What does Europe truly want to be when it grows up?

John Lloyd

The liberal consensus in Europe is now fraying. It has, over the past half century, produced laws legalizing divorce, abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage (to some extent) and, crucially, underpinned and approved multiculturalism. These were not easy victories for the left. Many of these innovations — divorce, abortion and gay rights, especially — were shocking to a majority for centuries, particularly in devoutly Catholic countries like Italy, Ireland, Poland and Spain. 

Yet today, it’s multiculturalism that’s sticking in the European craw. The term has positive connotations, yet it also covers a lot of ground. In its most nefarious form, it gives countries cover to ignore practices like child marriage and female genital mutilation, which are embraced by other cultures.

In recent decades, the official position in most states was that multiculturalism, integration and diversity are good — indeed, the more diverse the better.

Yet that is no longer the position of many — by some measures most — Europeans. The migrant crisis has washed away many of the fondest self-serving views the European elites had of themselves, and of the house they and their forebears built. Europe is going through a wrenching time, which will not end soon because it is composed of so many different elements.

Of the three major achievements that EU leaders used to like to enumerate — the single market in goods and services, the creation of the euro currency, and the Schengen agreement allowing for free movement among most participating states — only the first remains relatively trouble-free.

The euro has not emerged from its crisis, and will not until Greece stabilizes. Movement among states is certainly not free; customs barriers in many states are higher than they have ever been. Add to these the Russians taking two chunks out of Ukraine, the coming British referendum on EU membership and the loss of support for the Union itself. The EU is a palace built on ideals that has, in fact, sunk into marshy ground.

Ivan Krastev, the Bulgarian political scientist who chairs the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, told a seminar in Berlin (in which I took part) that “before five years ago, the question in Europe was ‘How do we manage globalization?’ The question now is: ‘How do we manage the backlash against globalization?’”

Globalization, as it’s increasingly interpreted by those hostile to its supposed effects, is charged with the destruction of communities and traditions — including those “traditions” created in Soviet times. Poles have just elected the right-wing Law and Justice Party, whose members think globalization is a destructive force. Switzerland, still something of an idyll of order and beauty, also swung right on fears of being swamped by migrants, few of whom it has allowed across its borders.

The simultaneous collapse of countries in the Middle East and Africa and the creation, by the desperate refugees and the vultures who transport them across the Mediterranean, of a “migrant railway” that now pumps thousands into Europe every month, has changed Europe. It has been a gift to the far-right parties, which have soared to leadership in the polls in several countries. This includes even liberal Sweden, where anti-migrant hostility has reached alarming heights. Several temporary shelters for migrants have been burned, and a 21-year-old dressed as Darth Vader took a sword into a school that many migrants attend and killed a teacher and a student, wounding several others.

In Italy, the Northern League has become the main party of the right, prompting its leader,Matteo Salvini, to tell Pope Francis that he’s wrong to say that Europe should welcome the migrants. This marked a lèse-majesté unthinkable for any Italian party leader to indulge in even a year ago.

The liberal heroine of the times is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said: come one, come all — Germany will accommodate you! She’s been forced to roll back on that sentiment, which had prompted hushed dissent from her European neighbors who feared her generosity would result in a greater flood of migrants into the region.

At home, Germany will also be faced with a very large problem of integration. Should evidence emerge of extreme Islamist sympathies or criminal behavior among the migrants, this challenge could flare into a crisis.

The migrant crisis has forced Europe to examine its own virtue and decency. The EU must now realize its responsibility to create a sustainable plan for the refugees, while juggling the interests of its independent member states.

Europe’s native populations will not tolerate endless immigration. The long-haul approach would be to win the cooperation of the migrants’ home countries, while making it clear that mass immigration is now over. At its best, such a strategy will bind the rich world into a long-term humanitarian contract with the impoverished one. Sooner or later, that needs to happen.


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