July 31, 2021

There is an irony to be discerned in the European Union’s adoption of a series of fantasy bridges as a unifying symbol on its Euro banknotes: in reality, it is walls that are going up across the continent’s eastern approaches, as European politicians brace themselves for the flow of refugees about to make the trek from Afghanistan. After 20 failed years of war, the American pullout from Afghanistan will probably see the Taliban controlling more of the country than it did on 9/11, including the former anti-Taliban heartlands of the Northern Alliance. With a median age of 18.4 — more than 40% of the country’s 30 million population is less than 14 years old — most Afghans have lived their entire lives underneath Washington’s imperial umbrella. 

The country’s Westernised middle classes, centred on Kabul, and ethnic and religious minorities like the Shia Hazara, who played a central role in the 2015 migrant crisis, are unlikely to try their chances under Taliban rule, as long as the door to Europe remains open. Already, Afghans make up 42% of the refugees and migrants living in squalid conditions on Greece’s eastern island camps, perhaps an even larger proportion than they did in 2015 when the large presence of Afghan Hazaras was dramatically underreported in the West, distracted by the Syria crisis, despite Afghans constituting a major portion of the migratory flow, including 2/3rds of Sweden’s 2015 arrivals.

But in any case, the Europe of 2021 is not the Europe of 2015, and Europe’s leaders have no appetite for a return of the political turmoil that followed Merkel’s experiment with open borders. Distracted by Brexit and imported American culture wars, Britain’s remaining pro-EU contingent have neglected to follow the developing consensus on the continent, where the hard line on migration for which Viktor Orbán was lambasted by liberal commentators back in 2015 has now entered the political mainstream. 

When asked whether Germany had a duty to open the country’s doors to Afghan migration, even Merkel herself recently responded that “we cannot solve all of these problems by taking everyone in”. Instead she encouraged, rather unrealistically, a dialogue with the Taliban so “that people can live as peacefully as possible in the country”. In neighbouring Austria, Chancellor Kurz’s centre-right/Green coalition has responded to the surge in arrivals on its eastern borders with the deployment of the army and angry protests that European migration policy has “failed”, with the country’s Interior Minister Karl Nehammer complaining that “we have one of the biggest Afghan communities in the whole of Europe,” and that “it cannot be the case that Austria and Germany are solving the Afghanistan problem for the EU.”

The Austrian government has decisively swung towards the Central European approach of hardened borders and expedited returns to countries of origin, with Kurz stressing that he would not halt deportations to Afghanistan, as Sweden and Finland already have, a reflection of a public mood darkened by recent high-profile crimes carried out by Afghan asylum seekers. Like centre-left Denmark, which is accelerating both its return of refugees to Syria and the search, apparently along with the UK, of third-party countries in Africa willing to host refugees and migrants on its behalf, the new mood in Austria is not the result of the populist Right coming to power, but instead of centrist parties adopting solutions that were in 2015 considered the sole preserve of the radical Right.

As in Spain, where the next government is likely to be a coalition between the centre-right PP and the radical right Vox, in Italy a coalition government between the centre-Right and the far-Right looms in the wings. Indeed, Salvini’s Lega is now so outflanked on its Right by the rising power of Georgia Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy party, the most popular political party in the country, that it can be considered centre-Right itself, so far has the country’s Overton Window shifted. In France, where Macron has angrily rejected an imported American racial culture war in favour of the country’s homegrown culture war over Islam and the possibility of civil war, the soi-disant liberal saviour from the perceived populist menace has moved so far to the Right that the roughly even chances of a Le Pen victory in the forthcoming presidential election seem almost irrelevant in defining the country’s political trajectory. 

Perhaps it is Greece that highlights best not just the shifting mood in Europe’s external border states, but the shifting mood in Brussels itself. When Erdogan opened Turkey’s land borders with Greece in spring last year, bussing migrants to the border fences in a confrontation that came uncomfortably close to war, Greece’s militarised response unexpectedly won applause rather than censure from the EU hierarchy, as well as the swift dispatch of both Frontex border guards and funds to build an impassable border wall, now being beefed up with EU surveillance zeppelins and drones. Rather than a rerun of the 2015 migrant crisis, when Europe functioned as a ready source of monetary tribute to an embattled Erdogan, last year’s Evros crisis functioned as a dry run for the coming Afghan wave.

After all, when Belarus’s autocrat Lukashenko began funnelling migrants to the Lithuanian border a few weeks ago, Frontex immediately responded with the deployment of border guards, and support for Lithuania’s planned new 550-km border wall — with Estonia even donating 100km of barbed wire to its struggling ally. Once again, the exact same fortification project Orbán was condemned for in 2015 was hurriedly paid for by the EU in 2020, and presented as a heartening symbol of EU solidarity by 2021. From the Baltic to the Aegean, walls are going up across the eastern marches of the European continent, which will soon define the bloc against the huddling masses straining to get in. Even in Turkey, where the secular opposition CHP party has accelerated its demands to return the country’s three million Syrian refugees within two years and made alarmed noises about the increasing flow of Afghan migrants across the Iranian border, the ruling AKP party is constructing concrete border walls to stem the flow from Afghanistan, just as it has constructed a concrete wall all along its borders with Syria, and deploys lethal force against Syrians trying to sneak through.

Turkey has become, indeed, the archetype of Europe’s new border guard states, the model for what will no doubt become a ring of authoritarian states bordering the continent’s southern and eastern fringes, whose rulers will be lavishly bribed to keep migrants and refugees from landing on European shores, a relationship somewhere between clients and blackmailers. Like Erdogan, who quickly learned to deploy migrants as a weapon against Europe whenever he was under pressure, Lukashenko has learned the value of Europe’s desire to keep migrants away while not actively being seen to dirty its own hands with the rough business of border management. 

The Moroccan government was equally quick to learn this lesson, recently waving through thousands of migrants to Spain’s North African foothold of Ceuta after the Spanish government granted asylum to a Western Saharan leader, and receiving a handsome bribe to take them back again. Meanwhile, Europe’s only interest in Libya is which faction can most effectively police migrants, just as its only interest in Tunisia’s ongoing coup will be the maintenance of this summer’s border policing deal. Despite the difficulties raised by American financial sanctions, the EU even appears to be eyeing up Iran as one of the potential host nations for the coming Afghan exodus, a dynamic which, if it takes effect, will surely dramatically affect all other aspects of its difficult diplomatic dance with the country. 

So while handing responsibility for keeping migrants out of Europe to regional states may be domestically easier for EU leaders, particularly those from Northwestern and Nordic countries with Green-tinged parties ideologically committed to pro-migration policies, it also offers neighbouring nations handy weapons to deploy against the bloc for their own geopolitical purposes. The great difficulty for European politics is how to balance these opposing tendencies: it is difficult to think, given the steady rightward drift of European politics, that an Open Borders attitude will win out against the simpler solution of a hands-on European effort to prevent migrants entering the EU. 

The expansion of the EU’s Frontex border agency into a 10,000 strong armed rapid deployment force indicates the direction of travel. Indeed, we are already seeing early manifestations of this approach, both in the pushbacks of migrants in the Aegean by the Greek coastguard with Frontex support, and in the growing legal restrictions on the activity of Western European NGO boats blamed for accelerating the migrant flow. Both were placed with the quiet acquiescence of Brussels, despite the protests of Northern European Green parties.

All this is, of course, a dry run for the almost certainly militarised and exclusionary border policing efforts that will grapple with the vast population movements from Africa and South Asia that will attend the coming decades of climate change. Already, Bangladeshis are the largest single national group making the dangerous crossing from North Africa, and it is not difficult to see a desertifying Sahel or collapsing Lebanon adding new sudden crises for European leaders torn between their desire to maintain allegiance to postwar liberal ideals on asylum and the increasing desire of their voting publics to reject them. The avowedly open, cosmopolitan Europe of the 1990s and 2000s is already dead, and even the lame duck Merkel and her ailing CDU party have abandoned the Wir schaffen das attitude of 2015 in the face of the coming wave. 

The British debate over the Nationality and Borders Bill, insular and self-regarding as all British political debate somehow manages to be, therefore ignores this rapidly shifting European context. In some ways, this must be a relief to a Conservative government that has shown itself incapable of satisfying its core voter base’s demands to stem the flow of irregular migration across the Channel: without any action by the UK itself, the EU will find itself drawn towards a Fortress Europe approach that will, eventually, choke the flow arriving on Kent’s shingle beaches. 

Just as France’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin demands a Frontex deployment with aerial surveillance assets along the Channel coast, Priti Patel’s border woes will be solved by European leaders without meaningful British input other than funding analogous to the tribute the EU hands in desperation to Erdogan. The walls are going up across Europe: we will not see them coming down again in our lifetimes.

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