The refugee story has hardly begun. There will be, on conservative estimates, another million arriving via Turkey this year – and maybe more. The distribution quotas proposed by Germany, and resisted by many states in eastern Europe, are already a fiction and will fade into insignificance as the next wave comes.
Germany itself will face critical choices: if you’re suddenly running a budget deficit to meet the needs of asylum seekers, how do you justify not spending on the infrastructure that’s supposed to serve German citizens, which has crumbled through underinvestment in the Angela Merkel era?
But these problems are sideshows compared with the big, existential issues that a second summer of uncontrolled migration into Greece would bring.
First, there’s the diplomatic onslaught on Greece. Last week the European Commission mulled quarantining Greece by building a razor-wire fence inside theFormer Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which is not even a member of the EU. German sources floated the idea of cancelling Greece’s debt if only Greece would agree to jail 400,000 migrants. A Belgian minister, in an EU negotiation, is alleged – by his Greek counterpart – to have demanded the Greeks “push back or sink” the boats coming from Turkey, in breach of international law. Others in Europe are proposing to criminalise the NGOs that are helping the refugees as they arrive in the islands.
If any of these things happen, they are likely to tear Greek civil society apart. Long before that, these demands are demonstrating to the rest of Europe the incapacity of its leading powers and institutions to face facts: the next million refugees could only be stopped by a policy of pushback that would break all humanitarian law.
Problem number two is the moral implosion of the Turkish government. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s army has already turned the Kurdish regions of southern Turkey into a war zone. Now he is pushing for life imprisonment for two prominent journalists from the secularist newspaper Cumhuriyet, for an investigation that claimed to show proof that his government was sending arms to IS. This is not some maverick judge at work – the demand for a 30-year sentence was brought by Erdoğan himself: head of state of a country that still thinks it could join Europe and that retains its Nato membership, with no discouragement so far from Brussels.
The third problem is the paralysis of the EU institutions. Germany unilaterally suspended the Dublin treaty, which would have forced migrants to return to Greece to be processed. Most eastern-European countries have rejectedGermany’s proposed redistribution mechanism, preferring a system regulated by jagged pieces of metal and police wearing surgical masks. Schengen is close to being a dead letter.
Unlike the Greek debt crisis – where “extend and pretend” has been the watchword – this indecision, illusion and failure to confront facts is urgent.
Greece is not going to “push back or sink” inflatables containing refugees. However many compromises Alexis Tsipras’s government made over austerity, it is full of human rights lawyers, criminology professors and people who spent their lives fighting fascism. There is outrage at Europe’s demands inside the Greek political establishment, ranging well beyond the radical-left party Syriza and its small nationalist coalition partner.
Eastern Europe is, by and large, going to let the refugees go to hell. There is very little compassion in the media coverage of the refugees east of the former Iron Curtain. Poland, Hungary and Slovakia have swung towards populist nationalism. While there are tens of millions of liberal-minded, largely young people who are prepared to show compassion and adhere to international obligations, they do not control east Europe’s governments.
As for Turkey, it has, to date, taken no visibly stronger measures to keep Syrian refugees inside its own borders and prevent the deadly traffic across the sea to Greece. For a state that can arrest its own newspaper editors at will and bomb its own cities, that demonstrates a clear set of priorities.
So there are only two variables: what the EU does next and what the European peoples do.
If Germany has given up trying to organise the orderly distribution of refugees inside the EU, then free movement itself is on borrowed time. Everybody understands this, except the political and media classes who have to maintain the fiction that everything is fine. Germany had, by December, registered just over half the 900,000 asylum claims it is facing. The hard-right AfD party has sprung from sixth to third in the polls. Angela Merkel seems frozen in the headlights of the oncoming train.
Which leaves the people. Quietly, and without rhetoric, one of the most spectacular, cross-border solidarity movements ever formed has emerged to help the refugees. Churches, NGOs, communities, police forces and social services –plus ordinary people with no big agenda – just got on and saved people, moved them along, gave them water, food and clothing, and are right now helping them to settle in.
Against that, of course, there are people such as the young British men who gave the fascist salute, unmasked, to the TV cameras, during the fracas at Dover this weekend.
Our grandfathers smashed fascism – outlawed it, executed its leaders, suppressed its ideas – because they knew how seductive that stiff-armed salute can be to idiots with a grievance, once all the illusions start to burn. They squeezed Germany dry of geopolitical power because they knew it had a tendency to be wielded unwisely, even by democrats. They thanked their lucky stars that eastern Europe was somebody else’s problem. And they deployed an army to ensure Greece stayed pro-western and democratic.
In this, the generation of Churchill and Attlee showed greater strategic vision than the current one. David Cameron’s obsession with negotiating a fig-leaf concession on migrant in-work benefits from Europe seems, when set against the scale of the historic challenge, small. Jeremy Corbyn’s trip to Calais did not even ask the roaring questions: what should Germany do; what should the Commission do; what should the UK Border Force do? By reverting to gestures, British politicians are already signalling strategic disengagement with Europe’s migration crisis, which itself is feeding in to the negative popular perception of the EU.
There is a rising concern in British political circles that the next million refugees might tip the UK electorate into voting for Brexit. I suspect that’s too simple. The biggest threat to British consent for EU membership would be if the European Commission tries to force Greece to drown migrants, and then turns it into a quarantined prison camp when it refuses. People would rightly ask in whose name that was being done.