- By Chris Kremidas Courtney
Jens Spahn is Parliamentary State Secretary in the German Ministry of Finance and a European Young Leader
Although many of us may find it difficult to say so given recent events, it is important to recognise that the European project is – and remains – a success. For my generation, and all those who were born and grew up afterwards, “freedom without borders” in Europe is second nature. It is modern Europe’s greatest achievement. Where I go, where I live, where I work or study, who I trade or do business with – as a European, my opportunities are almost limitless. But history teaches us that some things cannot be taken for granted.
The fact is that building Europe has taken decades of laborious compromises. And now, yet again, we need people who are willing to fight hard – and honestly – for the continent’s future. Europe is at a pivotal crossroads.
This is not only the result of Brexit. Even before June’s vote, it was clear that the European Union has to change. The EU is a sluggish colossus that no longer touches or engages with many of its citizens. Solutions to urgent problems are often not found, or are too slow to come forward. And Europe’s almost permanent fire-fighting mode, as it oscillates between the financial and the refugee crises, gives many people the impression that decision-makers in Brussels are no longer setting the agenda, but are on the back foot.
Since the refugee crisis began in earnest last year, the question was not whether Europe wanted to help. We should help to eradicate oppression, first and foremost, in the regions from which refugees are fleeing, but we must also support those people arriving in Europe who are in need of protection. The offer of refuge, though, has to come with conditions. Someone who sets out by boat and reaches a European island cannot automatically expect to remain indefinitely in the EU, and certainly cannot choose the country in which they will settle. Smart management and setting boundaries are as much part of Europe as the desire for freedom and the willingness to help.
We need a strong and effective European border police to protect the EU’s external borders and curb irregular migration
Without this management, our social welfare systems and rule of law will be eroded, tolerance in society will be stretched, and those who sow the seeds of fear on the far-left and far-right of the political spectrum will be strengthened. Whenever our focus on this clear European position becomes even slightly blurred, illiberal and sometimes anti-democratic forces bring their shallow answers successfully to the fray. This phenomenon, which we know exists in France and is part of daily life in Italy, is emerging in other countries as well – including here in Germany. We need a clear
strategy to deal with it.
We also need a strong and effective European border police to protect the EU’s external borders and curb irregular migration. This must include harmonised rules on asylum and migration based on
fair burden-sharing among member states, with processing taking place at the external borders, not in Central Europe. Europe must also invest far more in cooperation with its neighbours in the Middle East and North Africa to combat the causes of displacement and migration, and promote regional stability. By taking action at the local level, where the need is greatest, we can also make the most of the resources at our disposal.
Europe must invest far more in cooperation with its neighbours in the Middle East and North Africa in order to combat the causes of displacement and migration
It is precisely in a diverse and pluralist society that boundaries and governance are needed, internally as well as externally, to enable freedom to be a reality. The high level of immigration experienced in recent years, coupled with increasing individualisation, has created new conflicts and fault lines within society, partly in response to the different traditions, cultures and faiths that many immigrants bring with them. Social integration has been successful in millions of cases, but there are too many instances in which it has not worked, especially among immigrants from the Arab world. Too many regard their faith as incompatible with our Western values. Terror has become a bitter consequent reality.
But along all these fault lines, where many see only fear and change, there is a great opportunity. We need committed Europeans, who do not bury their head in the sand, to discard “business as usual” – let alone “even more integration!” – as their reflex response. We need to make sure that all the people are with us as we embark on this new path, and show them that their lives are better when Europe is united.
To many in Britain, it must have been obvious that Brexit would come at a price and that their own costs of living would go up – and yet they voted to leave. Many of them surely did so because
they felt Brussels was too remote and their voices were no longer being heard. But “Europe” does not just mean “Brussels”. Europe is held together by the diversity of its nations. The union should not try to make everyone the same. It is all-embracing. We simply need to prove that yet again.
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