uncontrolled by governments and consist of people with no skills who harbor different social values and who often insist in retaining these values even if they are incompatible with those prevalent in the countries of destination, only compounds the problem.

Granted, the total number of irregular arrivals as compared with the number of inhabitants of the European Community as a whole was relatively small and theoretically manageable. However, this did not take into account the fact that the arrivals were not evenly spread among the EU member states but were concentrated in the likes of Italy, France, Germany and Sweden, while such countries as Bulgaria or the Baltic states were spared from the influx.

Faced with an influx it did not have the political will to address head-on, the European Commission in 2015 drew up a plan that would provide for the relocation of the arrivals among the 28 EU member states according to a quota system. The plan, which was rejected wholesale,  proved a seminal moment in Europe’s struggle with irregular migration.

Confronted with the incapacity both of the Commission and of their own governments to deal with the crisis, large segments of public opinion in some of the countries most exposed to the influx such as Germany, Italy, France and Austria started to cast their votes for right-wing anti-immigration parties that until then had been in essence marginalized. In parallel, some governments started to act unilaterally. Thus Germany prevailed on Turkey to close its border with Greece through which more than a million Syrians had transited on their way to Central Europe. As for Italy, it sought to enlist the assistance of several Libyan factions to prevent African migrants from proceeding onward by boat to Europe.

But the greatest divide within the EU followed a line that could have been foreseen had the bureaucracy in Brussels not been so focused on monetarist issues.

With the countries of entry struggling to keep the inflow from reaching their borders, the countries of destination, incapable of agreeing on a common migration policy and the Commission disconnected from the social reality prevailing in the member states, it was ultimately the new members that took a coordinated stand on the issue of migration.

After the failed 2015 attempt by the Commission to redistribute illegal migrants among all EU member states, the Visograd group, which includes Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, announced that they would not agree to resettle either migrants or refugees. The paradox was that while none of these nations were countries of destination, they saw the potentially disruptive effects of the inflow on other member states and sought to insulate themselves from the influx.

This concern fueled the fear, real or imagined, of a population overflow from Africa and the Muslim world directed toward Europe that threatened the values on which its societies were created.

With the European institutions unable to address the inflow, and the traditional political parties also failing to do so, the electorate increasingly turned to right-wing anti-immigration parties.

Thus, ultimately, the failure of the European institutions to control immigration will have resulted not only in strengthening the extreme right in countries like Germany, Italy, Poland, Austria and Hungary – not to speak of Brexit – but also in creating a major divide within the Union between the Western member states and its more recent Eastern European partners.

That events took this turn could probably have been avoided, but this would have required that the EU’s founding fathers, and the bureaucracy they spewed, to be willing to come to terms with the fact that economic integration is not an end in itself and that ignoring national identity carries a price.

Alexander Casella

Alexander Casella PhD has taught and worked as a journalist for the likes of Le Monde, The Times, The New York Times, Die Zeit, The Guardian, and Swiss radio and TV, writing primarily on China and Vietnam. In 1973 he joined the UNHCR, serving, among others, as head of the East Asia Section and director for Asia and Oceania. He then served 18 years as representative in Geneva of the International Center for Migration Policy Development.

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