The Strange Death of Europe (Bloomsbury Continuum, June 2017)
Not far into Douglas Murray’s book, the reader starts to wonder what immigration has done to the author personally. His argument is not just that immigration to Europe is on the whole a bad thing, but that it is bad on each and every count. Murray makes this case with relentless, even remorseless energy. Tell him that the population in most European countries is falling rapidly and he answers that fewer people may well be a good thing. In any case, it is possible that Europeans avoid having children because they know that they will have to bring them up in a world of mass immigration. The population is aging? Immigration is no fix, since immigrants will age too. Perhaps immigration exposes Europeans to different cultures and ways of life capable of enriching their own experience? Yes, but you can get the same benefits by traveling abroad. At some point, Murray takes this logic to a humorous extreme. Do immigrants bring new and tasty food with them? They do, but a few chefs would suffice: “It may be that Europe has already learned what it needs to learn from cuisine, and accordingly gained all that it needs to gain, and that in order to continue to enjoy Indian food it will not be necessary to keep on importing more Indians into our societies.”
Murray’s main point, however, is not only that mass immigration is bad but that European governments pursued it without public approval. This criticism is a centerpiece of today’s renewed populism and nationalism, but Murray fails to explain how such a feat was possible. Are electorates in Europe really powerless in the face of elite consensus on immigration? How have politicians been able to impose their will on the public. What is their motivation for doing so? Important questions, but they are left unanswered.
Political reality is much more complex than Murray makes it to be. Take the case of Angela Merkel, whose open-door policy of 2015 was supposed to cost her the election in 2017. Yet it did nothing of the sort. She is likely to win not despite of her decision to accept in excess of 1 million refugees in Germany, but rather because of it. The reason is that she understood what an alternative policy would involve, while Murray does not. Just consider what would have been required to keep the refugees out: heavy police and military reinforcement of the border, pushing back against a wave of people who had lost everything, an effort much beyond the administrative resources of the German state , breeding chaos at home and abroad. Murray wrote his book while imagining it would come out after Merkel, having gambled with Europe’s secular identity, had destroyed her political career and legacy. Before the date of publication, the past changed.
Murray is also wrong about the legal situation. He seems to think that anyone who desires to come to Europe can do so. In fact, the European Union has an extremely restrictive policy on legal immigration. As for illegal migrants and refugees, it suffices to remember than hundreds die every month trying to reach European shores. That fact alone is evidence that there is no open door. Fences have gone up (1200 kilometers of border fences and walls have been built since 1989), return procedures intensified, detention of illegal entrants much increased. In sum, Europe has not tried to will immigration out of existence, but it has applied all the levers of public policy to manage historically outsized flows.
In the final analysis, advocates of hard limits on immigration believe in a kind of utopia in which state exercise perfect control over their borders. Like every utopia, it is drawn up in opposition to a dystopian nightmare, in this case wholesale “population replacement”, as Murray calls it (the term sounds especially ominous after Charlottesville). It is very difficult to understand what he has in mind. Are Europeans being asked to leave in order to make room for immigrants? Are they being forced to change their way if life? Of course not. Those cities which have received the largest share of immigrants - London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Vienna, Stockholm - are also the most attractive for Europeans, particularly the young.
The problem is rather the opposite. Far from being transformed, European life is developing new levels of rigidity. Despite the popularity of international cuisine, Europe is now less open to the world outside than at any time over the past five hundred years. How many young Europeans - polyglots when it comes to European languages - can speak Mandarin, Russian or Japanese?
Murray is at his most perplexing when discussing integration. After quoting approvingly the idea that Goethe is better than Omar Khayyam and making a few jokes about falafel, he laments that immigrants find it difficult to share those opinions. If integration means denouncing their own culture, though, it’s no wonder that many immigrants prefer to open Halal shops and hang pictures of Erdoğan on the windows. For Murray, integration involves a kind of personality change in which the patient forgets a traumatic episode about his past and starts life anew. Unsurprisingly, not many are willing to undergo this procedure.
In fact, integration has become difficult or impossible in just those countries where Murray’s ideas are most widely shared. In Belgium, where I live, immigrants continue to have very low participation rates in the job market and live in highly segregated neighborhoods. The process is not made easier by the extraordinary notion that those neighborhoods have become entirely separate worlds that are best left alone by natives. Is there any reason for that? Hardly. Everyone living in Brussels would profit from taking a short walk to Schaerbeek and Molenbeek, where he or she could eat magnificently at half the price, walk in elegant, tree-lined avenues, see children playing on the street, and listen to Arabic and Turkish for a change. Even immigrant neighborhoods are now seen as distant, dangerous and exotic. Imagine the rest of the world.
Then we have those recent policy innovations in Austria under which wearing a face covering is punished by a hefty fine. The law excludes those who do so for a reason having to do with sports or theatrical activities. Religion, specifically Islam, is the target. Far from having become the soft, tolerant creatures described by Murray, some Europeans have adopted discriminatory policies that would have seemed excessive to the colonial masters of the past. Those were men and women made of stronger stock, unlikely to be sent into hysterics by a piece of cloth.
This takes us to the main issue. The European Union will evidently continue to struggle with immigration. In a sense, the first wave of the crisis was the easiest to manage, as it was the product of the Syrian civil war and could be addressed in common with countries such as Turkey and Macedonia. What happens if immigration flows from sub-Saharan Africa continue to intensify, perhaps in response to global warming patterns? How will Europe respond then?
I have few doubts that the approach advocated by Murray could only make things worse. What Europe needs is not to erect an impregnable fortress. Instead, it is to increase its presence in the areas that may become points of origin and transit for growing migration flows. Europe also needs to maintain deeper relations with the governments there. These diplomatic encounters cannot succeed if they are made conditional on an implausible conversion to “European values.” Finally, Europe must create visa processing centers and other outposts that will allow it to screen migrants and refugees before they arrive on the continent.
Beyond any specific reforms, Europe needs a new foreign policy allowing it to play a leading role in future crises. Looking back at the Syrian refugee crisis, the most shocking thing is not that Europe has received in excess of 1 million refugees. Turkey, after all, accepted 3 million. It is that Europe did so without any inkling that this fact alone should entitle it to a seat at the table where the future of Syria is being decided. By viewing immigration in abstraction from foreign policy, Europe renders itself helpless to control future waves of migrants. If you give up any and every attempt to shape or influence the world outside your borders, it should come as no surprise that it becomes a source of instability. Europe has become an importer of instability because it is no longer an exporter of stability.
All these changes will require a significant change in mentality in the opposite direction to that advocated by Murray. We do not need a European Union dwelling on the feeling that its culture is uniquely superior to every other culture in the world. We already have that. What we need is a European Union involved in the affairs of the larger world on its doorstep.