The current situation is radically changing the politics of Europe.
In 1981, researchers at the University of Michigan working on the World Values Survey found that Nigerians were as happy as West Germans despite being materially far poorer. Almost four decades on, that situation has changed radically. In most places, according to the latest surveys, the level of happiness is in direct proportion to per capita gross domestic product.
The spread of the internet has made it possible for young Africans or Afghans to see with one click of a mouse how Europeans live. People no longer compare their lives with those of their neighbours but with those of the planet’s most prosperous inhabitants. The EU’s soft power so attractive to outsiders is now seen by member states as a source of future vulnerability to other places. Smartphones and social media make it easier to cross borders and yet retain ethnic and religious identities. It is possible to remain Syrian while living and working in London or Berlin. You can keep in constant touch with those left behind or follow the headlines from home. In this connected world, migration—unlike the utopias sold by last century’s demagogues—offers instant, radical change.
The 21st-century revolution requires no ideology, political movement or political leader. You change not your government but your geography. The absence of collective dreams makes migration the natural choice of the new radical. To change your life you need a boat, not a party. With social inequality rising and social mobility stagnating in countries such as Ukraine and Russia, it is easier to cross national borders than class barriers. But the migrants’ revolution has the capacity to inspire a counter-revolution and remake our democracies.
Historically, democracy was the way in which Europe integrated outsiders and opened up to the world; it can just as easily be an instrument for exclusion and closure. The myriad acts of solidarity towards refugees fleeing war and persecution seen last year in Western Europe are today overshadowed by their inverse: a spreading fear that such foreigners will compromise the welfare model and traditions; that they will destroy liberal societies by threatening women’s rights. Conservatives fear that the flow of migrants is a death sentence for the cultures of the European nations. Fear of radical Islam, terrorism and criminality and a general anxiety about the unfamiliar are at the core of a moral panic. Many in the EU feel overwhelmed—not by the one million and more refugees who have asked for asylum but by the prospect of a future in which their borders are constantly breached by migrants.
The future ageing and shrinking of the existing population painted by demographers is frightening even to some more robust Europeans. The majorities who feel under threat have emerged as an influential force in politics. Not only the extreme parties, such as the National Front in France and Britain’s UKIP, but also Hungary’s governing Fidesz and the ruling Law and Justice party in Poland, see their role as advocates for those “threatened majorities”. They fear and loathe the idea of a “world without borders” and demand an EU with clearly defined and well-protected barriers. They are convinced the crisis is the result of a conspiracy between cosmopolitan-minded elites and tribal-minded immigrants.
The situation is radically changing European politics and the world-view of many on the continent. If, yesterday, they bet their security on the prospect that Europe would be surrounded by liberal democracies ambitious to become members of the union, today they hope it can be surrounded by friendly regimes, liberal or not, willing and able to turn the human tide. The soft power so attractive to outsiders is now seen by member states as a source of vulnerability.
This article originally appeared in the Financial Times. It is published by courtesy of the author.