“The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of Humanity.”
These are the words of Jean-Luc Picard, the Star Trek: Generations Captain. This is the twenty-fourth century and the United Federation of Planets dominates the galaxy. Yet, this quote is as much at home in Picard’s fictional twenty-fourth century as in today’s EU. In the era of widespread fake news and willing believers, Picard’s noble and wise pronouncement could be easily ascribed to the EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the German chancellor Angela Merkel, or any other influential European politician and many would believe it.
There are two dimensions to the EU project. One dimension centers upon shared humanitaria goals and the desire to spread them across the planet, i.e. to better ourselves and the rest of humanity. Hence, Jean-Claude Juncker stressed in his 2015 State of the Union speech that Europe, being “the wealthiest and most stable continent in the world,” is a beacon of hope. The other dimension of the EU project, sometimes at odds with the ‘beacon of hope’ notion, touches the mundane realities of affairs on the ground. The refugee crisis affecting Europe is one of the critical prisms for viewing the tensions between these two visions.
Data from The International Organization for Migration (IOM) shows that in 2015 about 1,046,599 migrants arrived to Europe by sea and 34,887 by land -about four times the combined total for 2014. Between January and June 2016, an estimated 210,643 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea only. Escaping conflict or hardship, since 2011 migrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia have been crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in ever growing numbers. By any measure, the economic, political and social implications of housing and integrating such a large and constant number of irregular migrants are not insignificant. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) stressed in its yearly report that 2015 stood out as particularly violent, with more wars than any other year since 2000. As conflict will continue to rage elsewhere, we should not expect a breakthrough to the refugee crisis affecting Europe anytime soon.
The humanitarian dimension of the EU project would incline many to share Jean-Claude Juncker’s passionate perception that
“We can build walls, we can build fences. But imagine for a second it were you, your child in your arms, the world you knew torn apart around you. There is no price you would not pay, there is no wall you would not climb, no sea you would not sail, no border you would not cross if it is war or the barbarism of the so-called Islamic State that you are fleeing.”
The EU can certainly throw its shroud of wealth, stability and hope around all those people escaping the Islamic State, the Bashar al-Assad regime, or any other enemy or conflict.
Nevertheless, some Europeans feel understandably anxious about the sheer numbers and constant influx. They would highlight, for example, that the main nationalities granted asylum in the EU over the last year were Syria (population 22.85 million), Eritrea (6.3 million), Iraq (33.2 million), Afghanistan (30.5 million). These are countries with protracted conflict profiles and from which their nationals will continue attempting to reach the EU. Asylum applicants or not, the word has spread that once inside the EU, you are part of the family. We have seen on the news the chaotic scenes when migrants have been denied free transit across Europe, a testament to their shared belief that they are in and feel already part of Europe. Again, you can see and feel the two European visions outlined as well as the associated tensions they give rise to.
Meanwhile, away in Planet Brexit a momentous debate concerning European identity issues continues unabated as a consequence of the 23 June vote in favor of the UK severing its membership to the EU. Before 23 June, however, both the ‘in’ and ‘out’ camps shared the belief that perhaps there was far too much humanitarian aspiration but little pragmatism underpinning proposed solutions to the refugee crisis. After all, British people were never very enthusiastic about the idea of a Federation of Planets ─and the shared burdens and responsibilities that come with it.
Perhaps there is an alternative vision to the EU project that can bridge the gaps between the EU’s humanitarian aspirations and the realities on the ground, and so too between the UK and the rest of Europe.
In the television series Battlestar Galactica the remnants of humanity cram together into a few star-ships whilst on a perilous journey to an elusive promised land that does not seem to exist. Before they get there, however, there is no other alternative but to reconcile their differences. They need to make systematic leaps of empathy to get along with one another. This is the only way one can build a future based on very finite resources whilst, at the same time, continue fighting the enemy. It is a very uneven interstellar fleet and refugees and migrants move from ship to ship as circumstances dictate. This alternative vision is messy and hardly that of a Federation of Planets. This vision also fails to capture the Brexit ship in all its majesty, on a unilateral mission to build a new empire from the ashes. Yet, this vision at least offers the cosy and brutal comforts of a future to which we all belong, whether we like it and accept it or not.
[Original draft of 15 March, 2016, prepared as an entry for the Nico Colchester fellowship]