One of the great paradoxes of this era of globalisation is the narrowing of many Western minds about the world that lies beyond our own culture and values.
For sure today’s opinion formers – and indeed the vast majority of our population – are better travelled than ever, but the dominance of US culture and the English language has discouraged many in Western Europe from cultivating a firm understanding of the world beyond our shores. Diplomatic expenditure and foreign-based media have been scaled back relentlessly over the past decade alongside increased reliance on “open source” internet information.
Thoughtful insight and careful historical analysis have fast been replaced by wishful thinking in understanding the world beyond free-market, liberal democracies governed by the rule of law and familiar institutions. We are all guilty here in the West of believing our own propaganda – that somehow our system is a morally superior, final destination in the grand history of political development.
This thinking came to a head with the dominance of the neocon ideology under President George W Bush, which in the aftermath of 9/11 resulted in a belief that democracy and the rule of law could be imposed by invasion of sovereign states. The younger sibling of this philosophy was Western reaction in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, where many European countries joined in the clamour to impose Western values, partly by listening only to intelligence on the ground that accorded with their existing opinions and outlook.
What is now evident is that substantial groups within our society are increasingly hostile to liberal democracy. Even in EU neighbours such as Hungary and Poland, let alone in President Erdogan’s Turkey, we see the rise of an authoritarian, illiberal democratic trend. Donald Trump’s appeal in the US has similar roots. The causes are not identical, but prolonged economic austerity for vast swathes of the electorate following the financial crisis has now toxically been followed by the impact of the migrant crisis, which has given licence for populist politicians to grandstand.
The sheer misery of the migration crisis has been accentuated by its conduct being governed by a set of international refugee conventions that are simply no longer fit for purpose.
The Geneva Convention on Refugees was drawn up in 1951 in response to the displacement of millions ethnically cleansed in the aftermath of the Second World War, with the central definition of a refugee being a person “outside his country of nationality or habitual residence” with a “well-founded fear of persecution” as a consequence of “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. The subsequent 2013 Dublin regulation required someone arriving in the EU to claim asylum in the first country they reach – which even at the time it was drawn up was likely to place an intolerable burden upon Mediterranean countries with substantial coastlines difficult to monitor.
What has changed beyond recognition over the past decade as a consequence of the international upheaval since terrorism became global is the very concept of asylum status. The Geneva Convention and even the far more recent EU provisions envisaged individual or small group entitlement to the granting of refugeehood, normally to political dissidents. Like so much else, asylum has become commoditised, with modern communications and the grisly network of people trafficking bringing the prospect of migration to an infinitely larger group than would have been envisaged by those who framed the Geneva Convention. The emergence of human rights legislation and lawyers, coupled, at least here in the UK, with an explosion in judicial review, has opened up the criteria for legitimate asylum claims in an unexpected way.
The hard and fast distinction between refugee and migrant status has all but disappeared – rights to “family life” and “fear of persecution on lifestyle grounds” have brought vast numbers of displaced persons within the scope of asylum claims. Arguably the indisputable fact of civil wars raging across the Middle East and North Africa gives rise to a prospective claim for anyone holding a Syrian, Libyan or Tunisian passport, even if they are from regions broadly unaffected by strife.
Unless as a matter of urgency we begin a serious analysis of how we limit the block entitlement to claim refugee status under the Geneva Convention, we surely risk the unravelling of liberal democracy across many parts of Europe. For the migrant crisis has become the justification for a resurgence of nationalism and popular demand for the undermining of (the relatively immature) democratic institutions within several post-Communist EU states.