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Attitudes to refugees divide Europe with a new Iron Curtain

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Migrants queue at the compound outside the Berlin Office of Health and Social Affairs as they wait for their registration

Migrants queue at the compound outside the Berlin Office of Health and Social Affairs as they wait for their registration

REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Migrants queue at the compound outside the Berlin Office of Health and Social Affairs as they wait for their registration

In May 1946, Churchill gave a speech considered to be the opening salvo of the Cold War. He declared: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent." In addition to the "Iron Curtain" that had descended across Eastern Europe, Churchill spoke of "communist fifth columns" that were operating throughout western and southern Europe.

Could the same thing happen again in Europe with the refugee crisis? Could a new Iron Curtain - a new demarcation line - already be drawn between Eastern and Western Europe? In 1945, the line was an ideological and military divide. This time, could it be ethnic, demographic and religious?

Today the line is geographically the same, running right from the Baltic to the Adriatic. Now the issue is not communism but migration. The countries to the West of this new Iron Curtain are prepared to take in migrants/refugees whereas the countries to the east of the line are not.

Conventional wisdom said that Churchill would win the 1946 election, but he didn't. Although ahead of his time geo-politically, Churchill was rejected by the British people even though he was the victorious war leader, and this was because the war changed everything. The troops coming back from Europe were intoxicated with the prospect of a better, more just future, where more people had more opportunity. They knew the Empire was over, they knew the UK had to do something new.

JK Galbraith, the great Canadian economist and the man who coined the term "conventional wisdom", observed that conventional wisdom is rarely overthrown by a great countervailing ideology that convinces everyone to change their position, but rather, conventional wisdom is overthrown by seismic events. Back then the war was that huge event. Right now, could the arrival of hundred of thousands of refugees and migrants, who are encouraged by Germany, be a similar event?

The EU's conventional wisdom today is that the EU is a unified political entity. Do you think that working assumption of a harmonious Europe will survive the mass movement of people on the EU's southeastern border? Immigration is the issue and there are totally different attitudes on either side of Europe's new Iron Curtain.

For example, over the weekend, a Croatian friend of mine, cosmopolitan and well travelled, asked me whether the rush of migrants was simply a grand plan to Islamise Europe. Sitting in Zagreb, she is terrified about Islamic "fifth columnists" that will come into Europe and radicalise the existing Muslim population. I am sure this type of conversation is happening all over central and Eastern Europe. I have no idea if it is a true fear, but that hardly matters - it's a fear.

The Croats are concerned that the Germans are starting to row back while people are already on the move. The Croats fear that Croatia will be left with a huge Syrian/Afghan/Iraqi/Pakistani refugee camp on its borders as refugees wait for German doors to open again.

Croatia is not a country with resources and it's not a country that is used to foreigners. Travelling around that country - and any country in the Balkans or Eastern Europe - one thing that strikes you is how "white" these countries are. Travel in Poland and you will be hard pressed to see a black man. The same goes for Slovakia and Hungary. In Serbia recently, fans and players set upon the black players in the English under-21 football squad for the "crime" of being black. Football supporters from the region regularly hurl racist abuse at black or Arab players. These are not places that have any history of welcoming immigrants.

In addition, amongst the Orthodox Christian countries, Islamophobia is common. This stems from centuries of proximity and the historical facts that have become mythological, such as the fact that the traditional seat of Orthodox Christianity, Constantinople, was sacked and taken over by the Muslim Turks. These antipathies go back a long way.

For example, a Bosnian Muslim friend who fought hand-to-hand in Sarajevo in the Bosnian war told me that the most vicious enemies weren't Serbs but irregular bands of fascist Greek Orthodox fighters who came as mercenaries to protect their Orthodox Serb brothers from the threat of Bosnian Islam.

To the south is Turkey, a country that is now a massive holding pen for two million refugees who most probably would prefer to make prosperous Europe their home rather than the barren borderland of southern Turkey and northern Syria.

The Turks might simply facilitate the passage of these people to Europe. After all, Europe's 40,000 migrants is dwarfed by Turkey's two million.

What would happen, for example, if the Turks actively encouraged the migrants to cross its territory and make for the Hungarian border via the Balkans? After years of being humiliated by Western Europe for not being civilised enough to join the rich boys club of the EU, there must be many at the top in Turkey who wouldn't mind throwing the refugee cat amongst the squabbling EU pigeons.

The EU countries are squabbling now but will this lead to a proper fight?

The Slavic countries in the East are against accepting foreigners into their countries and the Slavs in the South are equally against immigration. In addition, they are poor countries with barely enough resources to get by on their own.

When seen from East of the new Iron Curtain, the EU migrant crisis looks like an ill-conceived, yet entirely self-serving move by a historically guilty but economically savvy Germany to solve its demographic problem by plugging its workforce with young Muslims.

And if there is an overflow from Germany, the Slavs are worried that they will be the ones left with camps full of migrants who don't want to be in Croatia - and the Croatians don't want them there either.

We are at the very early stages, but even now you can see new alliances forming very similar to the old Cold War boundaries.

If Germany pushes too hard, who's to say these differences won't become something more permanent? Germany bullied the rest of the EU at every stage of the Eurozone debt crisis; in light of this, who is strong enough to rein Germany in?

Could we be seeing another Churchillian Iron Curtain? Could we be witnessing the great event that smashes conventional wisdom? It looks a bit like that from here.

Irish Independent