Festung Europa :: The Politics of a Humanitarian Tragedy

As the rolling coverage of the horrific terror attacks on Paris continued to squeeze out every last drop of usable information, two separate bits of news caught my eye.

First, in typical Parisian fashion, the top trending hashtag on Twitter immediately following the attacks was #OpenDoors – Parisians took to Twitter to ask their compatriots looking for shelter to come and share their flats and homes.  It was astonishing, and yet somehow not at all surprising that this very international city, famed for its hospitality should react in this open way.

Paradoxically this ‘openness’ policy is seemingly what caused this attack. France has been leading the EU in pushing for other member states to accept the huge numbers of Syrian and African refugees ; and while many had questioned this policy the state had gone ahead and agreed to house and shelter large numbers of migrants, fleeing the civil war in Syria and the violence in sub-Saharan Africa.

Amongst the larger and richer EU nations only Germany has done more to house, clothe and feed the many hundreds of thousands of people who make the perilous journey to mainland Europe. A few weeks ago the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, announced that Germany would take in an additional 800,000 refugees (roughly 1% of the population). This immediately started a huge rush to get to Germany from within Europe and emboldened those yet to make the journey from the badlands.

While she may have had genuine humanitarian concerns, this was a shrewd decision – based mainly on social welfare and economic considerations. Germany’s industrial powerhouse is slowing down, added to this, life expectancies are rising. This puts a pressure on the present generation of tax payers whose tax Euros go to the social welfare of retirees. Unfortunately, Germany’s population growth rate has been steadily declining for more than a decade. This makes it difficult for the industrial powerhouse to perform as well as it wants to and for the state to get its social welfare contributions.

This uncharacteristically unilateral decision by the Chancellor – who has usually played a stickler by the EUs rules hitherto – put huge pressure on the other EU states to either follow suit and face an electoral backlash or face a breakdown of the Schengen system. Sweden imposed border controls, followed swiftly by Hungary and Slovakia who erected border fences – as they neither had the economy to absorb the new workers nor the social safety net to look after them. Italy and Greece, reeling from their own economic depressions threatened to flood southern Europe with undocumented migrants.

At the heart of this matter are a few questions that need answering: firstly, are these people to be treated as economic migrants or political asylum seekers? If the migrants are political asylum seekers, then will they and their families be repatriated to their homelands once the conflict is resolved? This would raise fresh issues.

Between now and when peace and stability is restored, the migrants may enter the social welfare system of the host nations, children may be born in the EU states and may enter the state schools. What is to happen to these people? Are they to be sent back by force, if they refuse to go voluntarily? Further, if a number are sent back, who decides who has to leave and with what criteria?

If they are to be treated as economic migrants, then what of Europe’s own unemployed youth? Spain, Portugal and lately Greece have seen record unemployment amongst the youth and it may be legitimately asked, what right does Germany or France have to provide opportunities to people from non-EU states while fellow EU-member states suffer.

These questions need answers and unfortunately the climate isn’t conducive for it. However, before long such matters will have to have solutions. Europe cannot afford a rightward swing. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what seems to be happening. Poland has elected a hard-right President who campaigned on an anti-immigrant stance and won handsomely. This might give ammunition to France’s Marie-Ann Le Pen and German PEIGDA party to harden their stance. The UK’s UKIP also isn’t far behind and recently grabbed headlines during the recent Calais Crisis by calling on the Government to bring out the Army.

Europe simply cannot afford another right-ward tilt, especially as it is now, embarking on a project to become more than ever, a tightly knit, inclusive global community of peoples.


The second – not unexpected at any rate – was the reaction of some sections of the American media who immediately managed to find a shared sense of victimhood with France. As words like “American values” started making appearances on CNN, several ex-law enforcement officers and almost all the Republican Party candidates and grandees called on the President to take more effective steps to combat ISIL in the middle east, including putting “boots on the ground”.

Things got out of hand a few weeks later, when Republican Party front runner Donald Trump called for Muslims in the US to compulsorily have ID cards. Not to be left behind, other primary candidates joined in the shrill chorus – establishment candidates Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz called for only Christian refugees from the middle east and Africa to be taken in; former neurosurgeon Dan Carson likened the refugees to ‘rabid dogs’ and in the US Congress, 48 Democrats helped pass a Republican bill for greater scrutiny and vetting of refugees while almost a quarter of all state governors signed a petition saying that they wouldn’t allow Syrian refugees into their state.

There is a section of the politicians in the US that believe that the Islamic State (IS/Da’esh) can be beaten by a show of force. However, mindful of their domestic pressures, they’re not committing to “boots on the ground”, just smart bombs and predator drones. This is problematic on many counts.

Firstly, IS controls territory where there are many innocent civilians who are trapped and have no means of getting out. Bombing those areas puts them in the very real danger of becoming a depressing statistic of collateral damage. Second, IS doesn’t have formations or columns like a regular army and thus aren’t in one place ready to be bombed. Thus the very expensive bombs that will be dropped on them won’t make much headway unless they target a commanders’ conference (which isn’t likely to be advertised). But most importantly, bombing has usually always been used as a tactic to soften up resistance so that the regular ground forces could advance and hold territory.  As this isn’t likely to happen, it’s equally unlikely that any great headway will be made against IS.

The best solution would have been for a multi-nation Arab coalition take on IS and defeat them on the ground, retaking land and restoring sovereignty of Syria and Iraq. This too is unlikely as Turkey, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia aren’t likely to agree on anything; put the historic Shia-Sunni split in the mix and the geopolitical cocktail gets toxic.


Meanwhile, the refugees keep streaming in, politicians bicker and the Islamophobes and Islamists sharpen their knives.

If you want more background, there is an excellently researched article on the Islamic State in the Atlantic here