Monday 26 September 2016

Another farce beckons as Europe struggles with refugee crisis

Hugh O'Flaherty

Published 08/09/2015 | 02:30

Hungarian police officers confront refugees outside the reception centre, in Roszke, southeast of Budapest, Hungary
Hungarian police officers confront refugees outside the reception centre, in Roszke, southeast of Budapest, Hungary

I was a student in Berlin in 1958. This was some years before the Wall was built and it was still possible to travel on the subway between West and East Berlin. The centre of the city was still a scene of ruin and destruction.

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We were told that no one wanted to build in that vicinity as Berlin would likely be the cockpit for a third world war. I remember thinking that it would be worth investing in sites there as, if there was to be another world war, it would not be over Berlin. It was a spooky time, with the Cold War at its height.

The Germans, having been on the losing side in two disastrous world wars, would not ever want to be involved again in such conflagrations.

Since 1815, Europe had been at peace. It had prospered economically, with amazing engineering and technological advantages. It was a centre of culture and learning.

Then came the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. This was followed by a second in 20 years. In his recent book 'Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe', George Friedman recounts that by 1945 100 million were dead, countless injured, and the entire continent was left shell shocked.

Europe saw itself as having reached the highest development of the human spirit, so it was the last place where anyone expected this to happen. But Europe had squandered it all with unprecedented savagery lasting 31 years. By 1945, it was occupied territory, its sovereignty suspended and shattered by war, collaboration and resistance.

What had to be done? The United States, through the Marshall Plan, provided aid. It was not entirely altruistic since America realised that if Europe lay derelict a vital area was lost with which to trade. The mistake that had been made after the First World War in exacting overly harsh sanctions from Germany was not repeated.

France and Germany realised there had to be a proper integration to avoid any further conflicts and so the idea of a European Union began with the Treaty of Rome in 1957.

This brought together six nations - France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy. The hope was to bring about "an ever closer union between the peoples of Europe".

The British remained outside the EC and helped to create a rival grouping: the European Free Trade Association. This never really took off. France's President Charles de Gaulle was never keen on Britain becoming a member of the EC, but in 1973 Britain did join, together with Ireland and Denmark.

In 1992 came the Maastricht Treaty and provisions for the euro. Maastricht sought to promote the ideal of European citizenship. Britain opted out of membership of the euro, preferring to preserve the sanctity of its sterling currency.

Britain has always been ambivalent about its membership of European institutions. The British government has repeatedly baulked at decisions of the court of Human Rights at Strasbourg, though British lawyers were at the forefront in drafting the European Convention on Human Rights.

Now the British government is committed to holding a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union. Even if the Prime Minister, Mr Cameron, gets some concessions - which is unlikely - there is a strong possibility that Britain might vote itself out of the Union.

When Harold Wilson was Prime Minister he successfully 'won' a referendum to keep Britain in. The concessions he had obtained were more cosmetic than real. Britain retained an ambivalence towards Europe which grew during the Thatcher administrations.

Karl Marx said: "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." So if the first referendum to keep Britain in was tragedy, will Mr Cameron's one result in farce? While a British exit would certainly pose problems for Europe, it would also pose big ones for Britain.

A matter that would come into play is the likelihood that another referendum on Scottish independence would succeed since the triumph of the Scottish National Party in the recent general election. The Scots would most likely want to remain in Europe, as would Northern Ireland. If Britain were to leave, it would not be an unmanaged disaster.

The British have never been contented Europeans. They have not been happy with the decisions of the European courts, for example, preferring to preserve the sovereignty of their parliament. They have not been happy with a core European doctrine: freedom of movement.

As far as free trade is concerned, something could be devised to keep everyone happy, as is the case now with Switzerland and Turkey, for example.

A most intractable problem now presents itself for the future safety of the Union. It is the plight of migrants and asylum seekers wishing to come to Europe.

Twenty-six years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, obstacles are being built again. Hungary is constructing a frontier with its border with Serbia and Britain is helping to fence off part of the port of Calais.

As noted in a recent editorial in the 'London Times': "There are more refugees in Europe, and seeking to get into Europe, than at any time since the Second World War. The majority are from countries tortured by war, extremism and tyranny ... the refugees cannot wait for Islamic State to fade like a nightmare, and nor can Europe.

"This crisis is hitting the continent's weakest economies hardest. It is fuelling anti-immigrant extremism and defying the EU's efforts to craft a coherent response, let alone an effective one."

So, while the Union has weathered the financial storms so far, it will face many grave crises in the near future, especially how to deal with the migrants.

And never forget that the threat of Isil is at the very gates of Europe. Not to mention, Russia as it rises again with many territorial demands.

It is the spookiest time for Europe since the height of the Cold War.

Irish Independent

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