A sign of the times is Corbyn’s suggestion that segregated, women-only train carriages might be re-introduced, to assure the safety and comfort of female passengers. No-one dares call to account the men who make the female passengers unsafe and uncomfortable. Europe, nasty old colonial Europe, has lost the will to set moral boundaries against wrong-doers and to challenge any crossing of them; in these besieged circumstances its only other possible response is to retreat from its aspiration of inclusiveness into the formation of physical barriers, safe spaces, gated communities, panic rooms, to roll out the barbed wire along its borders again. Labour’s next idea for the protection of women will doubtless be compulsory headscarves for them all.
Corbyn’s first act as leader was to attend a rally in support of refugees. Should that be “refugees”? Quite possibly. Some are undoubtedly genuine – at least in intention if not necessarily in definition – while others can be matched to those Bangladeshi and Pakistani passports found flung over hedges in Serbia. The whole country-shopping world wants to be Syrian now because to be Syrian is the stated path to becoming European. The Germans this week started unpicking the Schengen Agreement, having belatedly realised that they’ve bitten off far more than they can chew. Frau Merkel’s Bavarian allies, with their own regional parliament and politics – a kind of German Scotland – are among those now breaking ranks.
Fortunately, Jean-Claude Juncker has a cunning plan. To set quotas and spread the migrants around. Easier said than done, because the capacity to take in more people is not uniform.David Cameron has offered to take 20,000. If the current patterns of refugee allocation continue, just under half will end up living in the north of England. That’s because the UK’s failure to achieve balanced regional development means it’s cheaper to house them up there. Since 2012, when the contract for managing the distribution of asylum-seekers was handed to Serco, the number of asylum-seekers in the north-west has risen by 50% but fallen by 20% in London. Cameron’s Witney constituency has contained not a single refugee since 2008. Do as I say, not as I do?
Natalie Bennett, Leader of the Green Party has put in a much higher bid than Cameron’s, for 240,000 refugees, based on 2 million Europe-wide and the UK’s proportion of total EU population (12%). That’s a city the size of Plymouth or Southampton. It’s roughly 100,000 families, or at 12 houses to the acre, 8,333 acres of farmland, the equivalent of concreting over 2 or 3 whole parishes. And this is the Green Party? It’s just so very easy to sign away the environment of others without asking. Do those calling for more migrants to be accepted think the cities will take them all? That there will be no consequences for the fields they can see out of the window, fields already under pressure from London overspill as the pampered capital boils over? Not even Lancashire is infinite. Germany has a shrinking population. Its rate of natural increase – the excess of births over deaths – is negative, at -2.87 per 1,000 population. The UK’s is positive, at 3.01 per 1,000. That’s why Cameron’s numbers make some degree of sense and his critics’ make none.
Juncker’s agenda has two parts. The first deals with quotas, on which EU leaders yesterday agreed to disagree. The second redefines ‘refugee’ to include not only those fleeing war or persecution but those fleeing poverty too. Now, it should be clear from their mobile phones and credit cards, not to mention the means to pay the smugglers’ fare, that today’s migrants are not as poor as they used to be. Developing countries have developed beyond the point where such journeys were simply impossible and into new circumstances where they’re now the epitome of ambition.
Nevertheless, relative poverty continues to drive that ambition and Juncker, in pandering to it, has invited almost the whole world to come to Europe. In doing so, he may have destroyed the EU itself, because a desire for national suicide is not as widely shared as his policy would suggest. Opening the doors of the European house and fining those countries that keep the doors to their own rooms closed allows the EU to be portrayed not as defending Europe but as orchestrating its destruction. In the absence of an alternative Europe, one proud of Europe’s achievements and determined, for the sake of the whole world, to preserve them at all costs, the chief beneficiaries of this stance will be the parties of the nationalist Right, opposed equally to the EU and to regionalism.
Instead of naming and shaming the Gulf states whose actions and inactions contribute most to shaping the crisis, the Brussels-Berlin axis is pointing the finger at EU countries defying a European line that hasn’t actually been fully agreed It’s become an issue of reputation management, as befits a regime of PR men. What will the world think of Europe if supranational order cannot be substituted for a diversity of national opinions? Europe’s reputation must be defended, even as Europe itself is not. No sacrifice by Europe is too great to secure favourable headlines elsewhere in the world.
It’s alright though, because Europe will be destroyed in the name of ‘common European values’. The chutzpah is certainly admirable. If countries have to be fined for failing to adhere to these common values, how common were these values in the first place? What price respect for subsidiarity and national democracy? Defining common values is always fraught with difficulty, because if they’re common then they cannot just be imposed. To define European values is to define their counterpart, un-European values, and we’re then into some very familiar McCarthyite territory. It’s one reason why we won’t define ‘Wessex values’. We’ll define Wessex Regionalist values – and we have done – and we’ll advocate them, but what’s our choice won’t be everybody’s.
If we were to seek out Europe’s values today we might find a fusion of classical and Judaeo-Christian ideas, tested and modified through centuries of conflict: religious and civil wars, the struggle against totalitarianism, the ever-changing challenging of perceptions and prejudices. The result isn’t fixed by any means and there are threads within European thought that if developed further will take us in very different directions.
So whose ‘common European values’ are we talking about here? Who are they designed to exclude? In the event of conflict, do the elites plan to side with the natives against the migrants, or the migrants against the natives? Every elite needs a thug class to implement its orders, one whose roots in society don’t go too deep. Will assimilation give way to a forced ‘meeting in the middle’, producing a culturally embarrassed Europe in which fear masquerades as tolerance and guilt as inaction? Or will the natives wise up to the fact that it’s only they who are being asked to forgo their identity out of politeness to their guests? It may read like a scene from Michel Houellebecq’s Submission but Saudi Arabia has reportedly offered to fund 200 new mosques across Germany to meet the spiritual needs of migrants. If these are permanent buildings, ‘migrants’ may be the wrong word and ‘colonists’ the right one.
Those elites certainly have a problem. Gordon Brown’s attempts to define ‘Britishness’ were a joke. No real, living culture needs a public debate on what it is and isn’t. It has better things to do. ‘What does it mean to be English?’ is another angst-ridden query. If Englishness is that invisible then it’s probably dead. Chauvinistic answers won’t fool anyone for long. To be English is, uniquely, to value freedom above all. Really? More than the Scots did in the Declaration of Arbroath? More than the French in ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’? More than the Germans in ‘Mit Gott für Freiheit und Vaterland’? Language barriers often blind us to the essential unity of Western thought. They also blind us to the fact that there are other world traditions for which liberty has no value, for which liberty, far from being hard-fought-for, is hard-fought-against.
To have no sense of your own values – and of how untypical they really are in the global context – is to assume that everyone is equally nice, no matter what they believe, think or represent. For the drinker, everyone is welcome to drink; for the person with no culture, or one sunk in a cultural coma, everyone is welcome, with no pressure to fit in. If you no longer have values, you have no grounds to reject anyone else. Not even if your society is living at its environmental limits, its quality of life about to tip into the abyss because the safeguards of its culture have been systematically disregarded.