When the United States and other allies defeated Nazi Germany, there was grave uncertainty hanging over Europe. After years of war devastation, Europe was divided in two parts. The western half was capitalist, while the eastern half was communist. The capitalist half of Europe was protected politically, economically and militarily by the US. The first question they had to deal with was what to do with Germany, which now had become only West Germany. Unlike in the Treaty of Versailles, the western victors were now no longer interested in pursuing vindictive reparations against the war perpetrators and losers, but were intent to rebuild West Germany to provide a solid bulwark against communism.
The price for German and West European reconciliation, recovery and economic prosperity was the acceptance of the US as the hegemonic power. The US dollar was pegged to gold for the first 26 years after the war, while the other European currencies were tied to the US dollar. After the end of the Bretton Woods system, the world (and especially Europe and Japan) continued to price many of their purchases in US dollars (especially oil) to ensure the stability of the US currency. US hegemony has weakened somewhat after the introduction of the euro. But we know that the euro is no longer the bulwark against US hegemony as it once was, because the eurozone monetary system was poorly designed, see the Greek crisis. But as far as US foreign policy in the Middle East is concerned, the Europeans provide the willing cannon fodder and cheerleaders for US imperialist endeavors.
Now your question after reading the first two paragraphs will be what my discussion of US hegemony in Europe has to do with the title of my post, which is the current refugee crisis in Europe. And let us not be mistaken: this is a serious refugee crisis. 70 migrants died in a truck in Austria. Thousands died crossing the Mediterranean, and 300,000 refugees have taken the Atlantic route. Hungary is trying to seal their borders to Serbia, as tens of thousands of refugees make their way to Budapest and other parts of Europe (Sweden, Austria and Germany tend to have rather permissive asylum laws). Most of the refugees come from Syria, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Eritrea, Serbia, Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, in that order (see Eurostat).
Why are all these people coming to Europe? Why now? What is the link to US imperialism? Well, I have said that Europe supports the US in most foreign policy endeavors, which includes wars. The most fatal ones in recent years were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that were fought with significant European backing, the no-fly zone over Libya and the air strikes in Syria. The latter operation has not yet stopped and is an ongoing campaign. Should we be surprised that most refugees are Syrians? All these wars lead to displacement, and people, usually young men, who are deemed to most likely survive the arduous and uncertain trip to foreign lands, leave and run to other safer (and often richer) countries, which include European countries. Notice that in all these wars, the US is dropping the most bombs, and the Europeans (and Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan etc. even more so) pay the highest price with the refugees they have to handle.
The Europeans are still thanking their American partners for their liberation from Nazi rule by supporting the aggressive and militarist US foreign policy, which backfires terribly for them because of the huge refugee influx. The no-fly zone in Libya is another case in point. One of the important facts that have so easily escaped public discourse is that while Muammar Qaddafi was still in power there was a silent arrangements between European governments and Qaddafi, that Qaddafi would secure the borders for the Europeans, i.e. do not allow the African-based refugees to escapee by boats via the Mediterranean to Europe. In return, the EU accepted Qaddafi and also paid financial aid to the Qaddafi regime.
But the US, of course, demanded to get rid of Qaddafi, who refused to affiliate himself (i.e. make himself subservient to) with the United States. The US financed the rebel uprising- fortunately enough for the US there were enough rebels in the country’s eastern province around Benghazi, who belonged to a different tribe than Qaddafi. When the rebels were about to be crushed by Qaddafi’s forces, the US, supported by UK and France, declared a no-fly zone in Libya, which is a euphemism for a NATO air war to smash Qaddafi’s easily overwhelmed forces. Fast forward four years and Libya has been transformed from a politically stable country to a virtually anarchic country without functioning institutions, civil war, looting, destruction and no internal order. Now all the refugees that were previously held back in Libya could hop on boats and try their luck in crossing the Mediterranean into Europe (Delapaine 2015).
Why are the European political leaders so helpless? Why are they supporting US military interventions and invasions, when they so clearly backfire given the refugee crisis? There is an apparent schizophrenia in the minds of politicians who have no problem supporting wars of military aggression and domination, while at the same time accepting the high political costs of the fallout of these policies.
It should be noted that not all refugees come just to escape war, as there are also many who seek to escape simply poverty. We also know that all of the factors are intertwined with each other, including struggle over scarce resources, inequality, poverty, war and environmental degradation. Let us take say the environment: as we are gradually destroying the earth with climate change, many parts of Africa become uninhabitable (e.g. not enough water), so the ability to grow food crops decrease. This produces a scarcity of vital food resources, so groups of people get together, import weapons from the developed world (primarily US and Russia, but also France, UK and Germany among others), put up roadblocks and blackmail farmers with guns to their throat asking for food “donations”. Too many high testosterone males that are armed to the teeth inevitably leads to violent conflict and civil war, and that produces refugees.
We also know that inequality, resulting from inherently corrupt political structures benefiting the elite exclusively, who send their cash to the global money laundering agency, called Switzerland, and their kids to elite private schools of the west, also triggers political and military conflicts, because the vast majority of the poor population can simply not benefit from these unfair political and economic arrangements, and have, therefore, every reason to go to Europe.
Naysayers will, therefore, tell me that my critique of US imperialism is too one-sided, and that there are multiple causes for the European refugee crisis. I won’t deny for a minute that there are other important causes of the refugee crisis as well. But I still think that US imperialism remains a major factor, because it is a proximate trigger for the immediate crisis. In other words, climate change, inequality and institutional failure are gradual and long-term processes, which create the pressure for migration over the long term. But political destabilization, as is the case in Libya, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, are the immediate triggers which explain why the refugee wave is accelerating since 2013.
The sad thing about historical depiction is that it does not help us to mitigate the refugee crisis. What should Europe do given this huge refugee influx? How are they going to physically cope with so many strangers in their country? What is the political reaction to this influx? The last question can hastily be answered: the rise of right-wing populism will accelerate. I would argue that they are already strong because of austerity policies and a poor macroeconomic environment, but that the refugee crisis tops their electoral performance even further (Liu 2015).
Racism is a latent force in Europe, which can quickly turn manifest. The current economic era is no longer so buoyant such that all factions, native and immigrant, can be satisfied simultaneously. Native voters will resent the meager public benefits that are paid to the refugees at a time when their governments convince them of the fiscal necessity of welfare state retrenchment affecting domestic citizens. Local and provincial governments that are not used to huge refugee waves will be overwhelmed by the continuing increase in people. We will read more horrendous news stories about dead refugees that were badly treated by their smugglers, drowned, suffocated or beaten. It certainly does not help that so many refugees are young men, full of energy and testosterone, who are without families, property and jobs (i.e. without things to ground them). They have to clash with the local population, where many native youths of the male gender also lack jobs and a good perspective.
Some politicians are pinning their hope on restricting the inflow of refugees by sealing their borders, but that would be a logistically difficult task, as there are always ways to circumvent border fences. If there is a will there is a way, and the smuggler effort will simply increase, and the human danger that it poses to their helpless clients is also incalculable. How many more dead bodies will we then find on the barbed wire fences of “fortress” Europe? What kind of humanitarian commitment is that in a continent that had at least made the commitment to outlaw the death penalty?
My hope is that it is merely a matter of time that the refugee wave subsides. Europe can then integrate some of these refugees (only very few will actually return), allow them to bring their families, get jobs, and halt the demographic decline in Europe. More people means more economic growth over the long term. Is this a happy end or a just a straw of hope to cling onto?