If we pull up the drawbridge we become a nation of hypocrites

Next to the cataclysmic upheavals across the Middle East and North Africa, the petty skirmishes of European states fade into triviality

At midnight on Wednesday, I landed at Stansted airport. The midsummer night’s dream that greeted passengers had some predictable decor. In an arrivals hall stuffed to capacity, even the supposedly swifter Europeans-only e‑passport queue moved at a glacier’s pace.

A vast human snake coiled through 20 parallel lines towards the robot sentinels. It took just under an hour to cross the “UK Border”, that symbolic as well as legal threshold that every transit shed now trumpets from its eaves in supersized signage.

Does this sound like just another fuming tripper’s moan? If so, apologies. I should have spent that idle hour thanking every lucky star. Those who brandish a “good passport” (and the UK variety ranks fourth for visa-free acceptance) to cross most boundaries without hindrance or suspicion have no right to fret about the minor inconveniences of people-processing in bulk. Everyone who trudged towards the winking scanners in that early-hours line belonged among the blessed of the earth.

Now consider the outskirts of Calais, where 3,000 stranded souls wait between hope and despair in the “Jungle Deux” camp, or risk a life-threatening cross-Channel passage on the underside of a lorry. The produce and the products that normally fill those trucks bear witness to lopsided globalisation. We crave the goods; we need the capital. But the human cargos of a networked world remain as unwelcome as ever.

Or glance over the seas south of Lampedusa and east of Kos, where this year (according to UN calculations) 153,000 would-be citizens of Fortress Europa have played Russian roulette with their lives aboard a leaking hulk. Almost 2,000 have already drowned. To the eyes of future generations, those television shots from some tiny craft into which a rapacious smuggler has crammed 500 customers may resemble the slave-ship loading plans that stirred the wrath of abolitionists two centuries ago.

Next to the cataclysmic upheavals across the Middle East and North Africa that have sent this fragile army on its way, the petty skirmishes of European states fade into triviality. The British and the French wrangle over resources and responsibility at Calais. The French and the Italians quarrel over the migrants marooned on the scenic Riviera road at Ventimiglia. Not to be outdone, the Hungarians erect a fence on their Serbian border. Like some unerring lie detector primed by human misery and want, this year’s migrant flows have exposed the hypocrisy behind every solemn pledge of European solidarity. The selfish laws of Jungle Deux evidently run in Brussels, London and Paris as much as in the badlands around Calais.

Member states spar even over the current proposals to settle a mere 60,000 refugees, 40,000 of them already in the EU. Meanwhile, more than that total of migrants has, in the first six months of 2015, arrived both in Greece (63,000) and Italy (62,000). In the same speech in which he scolded some parts of the Muslim community for “quietly condoning” Isis extremism, David Cameron announced that Britain would take “a few hundred” more than the 500 war-displaced Syrians it has so far offered to accept. The UN refugee agency gives the number uprooted by that country’s civil wars at 3,984,393.

Yet, for all the White Cliffs mythology, Britain is not and never has been any kind of island citadel. In this year of Magna Carta commemorations, remember the cross-Channel invasion that almost everyone in England cheered. When Bad King John reneged on his vows to the rebel barons, Prince Louis of France – another stakeholder in the Angevin empire that stretched all the way from the Cheviots to the Pyrenees – invaded England in 1216. He was hailed as a saviour. And when, in Richard II, Shakespeare has the pan-European power-broker John of Gaunt (ie Ghent in Flanders) glorify “This fortress built by Nature for herself/ Against infection and the hand of war”, and celebrate “This precious stone set in the silver sea,/ Which serves it in the office of a wall”, his talismanic speech opens a play that closes with another welcome French-backed invasion. It makes short work of that fabled liquid wall. Symbols and metaphors do matter. However much a mirage, the image of an impregnable “fortress” has swayed sentiment and shaped policy.

Today, Britain’s cherished opt-out from the 1985 Schengen Agreement consigns UK citizens to remote corners of airports across the Continent. At these far gates they can relish the benefits of closed borders in queues that keep a few bored document-checkers busy. Slightly more seriously, the Schengen exclusion has until now deterred free-spending Chinese tourists, at an estimated annual cost of more than $1bn in lost revenue. From 1 July, however, the Middle Kingdom can meet the Muddle Kingdom. A bonus gift of UK entry will now apply to Chinese visas for Belgium. In any case, Schengen is now fraying at its seams, as the bars swing down again across Europe’s roads.

Any nation that cherishes old stories of its separateness will nurture a faith in ritual barriers. Ask the Chinese visitors about that. Here, first a combative Protestantism, then a succession of successful wars against the hegemonic rulers of Europe (from the Sun King and Napoleon to Hitler) gave the idea of insular singularity a peculiar emotional heft. The British Museum’s recent exhibition of Napoleonic caricatures, Bonaparte and the British, featured some superbly rude cartoons of a steak-faced John Bull snorting his defiance across the Channel. They could easily appear in a Europhobic tabloid this weekend.

Vulgar merriment aside, the discrepancy between the British (or rather English) fondness for splendid isolation and the real experience of a globally connected maritime, commercial and colonial nation creates a mental block. It makes clear-headed debate about migration policy unusually problematic. More than ever, we need it. This week’s figures from the Office for National Statistics show a record population for the UK of 64,596,800. More of last year’s rise, of 491,000, came from net migration (259,700) than from “natural growth”. According to the even-handed evidence-gathering of Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, total net migration between 1991 and 2014 amounted to 3,979,000 people.

That headline figure needs a proviso. Even long-term incomers go home, and the Observatory reports “a steady decrease in the share coming for more than four years” (27 per cent in 2013). However, these variable spikes will level out into a higher permanent plateau.

Over the next generation, migration-driven economic dynamism may well save this country from some of the sclerosis and stagnation that menace the fast‑ageing rich world. That stark reality, and the urgent policy demands that will ensue, looms too large for sloganeering. But it helps explain the escapist allure of the drawbridge-raising, intruder-snaring fantasies that have swirled around the media this week. Meanwhile, the so far baseless scare about jihadi returnees hidden in juggernauts does nothing to focus minds on thwarting the kind of deadly assaults that took place yesterday in Tunisia and France.

Europe as a whole has failed to meet the challenge of mass chaotic inflows. Still, the White Cliffs mindset bred by much of British culture may make us peculiarly prone to doublethink, especially over asylum. Given the modest scale of the EU refugee resettlement plan, and the unignorable bulk of those 3,979,000 legal arrivals, the words of a subversive Middle Eastern preacher come to mind. You know: the one who railed at “Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel”.

Above-board entrants aside, most undocumented migrants arrive legally and simply overstay their visas. Many slide off the official radar to work honestly, if not in accordance with immigration law. Some sectors of our “booming” economy would wither without them. Rather than unpick this knot, politicians prefer to scream pointlessly across La Manche. Front-page images of some hapless would-be incomer secreted in a chassis have proved a propaganda godsend. Lurid tales from the hell of Jungle Deux beat an old, deceiving drum. How much simpler to take pot-shots at these frantic seekers than plan – and fund – the schools, jobs, homes and hospitals needed to ensure that the expanding numbers we already have add up to advantages for all. Fears of the barbarian at the gate always serve a purpose. Just now, and not in the UK alone, they stifle mature discussion about burden-sharing and long-term strategy in favour of panicky crisis management that yields a cheap political pay-off.

C P Cavafy, the great Greek poet of Alexandria, had the last word about the social usefulness of alien hordes. With rabid savages about to pummel on the gates, why bother to work or even think? “Why do the Senators sit back and do not legislate?/ Because the barbarians will arrive today.” Later in his perennially topical fable “Waiting for the Barbarians”, night falls on the supposedly beleaguered city. Still, “the barbarians have not come”. Even worse, messengers arrive from the frontiers to tell the citizens “that there are no barbarians any more” – with, presumably, no more frothing headlines. “And now, what will become of us without barbarians? Those people were some sort of a solution.”

Indeed they were, and are.

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