Can Europe hold together?
Camp set by migrants at the Greek-Macedonian border near the Greek village of Idomeni, on March 10, 2016. Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP/Getty Images
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Cradle of the Enlightenment. Birthplace of many wonderful writers and composers, and home to some of the finest works of art and architecture. But Europe has also been the site of innumerable religious and civil conflicts. And, of course, in the past century the continent experienced two catastrophic wars and one of the greatest crimes in history. What is now the European Union was founded in the 1950s partly in an attempt to ensure that hostilities wouldn’t break out on the continent again. It wasn’t able to prevent the non-EU member Yugoslavia from erupting into civil war in 1992–5, and the country’s consequent break-up into six sovereign states. But France and Germany have been locked together in a permanent loving embrace. Meanwhile, the eastern half of the continent effectively disappeared behind the Iron Curtain before re-emerging in the late 1980s and early 90s. Then came the euro, and the expansion of the Union, to its current membership of twenty-eight countries (minus that serial non-joiner right in the middle, Switzerland), with several more waiting to join: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and – more problematically – Turkey.
But is the old continent now tearing itself apart in its attempts to deal with the terrible refugee crisis? The French daily Le Monde recently talked of the “clinical death of Europe”. It’s perhaps not a surprise that countries with very different histories, levels of prosperity and political priorities should find the crisis an impossible challenge to tackle collectively. While Greece bears the all too visible burden of daily arrivals on its shores – the country is in danger of becoming a “warehouse of souls” in the words of its prime minister Alexis Tsipras – its northern neighbour Macedonia is currently closing its borders, as are Croatia, Serbia and even liberal Slovenia. The hardline Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán ordered a barbed-wire fence to be built along his country's southern border last year. Both Denmark and Poland have taken a tougher stance since rightward changes of government last year. Austria and Greece, meanwhile, have traded harsh words over the crisis, and Angela Merkel has been heavily criticized at home for her generous attitude towards refugees; even Sweden is drawing back on its hitherto ultra-liberal approach. Italy, perhaps understandably, worries about the possibility of large numbers coming across the Adriatic Sea from Albania. The Schengen Agreement, which several countries signed up to in 1985 with the aim of creating a borderless Europe, now looks under serious threat. How many countries want open borders now?
On the face of it this seems a strange time – inopportune, even – for the United Kingdom to be preparing for a referendum on continued EU membership. The vote that David Cameron has called on June 23 will be a momentous event, no question. In common with many others, I wasn’t of voting age when the British people voted to stay in the European Economic Community, or Common Market as it was more commonly known, in 1975 (Britain had entered under the Conservative prime minister Edward Heath in 1973), and so will welcome the chance to have a say this time around. But, as the Guardian asked the other day, why are we having a referendum at all? Cynics might say the move is Cameron’s ploy to still rebellion within his own party (in which, lest we forget, civil war has practically broken out over Europe in the past – remember the beleaguered prime minister John Major’s reference to the Europhobic (“Eurosceptic” is not a strong enough term) “bastards” who were making his job impossible?)
The UK has always been a difficult EU member (think of Margaret Thatcher’s battles with Brussels) The Dutch journalist Hugo de Vries wrote in De Volkskrant that “well-meaning attempts” to keep the British in the EU fail to take account of our “island consciousness”. If we leave the EU, the remaining twenty-seven countries may be “a little less rich” but they will have got rid of “an arrogant pain in the ass” (!). Le Monde, meanwhile, in a recent editorial, professed itself under the impression that the British had invented the notion of clubs, and their admission rules. At the heart of the European club, it wrote, they want to retain their exceptional status – “this isn’t fair play”.
“Brexit” and “Project Fear” (a term coined by Boris Johnson?) have already become part of the common discourse. We will no doubt be subjected to many economic arguments for and against over the coming weeks, but most of us voters – let’s face it – will still not be able to make a properly informed decision on economic grounds alone. Personally, I’d like to hear more about how Britain can play a bigger part in tackling the refugee crisis; about how, in a globalized world, it maybe makes sense for countries to form strong alliances rather than seek to strike out on their own. It'd be interesting to know how non-European countries are likely to react to a Brexit.