16 November 2015

The thirty year dream of the EU, open borders and unlimited migration has had it


One of the main weaknesses of the European Union is that its advocates so often overstate the case for its achievements and talk as though it is fixed in place and can never be undone or modified. Yet, the EU is just the latest of many attempts made stretching back centuries to construct a diplomatic system on the great continent of which the UK is unquestionably, thankfully, a part. Too often down the centuries war was how disputes were settled, but there were also long periods of trade, cooperation and sharing of ideas.

Look at the history. The Dutch and the English fought bitterly, but in the end Dutch innovations inspired the growth of the City and constitutional change. The City of London benefited from immigration and was for a long time a haven for refugees. France was our rival, and our enemy for long periods, but we are cousins and now should be natural allies.

A lot of hardline Eurosceptic chatter on this stuff is bilge. We, in Britain, cannot return to a supposed golden era of “splendid isolation” because it did not exist, unless you want to go back many centuries. Even then, what was the catastrophic departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons but a Great European Migration? And at the height of the British Empire, when our ancestors were supposedly obsessed with India, the reality was much more interesting than the myth. Our financial markets were connected to a largely European network of exchanges and links between Britain and Germany – commercial and cultural, not only royal – were very strong.

All that being the case, the question remains what it has long been: how might we in Europe get along in a manner that is likely to encourage trade, innovation, security and peaceful interaction?

The EU is already the answer, say its fans, who sometimes claim it invented peace. But the EU, or the earlier EEC, did not make the post-war peace in Europe, or rather it was only one factor. Principally, the credit goes to the Americans and to Nato, the defence alliance guarding against the threat of Communist incursion.

The EU is also founded on an old-fashioned idea that has simply had it, at least in its current form. This has become even more obvious after the horror of Paris, although I am not – not – linking those developments in any way to domestic concerns or the question of UK membership of the EU. The issue is much, much bigger and European than merely British.

The European Union big idea – of open borders and free movement across borders, let’s leave the currency experiment out of it for the moment – is relatively new. Within my lifetime, regular free movement seemed to be an exotic, alluring, vaguely troubling dream promised by elites.

It is difficult to explain to youngsters that the idea of hopping on and off planes right across Europe was quite recently not the norm. Yes, there was a tourist industry funnelling Britons onto parts of the Spanish coast or other resorts or campsites, but going beyond such places – to live in European cities, or for a weekend – was the privilege of the exceptionally glamorous or foreign correspondents who worked on newspapers. Or your dad worked for MI6. Or both.

Mobile phones and the internet have also played a trick on us here, by shortening distances and helping to make proper travel seem normal and commonplace.

When a friend in the early 1990s went to live in Spain for a year of studies, that really was it. You communicated by letter, which was great, and perhaps the occasional long-distance telephone call. When I saved up for a flight, to go drinking and see some art with my friend after my finals, the British Airways flight from Gatwick to Madrid had perhaps ten people on board. This was in the days before such flights would be stuffed with accountants and bankers flying around the continent doing stuff and going to conferences. It was just me, along with some retired people off to the Prado.

Airports seemed pretty quiet places too. Not quite cathedrals, but certainly special places which most of us hardly ever went to. This was less than 25 years ago.

Since then, cheap flights and rising prosperity have made travellers of many more of us, and we love it, while complaining about the overcrowding and the meanness of the airlines on the food front, because it is unquestionably a lovely thing.

Lovely though it is, it is not an approach that is particularly practical in an age of cross-border terrorism and epic migration powered by globalisation and war. Margaret Thatcher spotted this flaw in her Bruges speech in 1988 when she said:

“It is a matter of plain common sense that we cannot totally abolish frontier controls if we are also to protect our citizens from crime and stop the movement of drugs, of terrorists and of illegal immigrants.’

Dominic Lawson in his column today nails the problem when he says that for it to work, for open borders not to create serious threats to our security, you would have to believe that we are all nice Europeans together wanting only harmony and a beer in Bologna.

A particular kind of metropolitan thinker, often in the media, usually widely travelled, has elevated this groovy idea to the status of a religion, along with the need for no restrictions on immigration because that is also groovy. It simply can’t be undone, or won’t be, because it is all so groovy. Yet, it is being undone, already.

I recommend Fraser Nelson’s definitive recent article on the unfolding crisis in Sweden, hitherto the most liberal European country on these matters. The Poles –  frequently derided whenever they try to defend themselves, so brave stuck for centuries between the Germans and the Russians – are stirring. Border fences are going up across Europe.

I take no delight in this, absolutely none. I’m a European, and I detest the Europhile habit of blurring the difference between the EU and Europe as though they are the same when they are not. Like many millions of people I have benefitted from the relaxed approach and more travel. But Schengen, the free movement agreement from 1985 which Britain did not sign, is effectively dead, along with the idea of migration without limits or with very few limits. The end of Schengen in particular is not the end of the world. It is anyway only 30 years old, a blink of the eye in European history.

In its place, the continent’s governments and the EU needs to agree a more sensible set of arrangements, conscious that Islamist fascist terrorists based in Belgium face little impediment whatsoever getting between Brussels and Paris, or between Marseilles and Madrid if they choose, or into Europe from Syria. If the reports that some of the terrorists have embedded themselves within the legitimate refugee population turn out to be true, it is idiotic to dismiss concerns. Saying so is not “blaming refugees” it simply amounts to recognising that when ISIS said in the summer that it had embedded an army of 4,000 fighters, even if it is exaggerating by 3,000, then that is a lot of fascist, murderous jihadis among us, both returned fighters and possibly fake refugees.

The dream, I’m afraid, is over.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX