What the Syrian migrant crisis tells us about Europe’s politics
To the eponymous legislature of both Messrs Murphy and Parkinson, we should surely add a third - Cameron’s Law or, perhaps, Merkel’s Theorem. Though the exact wording would obviously be subject to protracted international debate, this would roughly approximate to: “There is no situation so grave or wretched that someone, somewhere won’t seek to make political capital out of it.”
A case in point, of late, would be the Refugee Crisis, something that has been befuddling European politicians of every hue, off and on, since 2011. For the most part, this has cast EU administrators into Canute-like roles, seeking to stem the Syrian tide as it threatened to swamp health systems, schools or housing resources, depending on which mock concern looked least NIMBYesque on the day in question.
Famously, all of this changed nearly a month ago, when photographs of a drowned three-year-old flashed around the world. Rightly sensing a shift in public sentiment – and an opportunity for a little self-serving hand-wringing - the Eurocrats jostled with one another to score points and reshuffle the deckchairs on their own faltering ships of state.
For David Cameron, a man for a whom a commitment may as well be a sax player in a Roddy Doyle movie, it was a chance to fudge his own immigration figures. Long tussling with his public pledge to appease Middle England by manhandling migrants back to Calais, he has been hamstrung by the EU open borders policy. In short, he has been buying off public opponents – within and without his own party – by promising to deliver the undeliverable, a fact he has surely been only too aware of.
With the British public famously likely to fail in any pub quiz that sought a dictionary difference between an immigrant and a refugee, you can see only too clearly how next year’s net migration figures will be spun. At the same time, these photo-opp friendly fleers of distant tyrannies have neatly sorted another policy pledge for the Cameronistas.
It has long rankled with the more right wing rank and file that the UK is committed to spending 0.7% of its gross national income on international aid. With this pledge somewhat grudgingly enshrined on the statute books as late as March this year – making the UK the only G7 nation to meet the target figure set by the UN back in 1970 – it would be politically difficult for even Cameron, one of the world’s great welchers, to blob on this particular statistic.
Instead, he has announced that portions of the UK overseas aid budget will be spent far more closely to home in order to cater for the 20,000 Syrian immigrants the UK has agreed to accept. Details of this infamously vague commitment are hard to come by but, suffice, to say it is far more politically expedient to spend foreign aid on building new Home County dentists than artesian wells in Darfur.
Aside from Cameron, the other great beneficiary of the Refugee Unpleasantness has, of course, been Angela Merkel, the doughty Deutsche Chancellor. Initially hailed for her humanitarian commitment to taking up to 800,000 refugees, Mother Merkel has only been slightly dented by intimations of enlightened self-interest.
By 2060, according to The Economist, Germany will be down some 20 million citizens – a little under a quarter of its 2014 total of 82.6 million residents. For a nation facing a yawning shortage of wait staff and public transport workers, 800,000 Syrians cannot too soon mount a dinghy Deutschewards.
The other great appeal of a little display of magnanimity by the German Chancellor was the two rather unfortunate anniversaries her country has been obliged to straddle. With events to mark the centenary of First world war still having three years on the clock, the 70th anniversary of the end of Second world war has also put in a rather unwelcome appearance.
On the Chinese mainland – with plucky little Hong Kong joining in as a sign of good will – a whole day was set aside to opportunistically ponder on the evils of the Axis, well of one in particular. In Europe, however, a rather different approach was adopted. While the braveness of The Few was widely marked, scant attention was a paid to the source or details of the contretemps. One was left with the distant impression that some Unpleasantness took place 70 summers ago, but that it was all Rather Ungentlemanly to dwell upon it.
Nevertheless, a chance to show a different side to Germany will have been a welcome respite for the Chancellor, especially in an age where Soft Power seems to gazump Nuclear at every turn. Sadly, for Frau Merkel no sooner had the Summer of the Spitfire been seen off, than the Fall of the Volkswagen wheezed into view. While seemingly an emission impossible to dodge, signs are that the sins of the German company will simply be merged into those of the global automotive industry collective, with a hint of we-are-all-to-blame already wafting in from the west. In 75 years – or less- expect Volkswagen’s green credentials to be the subject of wide commemoration.
While it has oft been said that history is written by the winners, Germany is apt proof that it is just as easily rewritten by determined national spinners and corporate PR men.