As I write, news is coming in of a series of explosions in Brussels. First the airport, now the metro. It looks as if the Euro-capital could well be facing its own 7/7. We don’t know yet how many people have been killed or injured. But in a way, that’s not the issue. Every fatality is devastating to the people affected, but even if nobody died the mission would be accomplished.
These people are called terrorists for a reason. What counts, even more than the carnage, is the chaos – cities in lockdown, major transport hubs evacuated, countless business arrangements thrown into chaos, yet more intrusive security checks, leading to more people deciding that overseas holidays just aren’t worth the hassle any more. Not just overseas, either. Even as someone normally fairly sanguine about the statistical probability of being caught in a terrorist incident, I’d rather not be in London on 23 April this year, when St George’s Day coincides with a huge celebration of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary.
Our plans and aspirations are constrained by fear. And that affects more than our diaries. It affects the way we feel about other people, particularly those who don’t look like us or share our religious views. Do we batten down the hatches? Do we talk about swarms, waves and invasions, rather than human beings? Do we build fences or reach out in solidarity?
There are no easy answers to these questions. We have to control migration somehow. And what we are seeing unfold in the chaos of Lesbos and Idomeni today is the direct result of the EU’s inability to confront that question head-on and make decent, effective and humane arrangements for processing asylum seekers and economic migrants a long time ago.
I’ll be honest, and risk the trolls – sometimes I’ve breathed a sigh of relief at the thought of fences going up across the Balkans, and sighed in irritation at Amnesty International and the UN going on about people’s human rights under international law. How much easier it would be to say they are all potential terrorists, don’t believe a word they say, dismiss every picture of anguished women and bewildered children as bleeding heart liberal propaganda. Say that we’re in a different world now and the rules put in place after the Second World War don’t apply, maybe don’t even matter any more.
Say Merkel was an idiot. Say Trump is a monster but you can see where he’s coming from. Say it’s all very well being worthy but your sister’s kids are in a school where most of their classmates don’t speak a word of English. Say we’re being overwhelmed. Say it’s not our problem.
Except you can’t look at Paris and Brussels and get away with saying that any more.
We can’t change what is happening in Brussels right now, but we can change our attitudes. We can say the EU is under siege and we have to keep pulling up the drawbridge, even as we know the smugglers will find another route and more people will die. Tough shit. Or we can look at the values that we hope still define us as Europeans, values that even now are potent enough to attract untold numbers of hopeful migrants to our shores. That some human beings, regardless of their faith or appearance are decent people, and others are liars and ideologues. That we mustn’t let our prejudices govern our actions, but hear them out and give them the opportunity to put their case in a court of law before we condemn them. That desperate people still have some dignity. That we can find a way through this, or at least we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to try.
And then we can, as a European community, pour everything we have into Greece to finance the armies of lawyers, border patrols, interpreters and humanitarian aid workers that will be needed to treat refugees decently and humanely. The deal with Turkey is anything but perfect, but right now it’s a start and it’s the best we have.
If we put up more walls, within ourselves and also across our continent, the terrorists have won. They have reduced us to their values – their nihilism, their lack of empathy, their irrationality, their inhumanity.
Brexit matters; it is nothing less than a fight for the very soul of Europe and our identity as world citizens. Sometimes I wish I could turn away, say the EU is going to the dogs and we are better out of it, that a bright future of non-engagement and independence awaits England – and it will be England, not Britain – elsewhere.
And other times, I don’t want to say anything. Not in public at least. Because someone will troll me, accuse me of being a hypocrite, a champagne socialist, or whatever hateful term is in vogue right now. I’ll be patronised, accused of being naive to have any ideals left.
So be it. A friend of mine was lamenting recently that she couldn’t source any Europhile posters to put in her window. Where are the slogans of the pro-Europeans? Is it all too complicated to boil down to a few powerful words?
I think we already have our slogan, but because it isn’t in English, we didn’t recognise it. And like all the best slogans, it’s very simple.
We can do this. We can make it. Together.
Or at the very least, we can try.