Remember my piece at DIPLOMAT late last year?
Once a state effectively loses control of some parts of its territory to local violent extremists, how long does it take for the mass of citizens to start to challenge state authority, if only because they fear for the results if the state can no longer guarantee equal rights and responsibilities for all within its borders?
The usual answer is to say that that can happen in a country like Syria that has been destroyed by civil war, but it can’t happen in Europe. Why exactly can’t it happen in today’s Europe, if enough serious things start to go wrong simultaneously and liberal democracy lacks the tools and toughness to protect itself?
The basic drama we in Europe and North America now face is that hundreds of millions of poor people in Africa, Asia and the Middle East who previously have had few ways to express themselves in any organised way now have a voice, and can move around and create intricate support networks thanks to cheap information technology.
As the United States of America is finding on its southern borders, tens of thousands of young people, including children, can appear as if from nowhere, demanding to be let into the country and then stay for as long as they choose. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic thousands of Africans are crossing the Mediterranean in little boats every week. Borders for such people don’t matter much. They want to go where they like, to look for work and better healthcare. If that means crossing state borders illegally, so be it.
What if international borders around the world are now much less robust than they look and we assume? What in fact is stopping a new brazen ‘grab what you can’ attitude emerging in many places simultaneously, at a much faster rate than existing state structures can respond sensibly to? And if it does emerge, what’s to stop it? Conventional weapons and tactics are useless against more or less spontaneous, bottom-up, networked mass challenges to existing ruling elites and their beloved rules.
World Wars I and II were conflicts with global consequences arising from European power struggles. But there was at least a clear context, involving thematic rivalries between established powers: something like the Crimea crisis is now. Could Isis represent the start of a completely different World War III, a crazed free-for-all in which established authority and international borders just melt away?
This is looking horribly prescient as thousands of people attempt to get into ‘Europe’ either as ‘migrants’ or ‘asylum-seekers’ or ‘refugees’. Fences are going up, and the EU Schengen space is fraying.
What’s the solution? What’s the actual problem?
The deep problem is that across the Middle East we are seeing the accumulated consequences of decades of Arab-style repressive national socialism. Decaying states, poverty, corruption, stupid extremisms and revolutionary violence. There is a civil war going on between different Muslim tendencies, with Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others more or less openly funding their current favourites while looking the other way when it comes to accepting fellow Muslim refugees fleeing the disaster they have helped create.
With Russia smirkingly blocking any serious attempt to tackle Syria and the Western impact in Libya (and Iraq and Afghanistan) looking miserable as Obama pretends it’s all nothing to do with him, millions of people across the region are effectively collateral damage. In these grim, chaotic circumstances the idea of starting a new life in ‘Europe’ is no doubt attractive, the more so as it appears to guarantee lots of free stuff from the moment you cross the border.
On LBC radio this morning I had a couple of minutes to expound on all this. I was asked what I thought about the idea that the EU could absorb one million migrants a year. I replied to the effect that whether or not that was the case (and it might be), that did not help if ten million migrants showed up. A state or wider system unable to maintain some sort of rules at its borders would collapse.
Back in real life, Hungary is building a fence to signal that enough is enough. As I pointed out on LBC, plenty of people entering Hungary illegally have come from Kosovo and other parts of Europe: Hungary is well within its rights to try to put in place rules and the barriers needed to maintain them in practice so that it knows (and controls) who is crossing its borders.
Other ‘eastern Europeans’ are fiercely resisting any suggestion that they should accept migrant quotas. The EU is agonising over this one. Germany has blundered by appearing to offer open-ended hospitality to migrants/refugees and now wants others to share the soaring load. Germany with France might have the votes under the EU’s qualified majority voting to force this through, but it would be high folly to do this in the face of explicit opposition from EU countries who (not unreasonably) are determined to decide for themselves how and at what pace their national identity changes.
In short, a horrible mess with no obvious way to stop it, other than Europe effectively reconquering large swathes of the Arab world and force-feeding intelligent reform and modernity?
Failing that? The EU as currently constituted will fail in its current terms and turn into a sullen, mutually suspicious grouping of ‘nation states’. Nationalism if not explicit national socialism 2.0 will come back into fashion, as is happening in Russia.
Moral? It is just not possible to maintain open internal borders across a bloc of countries as the EU has tried to deliver but no effective immigration controls. And while we have plenty of problems in all this, the UK has made a wise decision to stay well clear of the Schengen system.