Greece, now entering its fifth year of recession, is building a three metre high, eight mile long wall along its shared border with Turkey. The stated purpose of this wall? Excluding migrants, meaning for the main part those people desperately fleeing violence and repression in the Middle East or Africa. This is a worrying sign. Any wall designed to stop people entering Europe will end none of the reasons for their wanting to come. Such blunt exclusion can, instead, only add to popular anti-migrant sentiment in Europe. However, if saddened by this news, I was not surprised.
This is because an anti-migrant wall in Greece neatly encapsulates a concerning European trend. As a deep recession either lingers or worsens – the latter in the case of Greece – people have searched for political scapegoats. Vulnerable migrants are the obvious choice. Yet, if mere prejudice was the end of the story, we might need be less concerned. Three key trends however, all linked to the construction of this wall, lead me to genuine political unease.
The first is a tale of convergence – that of mainstream European politics with the far-right’s new political strategies in Europe. By mainstream politics, I mean elections and the subsequent duties of various parliaments and assemblies in Europe. Here, the new far-right strategy is clear: no longer to challenge democracy, but to ensure only white, European-born individuals benefit from democratic institutions. This idea is unacceptable, but is a shrewd political coup and is entering the mainstream for a simple reason. European governments over the last few years have shown that excluding non-Europeans is not only acceptable, but in many cases also explicit government policy. The French with the Roma. The Danish with their borders. The British with our migration cap. This wall in Greece is but the latest example of this drift.
The second issue is just how far behind the curve Europe’s asylum and migration laws have become. That one country, acting unilaterally by building a new border wall, can influence Europe’s overall relationship with so many other countries is wrong. It is also as much the fault of lacking EU legislation on managed migration as it is the fault of policy makers in Greece. According to Athens, 2011 saw 130,000 people enter Greece via the border with Turkey. The point is not all of these people aimed at entering Greece, but instead at Europe more generally. They are therefore Europe’s issue and should be managed by Europeans acting together. This is why I’m continuing to work hard from the European Parliament on a fair, burden-sharing approach to managing migration and asylum in Europe.
Third, is our lacking opportunism. The number of people who flee to Europe is not dictated by European policy, but instead by the tough realities of global politics and economics in the 21st century. Such a trend in immigration will not go away anytime soon. If considered a problem, immigration to Europe will therefore simply remain a problem. Walls and checkpoints will not stop the flow. Yet if considered an opportunity, European Member States can re-frame how they interpret migration flows, and can work together to first manage, and then benefit from, a new source of ambitious and youthful labour in Europe.
We should welcome all those we can, on the proviso that we share the initial burden fairly across all Member States. Likewise later, we will mutually reap the obvious benefits of an influx of youth and ambition. The alternative to an ambitious, coordinated response to the realities of migration to Europe is allowing individual countries – in this case Greece – to embrace the far-right agenda and respond to their economic and social problems by blocking Europe out from the wider world.