As with most other European countries, one of the main topics of debate in the recent Swedish general elections in September was immigration. The issue has lodged itself at the epicentre of public debate across our continent for a long time now.
Immigration has been one of the factors in major developments in Europe like Brexit, the rise of populism and so called “radical” parties and political movements, the rift between the old 15 EU member states and the Visegrad group, as well as the North-South division when it comes to dealing with the refugee and immigration crisis. Our leaders might prefer blaming Russia, China or the Trump administration for the misinformation or propaganda war that fuels the rise of populism, yet one cannot ignore Europe’s internal issues; and they mustn’t be blamed on any external factor if we want to deal with them successfully.
It’s not our problem?
Blaming others for your problems, no matter how substantial evidence you have, should not prevent you from taking stock and responsibility for your own mistakes and actions; something that the European leadership often tries to do. The immigration problem on our continent is not anything new. It has been brewing for decades now, however the European elites and media chose to ignore and avoid it, hiding themselves behind the often illogical political correctness policies. Yet when you do not give space for such issues to be debated and discussed openly, in fear that you may offend certain groups of people, or that you will be branded as racist, you only brush the problem underneath the carpet. You are not dealing with it, you are just kicking it further down the road for others to take responsibility. Nowadays in the era of social media, those able to vote as well as younger individuals will try to discuss issues that affect their communities in various online portals. If they lack the right information, or if their concerns are not met or answered by their politicians, or if at least they are not exposed in an open debate in the mainstream media, they are going to express their views on these web-pages.
And this is exactly where radicalised individuals exist and thrive, behind the anonymity that the internet is offering them, that enables them to offer their distorted views as answers to the people who genuinely wish to discuss their ideas and concerns.
Wouldn’t it be better to have open debates on our media, in schools and educational institutions, with political parties’ membership or through civil society platforms on issues that affect us and our children like immigration, EU membership, the adoption of the euro, our country’s integration into the European family, racism, culture, multiculturalism, and so many more. Our continent has become multicultural since the 1950s in fact, when many of the Western former colonial powers invited workers from their one-time territories to settle in their countries. Soon after they sought to attract “guest workers” from countries like Turkey and Morocco, but prepared poorly to integrate them, as they did not expect them to stay permanently. As a result, many of these immigrants found themselves living in ghettos or in tight ethnic social circles, often being alienated from their host country and its other communities.
East copies west
The failure of the old fifteen EU member states to deal with their immigration problem fuels in fact the resistance of the new Central-Eastern European countries of the block to follow their example. They reject the Western multicultural social model because they see only its failures, not the advantages. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. They can learn from the Western states’ mistakes and not repeat them. But this will require not fences and coming in direct clash with the EU itself, but rather the formation and adoption of a comprehensive, fair and functioning immigration and integration policy that will avoid the shortcomings of other countries by examining them first. Almost all immigrants that arrive in their new adoptive country are ambitious and have much to offer in terms of knowledge and skills, if we only attract the right ones that we need for long-term or permanent settlement, while perhaps offering short-term contracts to seasonal low-skilled workers. It is really frustrating that we treat issues such as these with the complex of our bygone colonial history, the fear of being branded racists or xenophobic. The reality is that we cannot absorb all immigrants without totally dismantling the social fabric of each country with serious economic and political consequences. Thus the refugee crisis puts out ability to cope and adapt to the test. Some countries, such as Germany and Sweden, tried to show how open and progressive they are by taking in the largest amount of refugees. The recent election results and polls, though, signify a concern in both nations about the future of such policies.
We may choose to ignore the shift in the public opinion, try to blame internet trolls, but that would discredit the concerns of the ordinary European: and that is not a sign of a true democracy. Having endured austerity and a very crippling economic crisis, it is understandable that people feel that changes are out of their control, there is a sentiment of mistrust and betrayal and thus they feel disconnected from the establishment parties. They are seeking solutions from new parties which naturally act opportunistically and take advantage of the citizens’ concerns by simply addressing them. Our governments might brand this as populism, but it is evident that it works, so why haven’t they managed to get rid of their institutionalised political correctness and to become more accountable and transparent about the policies they chose to adopt?
Yet not all immigrants are refugees. Apart from the Syrians that are fleeing a war torn country and deserve to be accommodated – not only by Europe, but the whole of global community – many others are joining the queue to enter our continent. They come out of hope and desperation. They are attracted by our living standards which even after the crisis are still among the highest in the world. However, one cannot ignore that another reason that Europe is so attractive to immigrants is its colonial legacy. Since a lot of them have a European language as their first or second official back in their native country, while still being raised in a post-colonial mentality and educational system, is it any wonder that they feel more connected to Europe than to any other region of the world?
In addition, when Western culture is the predominant one through Hollywood movies and stereotypes, how can a young Asian or African not be dreaming of living in a Western nation, since we promote our way of life through advertisements, trade, films and our overall cultural domination? Finally, since we are promoting and priding ourselves as open, equal and welcoming society, why then do we find it so hard to accept the fact that others see us as a beacon of hope and opportunity, just as America was long before us?
The recent divergence of Europe towards a more conservative, xenophobic and euro-sceptic stance puts a question mark on how open are we as a society, how prepared we are for a globalised, multi-polar world, and signifies an identity crisis. We are simply not sure what we want to be, or which role we want to play in the globe for the future. That is understandable, as European nations have walked a different path in history. Some were conquered and oppressed by different countries, while others were the oppressors or the invaders. Some only managed to form a state quite recently, while other nations have been empires or kingdoms for much longer. Some have had a more peaceful history than others by maintaining neutrality, while the different ideological and religious divisions have created a variety of mentalities, sensitivities and approaches in our continent.
However, we should not destroy what we have achieved so far, just because we feel insecure. The reason we are still one of the most prosperous continents is exactly because we have established the biggest market in the world, we have opened our borders to each other and the world and have abandoned, to a certain extent, protectionism. Immigrants are needed to fill the jobs that we are not willing to do and to sustain the very generous welfare system that we all enjoy. The alternative model would be that of Japan, which offers close to no social welfare benefits, yet it is a very homogeneous nation, for the time being at least. Instead of scapegoating others for our problems, perhaps we Europeans should simply re-evaluate the policies we have adopted so far, streamlining them to a pan-European common immigration policy.
If we continue to maintain so many loopholes for people to enter Europe, without however any proper integration policy, all we are doing is worsening the problem. We are encouraging more people to live on the fringes of our societies, often unemployed or cut off from equal opportunities and relying on social welfare. It is no wonder then that radicalisation of certain immigrant communities, or rising xenophobia in the native population take hold and they make matters worse. Combined with an economic crisis and an increasingly competitive continent, in an increasingly competitive world, these issues can not be ignored. We have been disregarding the weakest and most vulnerable in our societies, both native and migrant, making them feel left behind. Not everybody is equipped to catch up with the changes, like our older generation. In addition, we have been slashing the opportunities of our youth, forcing them into unemployment and a bleak future in order to save the banking sector.
All the above add to the toxicity of European politics. If we want to succeed in creating and above all maintaining an open, democratic and liberal community of nations, then we cannot ignore these issues any more. We will have to adapt and reform our societies, educational systems, job market and economy, or people will increasingly opt for political parties that will promise changes, even though they cannot deliver them. On the issue of immigration we will have to learn from the mistakes of the past. If you think that you are promoting a tolerant and progressive image, by allowing too many immigrants to enter in your workforce, yet without a sustainable plan to integrate them, then the only thing you will achieve is clashes and the opposite of what you hope for: the image of an intolerant society. Problems will always arise, but we will have to anticipate and face them, not avoid them in fear of offending people. Plus, we will have to be bold and resourceful. We could establish a number of EU work permit embassies abroad, so people can enter Europe legally, bypassing criminal gangs that smuggle them into Europe for profit. Safeguarding European borders will need a stronger policing or security force, thus coordinating our efforts on this front is also essential.
Cooperating with the transit countries is important, so maintaining good diplomatic relations with them is key. And if we decide that we need to reverse the flow, or at least limit it, we should encourage other regions to become big players in the globe and especially, to invest in the countries of origin of the potential migrants, creating jobs there. If their citizens feel that they have a future in their own communities, then they won’t be as keen to migrate to Europe. And by allowing a multi-polar world to emerge, with many new players and prosperous regions, then Europe will not be the only continent too appealing to the potential immigrants.
Therefore we need to engage with all other regions in the world, promoting stability, prosperity and education, together with our values and aspirations for a more united, interconnected world and set an example for others. But this won’t happen when we are not sure of who we are, what we want or how to deal with our own problems, because we are unable to hold an open debate on the type of European society we wish to create for our future generations.