Friday, 26 February 2016

A few thoughts on the EU refugee crisis

After last year’s unparalleled influx of refugees into Europe, the continent’s leaders promised to use the calmer months of winter to draw up a plan to deal with the millions at their borders. Yet the EU is no better prepared, and in some ways the situation is worse. Unfortunately this makes sense because the “EU refugee crisis” has less to do with refugees and everything to do with the EU.

Many European countries will experience profound demographic decline over the next 50 years. One major factor for this trend is that as a society gets richer, women tend to delay or cancel having children. But since demographic replacement rate is reached with an average of 2.1 births per woman, ensuring a society meets its replacement rate is a task for responsible government.

Unfortunately, many EU countries are already below this mark, in some places significantly so. A few leaders who can see the approaching demographic cliff are trying to offset it by skipping the unproductive childhood stage and encouraging refugee adults to migrate instead. This is part of a larger trend in most advanced countries towards viewing humans as a capital resource. Advanced countries with poor birth rates will compete for access to this human capital over the next century.

The wave of refugees solves two other EU problems: it quickly increases the total numbers of producer/consumers to maintain the EU’s commercial output. It also builds what Indian politicians lovingly call a “vote bank”. This will keep status quo progressives in power for the next 100 years and retain the structure of the welfare state.

A marginal, but not unimportant, effect is how refugee migration sidesteps the nasty immigration paperwork while neatly ticking the desirable boxes of humanitarianism and other progressive ideals to frame the EU as an responsible member of the international community (it’s important to retain such standing in countries with similar ideals, such as the US and NZ).

The societal impact from the refugees and the changes to the individual EU country's cultures will be evolutionary at worst. And far from being a large refugee intake, government figures suggest less than 2 million refugees are awaiting process. The true figure is likely 1.3 million. To put this in perspective, the total EU population is approaching 400 million.

The parts of European culture which fail to adapt to the influx of will be marginalised, while the parts which do cope will find an equilibrium. For example, observe the societal evolution in much of southern France since Algeria’s independence. The regions have largely subsumed these migrants over time, mixing French and Algerian cultures together.

The complaints about increasing levels of sexual abuse from refugees are accurate, and one should never discount how viciously the immune system of a society will fight back against a force which threatens “their” women, but it is unlikely that this abuse will lead to powerful counter movements. Many right-wing and nationalist forces are already present.

Where refugees will impact EU politics is to stoke these existing divisions among its members. This can be seen in the immediate reaction of the French government after the November 2015 Paris attacks to shut down the nation’s borders. They achieved this so efficiently that it is assumed Paris already had similar plans before the attacks.

Those plans are a result of the fraying relationships between France and its EU neighbours, especially Germany. Likewise, the angst in Poland over the past few months reflects Warsaw's frustration both with EU fecklessness regarding Russian adventurism and the clear failing of a robust NATO and EU defensive promise.

The obverse is true in Greece, however, where Athens has chosen to accept refugees, send its coastguard to “save” as many as possible, but refuses to house them in internment camps because it says such an act would be inhumane. Instead, Athens sends refugees north into the Balkans towards Germany because Athens complains it cannot afford to house them on its territory.

The Greek minister responsible for migration, Ioannis Mouzalas, warned on February 28 that the number of migrants trapped in Greece could balloon to between 50,000 and 70,000 in the coming month. Greece is still fighting an intense political battle with Berlin and Brussels over this eye watering debt level to secure new tranches of relief from EU banks.

Many EU members are also feeling increasingly unhappy with the EU structure, which is viewed as weak and irrelevant. Each are looking for ways or excuses to further dilute Brussels' power and increase their national sovereignty. The refugee crisis is a pre-packaged excuse to pull further away from the union.

In other words, plenty of smart and power-hungry people are using the refugee crisis to expand their political strategies, many of which were already in train well before the influx of refugees late last year. This is precisely why we are all reading about it in the media. As an arm of the state, what is released in the papers and TV channels can only by definition boost the status quo. One just needs to understand the status quo to see how refugees are both a tool and an opportunity.

This analysis doesn't include how the US and other Western countries view the crisis. Nor does it address the causes of the influx into Europe. The EU can only deal with this larger problem if it is aligned on the broader questions of the union. Unfortunately for both the EU and the refugees, the political winter appears to be just getting started.

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