Sometimes a political topic forces itself on our editorial attention and will brook no rival. Though we covered the topic of immigration fully in our last issue with articles by Mark Almond, László Földi and Ronald Majláth on its growing significance, augmented by an editorial on how the world solved an earlier refugee crisis in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we cannot cite our prescience then to ignore its dramatic upsurge in the last two months.

Migrants of every kind – refugees from wars in Syria and Iraq, Christians fleeing persecution throughout the Middle East, ordinary people from the Third World seeking a better life in the freer societies of Europe, criminals and terrorists hiding in these human waves for their own nefarious purposes – have suddenly laid siege to Hungary in huge numbers. They climb fences, hide in cars or under trains, swim across rivers, commandeer boats and sail for European beaches, buy places in the lorries of people-smuggling operations, fight with police, and in general seek to overwhelm the land and sea barriers that protect the frontiers of Hungary and Europe against the threats of illegal migration and invasion.

We must ask indeed: Are these two threats not really the same threat? Are these human waves not a form of invasion? It sounds harsh and exaggerated to say so. After all, most of the migrants (excepting the terrorists and criminals) are simply trying to escape from poverty and oppression into a better life. If we were facing thousands or tens of thousands of such desperate people, we would surely sit down and work out some humane and realistic way of accommodating them in our world – as we did with World Refugee Year fifty-five years ago.

Given the instability, wars, kleptocratic governments, and economic failure of many countries in Asia and Africa, however, the number of potential migrants from there runs into the billions. For practical purposes there is a limitless pool of migrants. If the conditions in which they live don’t improve (which is not something a post- imperial Europe can determine), and if they believe that their arrival will not be resisted, they are likely to arrive in such large numbers as to overwhelm our capacity to help them, to impose hardship on our own poorer citizens, to ratchet up social divisions in our own societies, and to weaken the bonds of national cohesion.Yet that is more or less the policy of NGOs advocating migrant causes, of ethnic lobbies in the West, of international lawyers bent on expanding the authority of humanitarian treaties, and of supranational bodies such as the United Nations. One British academic recently demanded that Europe should admit these potentially limitless numbers of migrants or be guilty of “the greatest crime since the Second World War”. As well as being hysterical nonsense and/or an example of the “conspicuous compassion” that is more interested in looking virtuous than in solving real human problems, such an approach is completely impractical. Hungary has had relatively few immigrants until recently, but Britain and France already have foreign-born residents amounting to 13 and 12 per cent of their populations. How many more can they be expected to absorb?

The European Union presents itself as an organisation able to solve these “global” problems that are supposedly beyond the capacity of any single national government to handle. In fact the EU has helped to create this problem, and its attempts to solve it seem likely to make it worse. By creating a borderless Europe internally before establishing secure European borders externally, it told potential migrants that once on European soil, they could travel anywhere with little hindrance. By adopting legal rules that made deportation almost impossible, it told potential migrants that they could stay somewhere in Europe indefinitely. And by proposing quotas of migrants for different countries, it told potential migrants that European law would be on their side against any national government that tried to deny them accommodation and welfare assistance.

Governments were left with only one option under this regime: to try to shift the burden onto other countries by passing immigrants along. This policy creates still more disharmony among EU member states. It is also a short-term policy because the recipient or “target” countries will eventually find ways of refusing these migrants who will therefore remain in place en route. And in the meantime cities like Budapest will become vast disorderly transit camps. Railway stations in the capital currently resemble the Paris scene in Casablanca.

A more practical approach, rooted in the realities experienced by European voters, is needed. And indeed, the broad outlines of a sensible policy are clear: establish refugee processing centres outside Europe in North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean to determine which migrants have a right of entry as refugees; admit no migrants in any category who have not been processed under this system; restore to national governments the power to determine how many migrants in which categories should be admitted into their countries; negotiate with third countries on the settlement of migrants in return for aid; seize and destroy the ships and property of the people-smugglers; “stop the boats” in the Mediterranean and return them to their point of departure; and, above all, introduce a system of rapid, effective and judge-proof deportation from Europe of migrants who have obtained entry illegally and against these rules.

In practice the European Commission would almost certainly be an obstacle to agreement on these lines. Its mindset is too close to that of the NGO-academic-legal complex criticised above. It would make far more sense to return immigration policy to the EU’s member states and let them negotiate with countries inside and outside Europe on policies to regulate migrant flows – which, among other things, means being able to halt and reverse them if necessary. Australia has done exactly this – some of the above policies are drawn from its recent experience – with one remarkable result: the number of migrant deaths at sea since “stopping the boats” became policy has fallen to zero. So it can be done. And unless European governments, including the Hungarian government, seize the power to do it, then the eventual consequences of uncontrolled migration flows may be hard to distinguish from those of an invasion.

We strengthen our resolve to solve this problem by reflecting, as we do in this issue, on the fact that Hungarian statesmanship solved seemingly far more intractable problems in quite recent years. In our interview with him, my colleague Gyula Kodolányi gives a vivid inside account of how Prime Minister József Antall surmounted enormous problems of statecraft while fighting the cancer that eventually killed him. Maybe his greatest achievement was in persuading Mikhail Gorbachev and his government to accept the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary peacefully (if reluctantly) in what Kodolányi depicts as a delicate combination of hard political pressure, candid bargaining and fair personal relations.

The crucial moment came when Antall, addressing a meeting of the Warsaw Pact in the Kremlin, proposed its dissolution. Not the easiest of oratorical tasks. In doing so, however, he made plain that the post-Cold War Europe he envisaged would be one of security cooperation incorporating the United States and the Soviet Union. In this speech (excerpted in this issue), he made this point forcefully:

“During the process of forging European unity, it is expedient to rely on stable Atlantic cooperation, which proved in the course of two World Wars that Europe and North America are inseparable, regardless of which nation stands on which side. We do not wish to exclude the peoples of the Soviet Union from the unified Europe … the Soviet Union must be part of the process of European integration…”

That may look utopian in the age of Putin, but the age of Putin was established in part because later Western governments missed the opportunities outlined by Antall. Nor will the age of Putin last forever; those opportunities will recur. When they do, it will be important for Europe to possess the flexible institutional structure that can accommodate a Russia no longer neo-imperial but still jealous of its sovereignty. Restoring power to regulate immigration to national parliaments would be a start.

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