Joyce McMillan: Standing firm against politics of rage

Checkpoints  interrupt the narrative of increasing integration and unity that has driven Nordic and EU politics. Picture: GettyCheckpoints  interrupt the narrative of increasing integration and unity that has driven Nordic and EU politics. Picture: Getty
Checkpoints interrupt the narrative of increasing integration and unity that has driven Nordic and EU politics. Picture: Getty
ANGELA Merkel has proved herself to be a real leader in a Europe increasingly divided by the migrant crisis, writes Joyce McMillan

As fans of the television series The Bridge will know, the great Oresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden is a thing of strange, haunting beauty. The landscape around it is anything but spectacular; since its opening in 2000, the bridge has linked the flatlands around the Swedish city of Malmo to the flatlands around Copenhagen, just as the television show brings together the Malmo and Copenhagen police departments, in joint investigations of a series of darkly Nordic crimes.

Yet as the cinematographers of The Bridge well know, the crossing’s uninterrupted five-mile span – completed by a two-and-a half mile tunnel – has a brooding symbolic grandeur nonetheless, whether veiled in grey mist on a winter morning, or sparkling with lights at night; and I have always looked forward to travelling across it, one day, and enjoying the full experience of one of Europe’s most integrated regions.

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No more, though; because on 4 January, the Swedish government introduced passport checks between Denmark and Sweden, for the first time in more than 50 years. For most travellers across the bridge, it will mean only a small change, of course; but it interrupts the narrative of increasing integration and unity that has driven Nordic and European Union politics ever since 1945, and subjects it to a sudden and frightening reversal. And the immediate reason lies, of course, in the refugee crisis, and the growing anxiety of all European governments - from Scandinavia to the borders of Serbia - to demonstrate that they know how to “protect their borders”.

The current narrative across most of the European media suggests, after all, that there was a brief surge of sympathy for refugees last year, following the death by drowning of little three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi; but that people are now increasingly hostile to refugees and reluctant to “take any more”, not least because of fear of terrorism. Commentators point to the supposed political plight of the German chancellor Angela Merkel, whose brave “open door” refugee policy is now coming under severe pressure. And the strange orchestrated events of New Year’s Eve, when gangs of North-African-looking youths gathered at stations in various European cities, particularly Cologne, and sexually assaulted and robbed several hundred young women, has only added grist to the mill of this dominant narrative.

Yet for all the popularity of this view of current European politics, it has the disadvantage of being largely inaccurate. Although around 1.5 million refugees have arrived in the European Union in the past year, the vast majority of them - more than a million - have gone to Germany, where contrary to rumour, the poll ratings of Angela Merkel’s centre-right alliance have barely fallen during the entire refugee crisis, and remain around 37 per cent, while support for the far-right Alternative For Germany, at around 10 per cent, is barely higher than a year ago. Most citizens of western Europe have yet to set eyes on a real-life Syrian refugee, far less have their interests directly threatened by them; there is, of course, no evidence at all that recent refugees - rather than EU-born citizens - are plotting terror attacks.

And in the countries which have absorbed the greatest numbers relative to population - Sweden, Germany and Finland - public opinion remains surprisingly positive. Last week, two-thirds of those interviewed in a German telephone survey told pollsters that the events in Cologne had not changed their views on the refugee issue at all - almost as if most citizens could see for themselves that the conduct of 1,000 youths at a railway station, even if some were recent refugees, does not tell you much about the attitudes or potential of the remaining 999,000.

So why are we being told that Germany is swinging sharply to the right in response to the crisis, and that Europe needs to dismantle some of the key pillars of its 60-year integration process? First, I think, because the rise of a new European right makes a more exciting story, particularly for a generation raised on old Second World War movies, than the truth of the far right’s relative failure. Second, because the European Union has its ideological enemies, those who simply dislike the “soft” culture of peace and negotiation, and of hard-won international co-operation after a nightmare generation of war in Europe, that it so outstandingly represents.

And thirdly, because European politics is currently afflicted by a generation of mediocre managerial leaders, who lack even that small flash of moral conviction and vision - and of intellectual rigour - that Angela Merkel has shown so far, in refusing to cave in to the anti-migrant agenda. Even in practical terms, statistics show that Germany is already gaining economically from its million new residents, and the economic activity surrounding their arrival.

Yet it’s the moral and social significance of chancellor Merkel’s stance that matters most, for the long-term future of this continent. For if migrants are to be invited to embrace the values represented by 21st century Europe - values, so we’re told, of peace and tolerance, of a welcome for those fleeing war and persecution, and of equal rights for all - then we must have at least some leaders who are prepared to stand up for those values, and not to make a mockery of them with every weasel-worded and implicitly xenophobic sentence they utter.

So far, in this crisis, Angela Merkel has proved herself that leader; the one who understands that if Europe cannot act with generosity at this moment, then it will have no future, because it will have no moral or ethical basis on which to build it. The loneliness of her position does not augur well for the future of the EU, or for the peaceful continent to which we have become accustomed.

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Yet she has not lost the battle yet, either for German public opinion, or for the future of Europe’s newest citizens. And those who are serious about our common future - and not simply playing the political game for short-term gain - should be standing shoulder to shoulder with her now; as she pits her belief in common humanity against the rhetoric of those who prefer a politics of rage and division, and who risk burning all our carefully-built bridges, as they strive to make a self-fulfilling prophecy of their ever-more lurid predictions of disintegration and meltdown.