Fear and loathing of a world without borders
In Europe there is fear that foreigners will compromise traditions, writes Ivan Krastev
The thousands gathering at Europe’s borders, and the thousands who have already crossed, are widely but wrongly supposed to be refugees of an uprising that failed: the Arab spring. In reality, they embody a distinctly 21st-century revolution that is yet to come.
In 1981, researchers at the University of Michigan in their World Values Survey found that Nigerians were as happy as West Germans despite being materially far poorer. Almost four decades on, that situation has radically changed. In most places, according to the latest surveys, happiness is in direct proportion to per capita gross domestic product.
The spread of the internet has made it possible for young Africans or Afghans to see with one click of a mouse how Europeans live. People no longer compare their lives with those of their neighbours but with the planet’s most prosperous inhabitants. They dream not of the future but of other places. Smartphones and social media make it easier to cross borders and yet keep their ethnic and religious identities. It is possible to remain Syrian while living and working in London or Berlin. You can keep in constant touch with those left behind or follow the headlines from home.
In this connected world, migration — unlike the utopias sold by the last century’s demagogues — offers radical change instantly. The 21st-century revolution requires no ideology, political movement or political leader. You change not the government but the geography. The absence of collective dreams makes migration the natural choice of the new radical. To change your life you need a boat, not a party. With social inequality rising and social mobility stagnating in countries such as Ukraine and Russia, it is easier to cross national borders than class barriers.
But the migrants’ revolution has the capacity to inspire a counter-revolution and remake our democracies. Historically, democracy was the way Europe integrated outsiders and opened to the world; it can just as easily be an instrument for exclusion and closure.
The myriad acts of solidarity towards refugees fleeing war and persecution seen last year in western Europe are today overshadowed by their inverse: a spreading fear that such foreigners will compromise the welfare model and traditions; that they will destroy liberal societies by threatening women’s rights. Conservatives fear that the flow of migrants is a death sentence for the cultures of the European nations. Fear of radical Islam, terrorism, criminality and a general anxiety over the unfamiliar are at the core of a moral panic.
Many in the EU feel overwhelmed — not by the 1m and more refugees who have asked for asylum but by the prospect of a future in which their borders are constantly breached by migrants.
The future ageing and shrinking of the incumbent population painted by demographers is frightening even to some of the more robust Europeans. The majorities who feel under threat have emerged as an influential force in politics. Not only the extreme parties such as the National Front in France and Britain’s Ukip but also Hungary’s governing Fidesz and the mainstream Law and Justice party in Poland see their role as advocates of those “threatened majorities”. They fear and loathe the idea of a “world without borders” and demand an EU with clearly defined and well-protected barriers. They are convinced the crisis is the result of a conspiracy between cosmopolitan-minded elites and tribal-minded immigrants.
This change of hearts and minds can be seen in relations with Turkey. To secure the country’s support for relieving the pressure from refugees, European governments are silent on Ankara’s growing authoritarianism. They want to signal that Europe is not such a nice place as foreigners believe it is.
In short, EU leaders are trapped between the rhetoric of democratic revolution as an answer to the problems of an interdependent world and the messy reality of migration as revolution.
The writer is chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategy in Sofia and permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna