The great French historian, Fernand Braudel, wrote in his book La Mediterranee that, as regards its foundations, a culture is a geographical area organised by the people and by history. Vital to this process is the exchange of ideas and practices from other cultures. If Braudel is right, what does Europe's response to immigration tell us about European culture today?
The short answer is that Europe is showing extreme reluctance to accept "cultural goods". It seems that it is currently looking to repulse, crush, and push back anything that is culturally different to what already exists on the continent. Cultural practices that are very different from what it already knows are almost automatically considered undesirable, even if they originate in great, deep, and historical cultures. The extreme version of this approach relates to human beings, who are of course the bearers of culture. If one is not already a European citizen, entry into Europe nowadays can be so hard that it turns into a matter of life or death.
In an interview with Counterpunch, the American sociologist Henry Giroux castigated the growing culture of cruelty in the United States toward the poor, the unemployed, the homeless. The policies that cause misery and suffering to millions of people, also breed humiliation and scorn toward those who bear the brunt of hardship. A similar culture of cruelty is gradually emerging in Europe toward the poor and distressed who are trying to enter it. Europe is engaged in a determined struggle to keep out people who are looking for safety, protection and a better future. John Dalhuisen, director of the Europe and Central Asia Programme at Amnesty International, has stressed the cost in human lives and misery that is being paid by some of the world's most vulnerable people as a result of the EU migration policies. These policies are also creating a culture of cruelty that is already establishing its own vocabulary. The word "refugee" is rapidly going out of use, and "illegal immigration" is in widespread use instead of "migration without documents". Almost forgotten has become the term "international protection" and "asylum" has acquired negative connotations.
Examples of this worrying turn in Europe are legion. In February 2014, the Spanish Civil Guard opened fire with rubber bullets, blanks and tear gas against about 250 immigrants and refugees approaching from Morocco along the beach towards Ceuta, the Spanish enclave in North Africa. In Greece, violence to immigrants is an everyday police practice, with hundreds of stories appearing on the social media and in reports by NGOs. The town of Manolada in the Peloponnese has become synonymous with bloody violence and deadly cruelty toward immigrants.
Not to be outdone, the Italian state has initiated Mare Nostrum, an operation with the participation of forces from the Italian Navy, Army, Air Force, the Carabinieri, the Coast Guard, as well as the Police, with the aim of controlling the immigration from the southern Mediterranean. The operation has effectively failed after many immigrant deaths near the Italian coast and burgeoning human smuggling along the coast of Libya. The monthly operational cost to Rome reached €9.5million. Nothing daunted, the French Minister for the Internal Affairs, Bernard Cazeneuve, is trying to establish Frontex Plus, an expanded force of many European countries to fight against illegal immigration. This is at a time when only 4% of Syrian refugees have sought asylum in Europe, according to the report on Syrian Refugees by UNHCR.
In the name of defending its prosperity, Europe is encouraging a historic decline of the humanitarian principles and values on which much of European culture has been constructed during the last three centuries. Not only is the welfare state in retreat, but a hostile attitude towards vulnerable social groups is becoming prevalent. An outlook is gradually spreading of considering vulnerable people to be unacceptable, particularly when they come from abroad. The cultural implications for Europe, which long ago stopped being the leading producer of culture in the world and has been living in the shadow of the USA, are incalculable. The dialogue between Europe and Asian or African cultures plummeted years ago: limitation, exclusion and even outright hostility are nowadays the usual European responses. This is the reality in which millions of young European people currently grow up, live, and establish their identities. If Braudel was right, then Europe is facing a dark cultural future, and immigration will be one of the leading issues on which the coming cultural battles will be fought.