Embarking on a European vacation in the dead of winter ensures there is less foliage, little color, and very few tourists to distract one from the reality of the Schengen experiment. The highlights of our trip included spending seven ski-less days in the snow-blanketed Swiss Alps during the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos and visiting a series of Greek holiday resorts that have been converted into internment camps for desperate refugees and undocumented migrants.
It was a total of twelve flights, almost as many trains, a couple of those adorably compact European rental cars, and one trip with the luggage in a vehicle that had been provided for a celebrity’s excess baggage.
I am home again, finally warm, but deeply shaken. It’s hard to know what had the most impact: the immediate suffering of some, the lack of compassion of so many, or the dearth of ideas amongst those who are able to make a difference.
What follows are my reflections on a Europe very much in the winter of its discontent. I am perpetually a long-term optimist, but was left feeling that most are not ready for the medium-term pain.
1. Europe’s “political elite,” the “left,” and the so-called “rich,” still don’t get it.
Things are really different now. Similar to the US, the electoral losers are pointing at the winners, blaming them for their loss. As the song says, when you point a finger you have three pointing back at you.
The fire that is burning was set years ago. It was built with the dry kindling of economic under-performance, of millions of people who felt left out, impacted by policies that helped another class of people. The temperature was then raised by the anxiety caused by new types of security threats, and what appears to be terror winning its war on us. Finally, the spark arrived with the collision of two forces, like flint smacking against stone: the unregulated flows of economic migration smacked against the horrors of the humanitarian urgency of the refugee arrivals.
The traditional political response to fight this fire with a dollop of warm water is no longer working. Partly because there are now other groups of would-be politicians who are running at the same blaze with flammable liquids in their buckets.
Everywhere politics is swinging hard towards unbridled self-interest...
It is no longer a left vs. right dynamic. Everywhere politics is swinging hard towards unbridled self-interest, a trend that is transmogrifying itself into movements we understand as nationalism.
And it’s everywhere across Europe.
In the UK, PM Teresa May, is unelected and beholden to a mandate set by protectionist nationalists. France looks like it will go to the National Front (after the center-right candidate created an unprecedented scandal by being the first French politician to get caught channeling money to a woman he was actually married to.) In Sweden, the ruling coalition have invited the neo-Nazis into the political mainstream, and in Greece I saw and heard of lots of evidence of the rise of the Golden Dawn. In Switzerland, menacing black-and-red posters of burqa-wearing migrants stared down at me as I rushed through the airport. The message was as clear as the words emblazoned across the image: “NON!”
2. There is a full-scale war underway with the Islamists.
The goal of the terrorists is to terrify, and they are winning.
Barely a week goes by without an attack or an attempted one, and that’s after people have resigned themselves to living in a police state and living life as if you are at an airport. Attacks are still being considered lone-wolf actions, despite recent evidence that the plans are highly co-ordinated from decentralized ISIS control rooms.
This sporadic ground war has unsettled the entire region. Europeans love trucks, but they are now machines of mass destruction. Even a trip to the Louvre is now not safe.
The economic impact hits some more than others: pity the small Greek hotel owners whose business is down 90%, “who wants to go swimming in the waters in which five thousand have drowned?” France has lost a billion or more Euros from the drop in fascination. Radical Islamists have set the continent’s mood and increasingly they are determining who people are voting for.
3. Concurrently, and kind of ironically, immigration is the best thing that could happen to Europe.
The European workforce is aging and that’s compounded by its young not being prepared to work in messy jobs in return for less (in terms of real incomes and quality of life) than what their parents got. Where will the growth come from, many ask, often turning to a robot for answers.
Privately many people will tell you that kind-Angela has been smart-Merkel: accepting the “best and brightest” of the refugees, the ones you’d love to have in your country. Hard-working, educated Syrians, who long for a return to their former urban lifestyles, and will work to get there, reinvigorating Germany in the process. And (sadly) they aren’t going home any time soon.
4. The European refugee management program could be a comedy; sadly it’s a Greek tragedy.
Worse, it’s expensive, wasteful, humanly degrading, and it is seeding tens of thousands of angry people into European society.
It’s hard to blame anyone in the system because there is no public will to do it better right now. Because the refugees and migrants are coming to a place they know as Europe, it requires a coordinated European response. But it’s anything but. European countries have agreed to resettle hundreds of thousands more, but the process is stalled and the people who are trapped in the horrendous conditions of camps are having their expectations constantly dashed.
If there is a better way to breed angry people, I don’t know what it is.
To an extent, I suspect Europeans—who in private will use generalizations on the Greeks that they wouldn’t on their pets—are enjoying making Greece suffer. Europe was already upset at the Greeks for their role in the financial crisis before the waves of refugees arrived through the aegean door.
Europe’s borders are by geographic design porous—the Roma panhandlers on city corners show you that—and therefore the problems that Europe is creating in Greece will be their’s in the future.
5. To make matters worse, more informal migration is coming.
When a million Syrians walked into Europe on humanitarian grounds, the “glass border” was effected shattered.
The Facebook posts of the those who have made it are flying back to their homelands. People use social media to share a highlights reel of their lives, and you can’t post when you are dead. So there are 5000 people incapable of posting because they drowned on the way.
The people arriving (still hundreds come each week) are less and less fleeing conflict, and more often pursuing opportunity.
Not that I blame the latter at all.
Many come from places where foreign powers have participated in flattened their country, destroyed their prospects of a secure life, of education for their kids, of walking a day in the park without fear of a pipe bomb.
But Europe is in no mood to pick up the pieces of failed foreign policy of its own colonial exit from Africa or the Middle East/Asian failures of the American and allies.
While intra-Europe borders are now tighter, I met plenty of people who showed us how easy it was to move across Europe. One Iraqi man I shared a coffee with in Greece got to Germany before I got to my home in Nairobi.
He too posted glowing images on Facebook, even made a video of his entire trip, set to pop music and shared it widely. His friends back home send messages that read “congratulations,” “how brave you are,” and “see you soon!”
6. Finally, the European Union, as we know it, is as good as over.
Surely this should be the cause for celebration as it did its job.
Its task to was to stop Europe fighting over resources. It started as the Coal and Steel Community, and helped Europe return to prosperity after the internecine disaster of WWII. Then it morphed into the EEC and never stopped growing.
The Europeans got the enormous benefit of creating the world’s biggest market and the world got the benefit of them not dragging it into more wars.
Today the Brussels-based bureaucracy is perceived to be at odds with national identity. People feel they can’t be themselves, and have lost control to the “faceless bureaucrats” they don’t even know they vote for. It doesn’t help to refute this, or show how it is often not the case. It’s a feeling after all.
This loss of agency, a global trend in insecurity around the loss of national identity, is making people hostile towards others of different cultures. Particularly if they dress funny or wear beards. The warm blanket of a return to days gone by, of Making England Great Again, for France for the French, feels good to many. And in the face of these pleasant but ultimately impossible to substantiate ideals, there no big ideas to counter the move. Nobody is writing the La Marseillaise for globalization and there aren’t any conflagrations that require us to fight together against a common enemy.
After Brexit, expect Frexit, and so on.
In retrospect, we know that Brexit was only as close as it was because of a fear of the economic consequences. Since the vote, the country didn’t sink into the North Sea. Markets have risen, GDP grown and nobody turned into a frog. This takes the key political weapon of fear from the “Remain” camps in other European countries. And when England pronounced they have a “better deal from Brussels”, which they surely will, what European leader will not try to give that to their people?
And so if the EU returns to being the moderator of weights and measurements, the administrator of inoffensive regulation, is that necessarily a bad thing?
Writer Peter Holmes à Court and photographer Alissa Everett traveled across Europe to research migrant and refugee trends for a multiyear project for Exposing Hope. To learn more or support their work, visit www.exposinghope.org, www.alissaeverett.com and facebook.com/peterhac