Borders – Back Where We Were?

Over the next three days we’re holding our company-wide LLP Group ‘consulting’ weekend in Visegrad in Hungary, in a spa hotel overlooking the Danube, just where the river bends down towards Budapest from the Slovak border. We have these conferences once a year. They’re expensive in terms of direct costs and opportunity costs, but they’re educational and they’re good for morale. The drinks are on us.

My colleagues are coming from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia, Bulgaria, Romania and Luxembourg. Those travelling far are flying, but most of us are travelling by car, crossing as many borders as we must. Four of us made the journey yesterday, and it took eight hours to get from Prague to Visegrad. Two hours too many, but not, in fact, because borders have become more difficult, but because of a minor accident involving some trucks and a huge traffic jam. In 23 years of travelling on the dreadful Prague to Bratislava highway I can remember only a few occasions when the road was clear from one end to the other.

rajka

We were apprehensive that the closing of some Schengen borders in response to the refugee crisis might delay our journey, but we crossed the border between Slovakia and Hungary without delay. Only the long queue of cars and trucks crossing from Slovakia to Austria was a reminder of the reversion to the old restrictions on travel.

It’s depressing that after so many years of free movement borders are being closed in Europe. That we have taken open borders for granted for years now has never been more clear than during these temporary inconveniences. Perhaps we’ve already seen Europe at its most open, and won’t be criss-crossing as easily again for a lifetime or two.

A Belorussian colleague dared not travel at all, since his passport is currently with the British Consular authorities in Warsaw awaiting the granting of a British visa. These were the kind of inconveniences I thought we’d long ago put to rest.

The real border, of course, is the Schengen one, and the worst border is the one between Serbia and Hungary. Refugees/migrants are massing in ever greater numbers and trouble is inevitable. Indeed, yesterday there was tear gas. Let’s hope that tomorrow there aren’t bullets.

I sympathise with Hungary. Perhaps no one at the EU’s top tables took the problem seriously enough when there was time to do something about it – properly to finance and accommodate an orderly and humane acceptance of migrants arriving at the borders, and to ease their travel to safe havens all over Europe.

But Hungary’s policy of prevention, will surely not work, neither for Hungary in the long term, nor for the EU.

Let Them In

There are a dozen of arguments to be made about immigration, but the immediate moral issue is clear. Whilst we squabble about the future of these ‘migrants’, ‘immigrants’, ‘asylum seekers’ or ‘refugees’, arbitrarily labelling them ‘economic’ or ‘legitimate’ to suit one argument or another, they suffocate and drown.

Let them in.

migrants

Some argue that an ageing Europe needs immigrants to avoid economic decline. Others argue that if this is true in the mid- and long-term, there are still sufficient unemployed young people and women to take up the short-term slack.

Some argue that the ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity that follows from large-scale immigration is harmful. England for the English, Hungary for Hungarians. But the greatest civilisations of the world have thrived on diversity, and the world is smaller now – the parochial values of nationalism, ethnic, cultural, and religious homogeneity belong to the past.

Today, our values are supranational or global. Democracy, justice, human rights, equality of opportunity, tolerance. They transcend the particular customs and whims of a single group, and have nothing to do with creed.

Some argue that these people’s problems are not our problems. But in many cases it is the rich world’s meddling (usually driven by an insatiable thirst for oil) that have created the conditions they flee. What good came of our hundred years of meddling in Iraq, in Libya, in Afghanistan, in Syria?

Some argue that immigrants are a terrorist threat. But surely, well-funded terrorists can find a more convenient way of infiltrating Europe than through the fields of southern Europe and under the razor wire, or across the choppy seas of the Mediterranean in unseaworthy vessels.

There are many more arguments for or against. And whilst we argue, these desperate people drown and suffocate, prey to the people-smuggling scum who profit from their misery.

What I miss is kindness. Angela Merkel’s words stand out from the harsh, pragmatic words of her counterparts. And yet Germany has accepted twelve times as many immigrants in 2015 than Britain.

Quoting from the Guardian:

“There can be no tolerance of those who question the dignity of other people,” she said, standing in front of placards accusing her of being the people’s traitor. “There is no tolerance of those who are not ready to help, where, for legal and humanitarian reasons, help is due.”

And then there is our hypocrisy.

How often do our guide books extol the generous hospitality of the Arab world? And yet how hard we find it to reciprocate.

How often have we ourselves fled our own nations, and been received generously by others? Think of Hungary in 1956.

Whatever the causes, the immediate situation requires just one response. Let them in.