Since 2016 we have seen a reversal in the political order of things in Europe. The recent swing of the pendulum towards the extreme right (now commonly referred to as ‘populists’) brought about unprecedented shock waves in Europe.

Before 2017 political wisdom post-World War II contended that the extreme right was always going to be an uncomfortable irritant but never a serious threat to the well-tested and proven political set-up in Europe with the centre-right and the centre-left holding sway as mainstream political parties.  

Bloomberg reported in December 2017 that for many political observers the year just ending looked like the time when moderate politicians took back Europe. The election of centrist Emmanuel Macron to the French presidency and the re-election of Angela Merkel in Germany were hailed as the turning-point against the rising tide of populist sentiment in Europe.

The relief was short-lived. An analysis by Bloomberg of decades of election results across 22 European countries revealed that support for populists and radical right parties was higher than it had ever been in the past 30 years. The radical right is, moreover, looking with great anticipation and confidence at the European Parliament elections of 2019 that could bring about far-reaching changes in the alignment (or realignment) of parties in the European Parliament.

In the famous book by Alan Bullock Hitler – A Study in Tyranny, the author writes: “He [Hitler] had advantages over other parties. He was prepared to be much more extreme than the middle-class parties at a time when extremism was the growing mood, and he was able to exploit German nationalism and xenophobia.”  

Nationalism and xenophobia are again the dominant factors in current politics in Europe. Unsuspectingly, the clock has been turned back.

On reflection one realises that the recent rise of the far-right in Europe should have been anticipated. The four freedoms of movement (goods, services, capital and people) were insisted upon as mandatory on new member states of the EU since 1985. The Schengen Agreement providing for the removal of internal borders within the Union compounded the already delicate situation. The visa harmonisation and consequent abolishing of border checks made it possible for people and vehicles to cross borders without stopping. In this fluid scenario controlling those who entered through the borders of Europe was going to be a Herculean task.

Thus immigration suddenly became the popular slogan that the radical right needed to squeeze out of the marginalisation in politics that so far had seemed to be its destiny in Europe. It was only a matter of time before the situation in the member states concerned would become untenable especially after the fall of communism and the initial enthusiastic insistence by the East European countries to join the EU.

Immigration is only the tip of the iceberg but it is symptomatic of the general malaise. All else will fail, unless Europe wakes up and addresses these realities

The matter was made more complicated by the 1990 Dublin Convention. The Convention determines the EU member state responsible for the examination of applications for asylum by claimants seeking protection under the 1951 UN Geneva Convention on Refugees. The full ratification of this convention and complete compliance with the provisions of the Dublin Convention were also made mandatory on new member states after 1990.                            

Thus the mass movement of low-cost labour from eastern Europe and the attraction of Europe as a place of hope and prosperity to hard-pressed people in the turbulent countries in the near and Far East, Asia and Africa was unavoidable. The Old Continent’s porous southern borders proved in time to be the main gateway by those seeking entrance into Europe with countries like Spain, Italy, Malta and Greece having to shoulder the main burden of this great mass of destitute humanity, at times (as in 2015) reaching millions of fleeing people. How could one not be alarmed by such grim picture?

Much of the blame for this situation was placed, by many citizens of Europe, squarely on the EU and its monolithic institutions. EU President Junker, in his 2018 State of the Union speech, said: “Europe must remain a tolerant open continent. Europe will never become a fortress turning its back on the world, notably the part of the world which is suffering.” At least this time we have been spared the further glorification of the discredited policy of burden sharing.

Brexit should have been the clarion call for reform but instead the stark message of the UK voters was swept under the carpet. In the meantime, every effort was being made to devalue the result of the June 2016 referendum as of no serious consequence to the overall European Project. 

The European voters are essentially saying that the European Union is still relevant but that it has lost its way in its bureaucratic stranglehold. Immigration is only the tip of the iceberg but it is symptomatic of the general malaise.

All else will fail, unless Europe wakes up and addresses these realities with far-reaching reforms that, for example, would allow European states to regain effective control, even in stages, of sovereignty over their populations and borders.

The continued existence of the EU is also threatened unless effective action is taken in time to heal the many wounds that threaten it.       

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