Notes From the Margins…

Europe’s New ‘Walls’: from the Berlin Wall to Lampedusa

  • November 12, 2014
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Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, wrote the poet Robert Frost, and few walls have been more unloved historically than the Berlin Wall.     The 25th anniversary of its fall on Sunday provided an opportunity for nostalgic reflection on a defining moment in European and world history.   Old ghosts and tropes from the long-distant past briefly flitted across the television screens and newspaper columns; Francis Fukuyama and the end of history; Timothy Garton Ash. Michael Gorbachev; Joyous crowds bashing away at the concrete with hammers and pickaxes.

Politicians queued up to deliver platitudinous soundbites and speeches to mark the occasion, including Hilary Clinton, who declared that ‘A wall, a physical wall, may have come down but there are other walls that exist that we have to overcome and we will be working together to accomplish that.’

Clinton’s pledge echoed the old highflown rhetoric of a ‘borderless’ world that followed the breaching of the Berlin Wall in the autumn of 1989, much of which sounds quaintly utopian in the early 21st century.   When Ronald Reagan urged Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’ in 1987 as proof of his commitment to perestroika, the Berlin Wall was the most visible symbol of communist tyrannies that simultaneously denied freedom of movement to their own citizens and attempted to seal their countries off from the capitalist world.

At that time the ‘free world’ offered automatic sanctuary to refugees from the communist bloc.   Every German or Eastern European who succeeded in getting across the wall was a political victory for the West, and anyone killed or injured trying to get across also confirmed the inherent barbarity of the concrete barrier with its watchtowers and border guards.

25 years later, Eastern Europeans can now live almost anywhere in Europe, but the poliitical and economic reunification of the continent has been accompanied by the most far-reaching and intensive border enforcement program in the continent’s history, which has been explicitly designed to prevent or reduce the entry of undocumented migrants from outside the European Union.

These efforts go far beyond the ‘closed’ borders of the Cold War, both in terms of their scope and also in terms of their consequences.     Europe’s new physical and bureaucratic ‘walls’ have been far more lethal than the Berlin Wall.     In total, 125 people were killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall throughout its history.     Since 1988, more than 20,000 migrants may have died trying to enter Europe, 750 of whom died within a single week last September.

Where the shooting of border crossers by East German border guards was once seen as a defining component of communist cruelty, migrant deaths have become a routine and everyday consequence of Europe’s ‘hard borders’, particularly in the Mediterranean, which has always been the most lethal of Europe’s anti-migrant barriers.

Two weeks ago, the European Union refused to replace the Italian government’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue program in the Mediterranean, which has saved more than 100,000 lives in the past year.   Instead it committed itself only to a limited border enforcement cordon 30 miles off the Italian coast. In effect, the European Union has decided to allow the Mediterranean to become a migrant burial ground, in the unstated hope that so many migrants will drown that they will eventually stop coming.

I say unstated, but two weeks ago   Lady Anelay of St Johns, Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs,   announced that Britain would not participate in any planned   search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, because:

‘ We believe that they create an unintended “pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths. The Government believes the most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing is to focus our attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as taking steps to fight the people smugglers who willfully put lives at risk by packing migrants into unseaworthy boats.’

This must surely be one of the most breathtakingly cynical, callous, hypocritical and dishonorable statements that any democratic government has ever made.     What Her Ladyship was saying is that Britain would prefer to allow migrants to die rather than attempt to save them, in order to deter other potential migrants from undertaking these journeys.

There is nothing humanitarian about such aspirations, which have everything to do with keeping unwanted people out rather than preventing ‘tragic and unneccessary deaths’.   In its refusal to replace the Italian government’s Mare Nostrum program, the European Union has embraced the same logic, and crossed a new threshold of inhumanity in its brutal and relentless war against Third World undocumented migrants.

These developments are an indirect consequence of the new Europe that followed   the events of 1989, but they received no attention during the 25th anniversary reflections, and it is unlikely that Hilary Clinton or any other politician was thinking of Europe’s deadly borders they condemned the evils of the Berlin Wall and celebrated the dawn of a new era of freedom.


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1 Comment

  1. Paul Seligman (@PaulMSeligman)

    17th Nov 2014 - 11:13 pm

    Good piece, but its only fair to quote the closing lines of Robert Frost’s poem ‘Mending Wall’ (I studied it for GCE English) as well as its opening stanza: “Good fences make good neighbors”. Discuss.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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