The spirit of 1989 should be guiding Europe

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Angela Merkel and European leaders must not lose their nerve. Tearing down walls is the solution.

Desperate families look West for safety and prosperity, ravaged by events beyond their control. They dream of freedom, democracy, a better life. Yet razor wire fences and walls stand in their way. There is no room at the inn.

For the East Germans of 1989 and the populations of the former Soviet Union, the solution was obvious: tear down the Iron Curtain. For the Syrian, Libyan and Eritrean refugees of today, the solution should be the same: tear down the walls.

After a honeymoon that’s seen Germany aim to accept 800,000 refugees this year, the mood shifts. Chancellor Merkel, along with Austrian and Slovakian leaders, reinstated border controls on September 13th. Hungary, which has used tear gas and water cannons against migrants, has built a fence along its border with Serbia.

This is regrettable. Europe should be offering a bold, arms wide open welcome to these refugees. They flee war and devastation, oppression and want. Give them safe passage to the continent and full rights of citizenship, including the ability to work, pay taxes, rent housing, claim welfare and send their kids to school. Are some amongst their number solely economic migrants? Undoubtedly. Give them full rights too.

When 17 million East Germans crossed into West Germany in the year following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the concern of the critics was the same: how will they be integrated? Won’t there be economic chaos? “We cannot take them all” was and remains the standard refrain.

First, note Europe’s short historical memory. More than 20 million people were displaced by the Second World War. In the five years after the conflict, 3 million ethnic Germans were purged from Czechoslovakia. 2 million Poles were forced out of the Soviet-seized east (today’s Belarus and Ukraine) into East Prussia. At the start of the 20th century, emigration from Europe to North and Latin America reached average levels of 1 million people per annum. Migration is as old as history. Europeans were accepted then, they should be accepting now.

Second, these migrants will be an economic boon, not a burden. The overwhelming majority are fit, young and willing to work. They bring fresh demand for goods and services. At a time when Europe faces growing healthcare and welfare costs to support an ageing population, an injection of working youth is welcome.

The immediate logistical challenge of providing accommodation is urgent but manageable. Coordinate national campaigns to encourage hosting of refugee families. Rapidly build temporary lodgings in available public spaces. On finance, introduce a Helmut Kohl-style solidarity tax, similar to that which rebuilt Germany’s eastern states post-1989, to pay for the refugees’ immediate living needs.

Third, fears over integration are overblown. Give migrants the chance to work and they’ll integrate. Encourage language learning and they’ll integrate. Let their kids go to school and they’ll integrate. Pluralism and multiculturalism are key European values and realising their success is a continuous and worthy endeavour. Welcoming refugees is just a fresh challenge in that project.

But even if integration does prove difficult, is that reason enough to build razor wire fences and walls? Are fears over the dilution of European culture more important than the grave humanitarian needs of those fleeing desperation? Of course not. And scaremongering over the alleged threat posed by Islamic State members crossing into Europe under the guise of refugees is unhelpful. It’s a fair concern, but a strict walls-and-fences policy is callous. We cannot leave festering and destitute thousands of genuine refugees because we are unwilling to tolerate some extra risk for ourselves. That’s cowardice and a victory for the terrorists.

It saddens me that political calculations mean Europe will likely not offer such a welcome. “The hospitality of the domestic population in Europe, at one point, will turn the other way,” said Jan Semmelroggen by telephone, a specialist in migration policy at Nottingham Trent University. “European countries are democracies. It’s voter pressure that will force the politicians’ hands.”

If you hear one of these European voters saying we “cannot” take more refugees, call them out. They are being disingenuous. Of course Europe can welcome more. What they mean is we won’t welcome more. We are unwilling. We are unwilling to endanger our significantly greater standard of living and particular culture for the sake of those in desperate need. We euphemize with the language of capacity to veil a failure of will.

The parallel is instructive: Europe is West Berlin. The Mediterranean sea is no-man’s land. Syria, Libya, Eritrea and Iraq are East Berlin. The solution in 1989 remains the solution today: tear down that wall.

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