To Indian travellers in Europe, the word ‘Schengen’ is indelibly associated with the idea of a visa, a single permit that allows them to cross the borders of 26 European countries. They can travel between these, though not to the United Kingdom, on the same document.
The Schengen Treaty was the most facilitating achievement of the European Union. It didn’t abolish national borders but did away with the bureaucratic scrutiny needed to cross them. Now all that is in question.
In the next month it is estimated the 40,000 refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries torn apart by wars or subject to harsh dictatorships in Africa, will enter Greece. They will cross the border from Turkey and Macedonia or arrive by fragile boats from across the Mediterranean. Greece is the first country of the European Union (EU) that they will enter and from there will seek to get to Britain, Germany, Sweden or some other country that can offer them stability, freedom and a new life.
This influx of refugees, over a million last year, is the most serious crisis of organisation, economics, politics and humanitarian conscience that the European Union has faced. It has affected the domestic policies of European countries, strained relations between them, demonstrated that the ideals of the European Union of states are fragile and, in all the solutions being proposed, threatens to alter the EU in irreversible ways.
India faced a radical refugee crisis in 1971, when the Pakistani army’s actions in the Eastern wing of that country caused millions to cross the border. Indira Gandhi used the influx as justification for sending in the Indian Army to fight and defeat the Pakistanis and reorder the politics of the subcontinent by liberating Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh-to-India exodus and others in Africa may not be the last to cause the birth of new nations. The tearing apart of Syria and Iraq, the resurgent militant Kurdish nationalism, which challenges the sovereignty of four nations, will inevitably result in perhaps tenuous political solutions. And they may result in new borders, new states.
Between 1918 and the early 1920s the British and the French redrew the borders of West Asia, separating the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire, which they had defeated in World War I. They separated the Turks from the Arabs, but not the Shias from the Sunnis or the Kurds from either of these or from Turkey.
Russia and the United States, both of which are now involved militarily in Iraq and Syria, are not directly threatened by any influx of refugees whom they will have to house, feed and process. Europe is.
The nations of the EU agreed that holding the refugees in camps, distributing them after vetting and processing them to make sure they are genuinely fleeing war and terror and supervising their absorption into Europe are just one part of a ‘solution’. The other is an international policy towards the politics of the self-destroying West Asian nations. End the war and the refugees stop coming.
The US recently altered its stance on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian rebel forces the US supports accused John Kerry, the US secretary of state, of betrayal when he admitted that his talks with the Russians entailed allowing Assad to stay on as part of a National Unity government.
There is as yet no plan from those who effected the division of the Ottoman Empire into Syria, Iraq, Jordan and ultimately Israel. The new world powers, Russia and America, have no plan for what will emerge from the genocidal mess. No one has yet suggested separate Sunni and Shia nations, though the warring factions seem to be inclined that way.
The Islamic State or Daesh (meaning the death cult) only represents Sunni Muslims as perhaps the Grand Inquisitor represents all modern Catholics. The pressures of the modern world, even apart from the military might of those opposed to the Daesh, will ensure that it may distort the progress of West Asia but, has no place in its future.
In Europe, even in Northern Ireland, the religious antagonism between the Catholics and Protestants has lapsed into a philosophical battle. Within Islam, even in Pakistan, the antagonism between the Sunnis and Shias hasn’t. A Marxist might say that this religious antagonism is merely the mask of a battle for material gains and rights. One could go further and say it is not the mask but the avatar of it.
Within Europe there is now a serious proposal to suspend Greece from the Schengen agreement and seal its borders with the rest of Europe. Greece resists this isolating proposal and suggests instead that the rest of Europe contribute to the cost of the influx of refugees to its territory and then formulate a quota system by which the refugees can be distributed to other EU countries. Each of these opposing proposals would mean profound changes in Europe.
Isolating Greece will lead to the end of the Schengen and once the quota system is implemented it will be difficult to stop the quota of refugees moving from their allocated country to pastures they feel are more prosperous.
Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London. The views expressed are personal.