Mark Argent
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Politics:: articles since 2015 General Election
Migation and the future of the EU

2 October 2015, first published in Liberal Democrat Voice

Bach’s cantata “Brich den Hungrigen dein Brot” got the nickname “the refugee cantata” in 1732 when Protestant refugees fleeing a clampdown in Salzburg arrived in Leipzig. The title translates as “Bring the hungry your bread”. It was to be taken literally. It’s a reminder of how much forced migration has shaped European history.

As an island, the UK has escaped the experiences of invasion and moving of borders which have shaped so much of the history of the European mainland — though I suspect that one of the things fuelling both pressure for Scottish independence and the Scottish affinity for the EU is their experience of domination from London.

My Scottish great grandfather who moved from Perthshire to Essex was an economic migrant. My surname is an old Huguenot name — brought by people fleeing genocide in France. Others of my forebears had the name “Woodward” — anglicised from an old Dutch name. I’m not sure if fleeing near-starvation made them “refugees” or “economic migrants”.

At the moment we are facing a huge migrant crisis because of people fleeing Syria. There’s a sense that the EU authorities should “do something”. A few months ago a similar pressure over Greece led me to think that the EU was being grumbled about aswe grumble about goverments, so it was now being treated as a federal government. The migrant crisis adds to this. There might be parallels betwen frustrations with Brussels and with Westminster, though I am concerned that this might lead people to vote “no” to the EU where they simply grumble about Westminster.

We are bound up with the situation on the ground in Syria. Part of the problem goes back to the way the European powers divided up the Ottoman empire at the end of the First World War — where wiggly European borders reflect centuries of development, the the curiously-straight borders in that part of the Middle East reflect political expediency a century ago. Part of what is going on in the Middle East now reflects the problems that brought. Part of the Syria crisis seems to be about Russia and Western powers vying for influence. The fundamentalists of ISIL/Daesh are unsavoury, but at least part of their behaviour — and what is motivating people from the EU to go and join them — is a reaction against the Western tendency to equate “Muslim” and “terrorist” in a mis-placed fear of the “other”. The Syria problem is very much “ours”, even if the solution is a mix of aid to people in the refugee camps and accepting our fare share of refugees.

But this is just a fore-taste. The much bigger migration issue, where we are all involved, will come from global warming. In that context, I’m not sure of the difference between the “economic migrant” who reads the writing on the wall and leaves in search of a better live, the person who waits and becomes a “refugee” when their home becomes uninhabitable and the “asylum-seeker” who flees the repressive regime that comes to power when resources are scarce. It might be better if people migrate sooner rather than later, so they don’t arrive bearing the trauma of becoming “refugees” or “asylum-seekers”.

At this year’s Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth Ed Davey was right to lament the present government’s attitude to global warming. We need to be working with our European partners to reduce our CO2 emissions: neither the problem nor the solution respects national borders.

In the face of climate change, “fortress Europe” (or “fortress Britain”) will never be impregnable. Our moral authority will be undermined if we have not worked together to combat the problem we have helped to create. Migration will need a constructive approach across the whole EU to share the benefits and burdens of migration. If the EU gets the balance right this will lead to more international connectedness, stability and trade. If we get it wrong, the result will be resentment, sometimes vented as terrorism.

The choice seems to be between working together in the EU in a way that delivers peace and stability, and a “Little Englander” isolationism that may be seductive but is more dangerous than people realise.