European Lessons

Published June 6, 2007

National Review Online

Can uncontrolled immigration kill a continent? According to Walter Laqueur, it already has. Laqueur, an historian who’s spent a lifetime moving between America and Europe, is a scholar and public intellectual of international stature. So it’s news when the latest book from so knowledgeable and unimpeachable a friend of Europe echoes and extends the themes of a pugnacious series of American tracts on European decline. Whether European intellectuals will be able to dismiss Laqueur’s The Last Days of Europe: Epitaph for an Old Continent, just as they’ve dismissed so many other such books, is an open question. (It’s tough to discount a book endorsed by Henry Kissinger and Niall Ferguson.) What’s certain is that, in the midst of our own immigration debate, Americans cannot afford to ignore The Last Days of Europe.

Immigration Disaster
In combination with Europe’s demographic decline and guilt-laden multiculturalism, says Laqueur, unchecked immigration has created a massive and growing population of unassimilated Muslims, hostile to their own countries and determined to transform Europe beyond all recognition, through a combination of violent and non-violent means. “Why had the European countries brought these [Islamist] attacks upon themselves?” asks Laqueur. “Above all,” he says, “it was naïveté that had made possible the indiscriminate immigration of earlier decades.” In his concluding reflection on what went wrong for Europe, Laqueur singles out immigration as first among causal equals: “…uncontrolled immigration was not the only reason for the decline of Europe. But taken together with the continent’s other misfortunes, it led to a profound crisis; a miracle might be needed to extract Europe from these predicaments.”

In Laqueur’s telling, the trouble began “when European countries recruited workers abroad to do the work European workers were not willing or able to do.” Only about half of the (supposedly temporary) guest workers who came to Europe during the boom years of the 1960s returned home as initially planned. “Others stayed on legally or illegally and in many cases brought relatives to join them, and the host governments were not willing to enforce the law against those who broke it.” When Europe’s boom gave out following the OPEC oil shock in 1973, governments stopped issuing work visas. But that didn’t stop immigration. Relatives flowed in legally, through family reunification laws, and illegally, as immigrant smuggling became a major business.

There followed a flood of asylum seekers, to whom the authorities were “quite liberal in their approach, even though the majority of these immigrants, probably the great majority, were not political refugees but ‘economic migrants….'” Many were Islamists, others hoped to establish criminal gangs, “but all asylum seekers, whether legitimate or illegitimate, were supported by a powerful lobby, the human rights associations and churches that provided legal and other aid. They claimed it was scandalous and in violation of elementary human rights to turn back new immigrants and that in case of doubt mercy should prevail.”

As supposed asylum seekers poured in, they destroyed their papers, making it impossible for European authorities to deport them. What’s more, “border controls inside Europe were largely abolished and if an immigrant had put foot into one European country he could move freely to another.” Laqueur adds that the “number of asylum seekers, real and bogus, began to decline after 2002, following the introduction of more stringent screening measures.” But by then it was too late; Europe had entered its “last days.”

It should have been clear early on that immigration was creating serious problems, says Laqueur. Muslim resistance to assimilation was evident, as were the warning signs of demographic decline. And had it been clear, it is hardly the case that nothing could have been done about it. After all, says Laqueur, “illegal immigrants to Japan or China, Singapore, or virtually any other country would have been sent back within days, if not hours, to their countries of origin.” Yet because all this was ignored, says Laqueur, we now face “the end of Europe as a major player in world affairs.” Almost overnight, Laqueur continues, “what had been considered a minor problem on a local level is becoming a major political issue, for there is growing resistance on the part of the native [European] population, who resent becoming strangers in their own homelands. Perhaps they are wrong to react in this way, but they have not been aware until recently of this trend, and no one ever asked or consulted them.”

What Were They Thinking?
Laqueur returns several times to the failure of Europe’s authorities to consult with the public on immigration. Instead of putting the matter up for debate, government and corporations quietly and unilaterally set policy. Europe’s elite had a bad conscience, given memories of refugees from Nazi Germany who’d been turned away decades earlier. There was also the omnipresent “fear of being accused of racism.” This bizarre combination of multiculturalism and complete disregard for the significance of culture opened up a huge gulf between Europe’s elite and the public — a gulf that emerged openly when France and The Netherlands rejected the proposed EU constitution (in part over concerns about Muslim immigration and the accession of Turkey to the EU). There was, says Laqueur, “a backlash against the elites who wanted to impose their policies on a population who had not been consulted….Another important motive was the reluctance to hand over national sovereignty to central, remote and anonymous institutions over which people had no control.”

Laqueur concludes that it’s next to impossible for an historian to establish just what it was that Europe’s authorities were thinking when they formulated the immigration practices now undermining Western civilization in its very cradle. To the question “Did they imagine that uncontrolled immigration would not involve major problems?” Laqueur responds that it is unanswerable. (My guess is that, like today’s market-based immigration advocates in America, European leaders were focused on the immediate need for labor and gave little if any thought to long-term social consequences. In other words, the simplest explanation for Laqueur’s inability to track down the deep thoughts of Europe’s leaders about the cultural consequences of immigration is that there never were any such thoughts.)

But why should mass immigration have been a problem for Europe when the need for labor was (and is) real, and when modern dynamos like America and Australia were virtually built on mass immigration? Part of the answer lies in Europe’s relative lack of experience with immigration and assimilation. Yet there’s more at work, as Laqueur shows, through a comparison of post-WWII Muslim immigration with the wave of Jewish migration to both Western Europe and the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Culture Counts
Jews entered Western Europe in that period by the tens of thousands, not by the millions. They also made great efforts to integrate, above all seeking a good secular education for their children, at almost any price. There was no welfare state in those days — no social workers, no subsidized housing, no free medical payments, and no social security. Back then, it was sink or swim, whereas the modern welfare state has removed the incentives for success that used to force cultural integration. When they first arrived in Britain, Laqueur tells us, many Bangladeshis were reluctant to accept government assistance, viewing welfare payments as dishonorable and contrary to Islam. It was only the advice of social workers that managed to turn welfare dependence into a way of life for these Bangladeshi migrants.

That doesn’t mean Laqueur discounts the influence of Muslim culture on failed integration — far from it. The Last Days of Europe is being touted for its measured tone, in contrast to, say, the blistering (and blisteringly funny and effective) polemics of Mark Steyn’s America Alone. That’s an accurate assessment, up to a point. If there was even a single joke in The Last Days of Europe, I missed it. Yet Laqueur has no tolerance whatever for political correctness, and doesn’t mince words. For example, Laqueur’s extended critique of “Islamophobia” as an explanation for failed Muslim assimilation in Europe is devastating. Laqueur doesn’t hesitate to say that the fundamental problem of Muslim assimilation is cultural — rooted in traditional Islam, and in the strange blend of Muslim mores and ghetto street-culture that nowadays shapes Europe’s angry young Muslim men.

Far from distancing himself from conservative critiques of Europe, Laqueur embraces them, invoking conservative writers like Theodore Dalrymple and The Weekly Standard ‘s Gerard Alexander. Laqueur even argues that the term “barbarian” can be applied with justice to the actions of some lawless young Muslim men. He also takes seriously the possibility of a violent Muslim revolution in Europe. Laqueur’s tone may be calm, but his substance is explosive — and very much of a piece with the long train of “conservative” books on European decline.

The Last Days of Europe is a book about culture. Laqueur rejects the cultural blindness of economic elites who see immigration in strictly market terms. He rejects racism and xenophobia as explanations of failed Muslim integration, in favor of a cultural account. He rejects economic explanations for the decline of Europe itself, insisting instead that the erosion of strong families, relativism, and a loss of faith in the future are at the root of Europe’s problems. (Laqueur unashamedly invokes Gibbon here.)

Laqueur is convinced that Europeans (and their liberal American admirers) have been living in a state of “delusion.” He is ruthless in skewering a series of recent American books touting Europe as the world’s emerging “soft superpower,” a continent destined to lead the world through its exemplary combination of benevolence and justice. The notion that the hard-eyed powers of the world will — on the basis of sheer inspiration — come to emulate European rule of law comes in for polite ridicule by Laqueur. The Last Days of Europe‘s fascinating chapter on Russia is a case study in failed expectations for democratic and market universalism, and therefore also a study in the recalcitrance of culture.

Europe’s disastrous and deluded decline is so obvious to Laqueur that he expends considerable energy wondering out loud how anyone could ever have taken the world-wide triumph of European “soft power” seriously to begin with. Reading Laqueur, it’s tough not to notice parallels between the leftist fantasy of a pacifist, rule-bound world and the Bush administration’s own overconfidence in the power of exemplary democracy. The Bush administration’s willingness to use military force is generally contrasted with the European (and American) Left’s abhorrence of force and preference for soft power. Yet the two positions are less at odds than meets the eye.

True, the president’s strategy required that military force be used to implant democracy in the heart of the Muslim world. Yet the plan was to avoid the need for a heavy military “footprint” in Iraq, or for military actions against other powers, by allowing democracy’s allegedly universal appeal to spread spontaneously through both Iraq and the region. The Western Left adheres to an only slightly different fantasy of democratic contagion. If the Bush administration unwisely depended on the domino effect of elections in Iraq, the fantasy of a “soft superpower” depends on the supposed domino effect of policies like the abolition of capital punishment and rule by the International Criminal Court.

Like many others, Laqueur roots Europe’s fall in its relativism, multiculturalism and — to speak more bluntly — Europe’s simple lack of confidence in its own values. Yet Laqueur’s account could be read to make the opposite point. Underneath all that guilt and cultural deference lies overweening and unwarranted self-confidence. Europe’s delusional belief in its ability to lead the world without force — through exemplary justice alone — rests on a profoundly “ethnocentric” conviction of its own moral superiority.

This same self-confidence helps explain why Europe’s elites discounted the cultural challenge of immigration. Insofar as they bothered to consider the issue, the unthought-out assumption was that liberal modernism’s superiority would be seen, acknowledged, and therefore eventually adopted by Muslim immigrants. So it turns out the Europe’s old ethnocentric “social evolutionism” — the notion that the world’s “barbarian nations” would sooner or later adopt the West’s superior ways — has never really disappeared. Nowadays, however, instead of inspiring sacrifice and justifying imperial force, the social evolutionism obviates the need for either; it’s an ideology of superiority, without cost or hard work — cultural superiority as pure wish-fulfillment.

The West would do better to have confidence in its own values, while also recognizing that our values are our own — and are therefore unlikely to be spontaneously adopted by others. It is a characteristic weakness of liberal democracy to assume its own universal appeal, while taking democracy’s cultural pre-requisites for granted. Precisely because the West now imports populations who lack the cultural pre-requisites for democracy and market capitalism, the immigration issue has the power to explode democracy’s characteristic cultural naïveté (if it doesn’t explode democracy itself first).

America’s Debate
Even as Europe’s immigration-wrought crisis grows, America is facing its own immigration debate. The parallels to Laqueur’s European story are obvious: jobs Europeans won’t do, uncontrolled legal and illegal migration, failure to enforce the law — especially after the initial crossing at the border — the abuse of family reunification provisions, melodramas of outrage by human rights groups, bogus but paralyzing accusations of racism and xenophobia, and sheer obliviousness on the part of business and government elites about the long-term social and cultural implications of uncontrolled immigration. Even the European public’s outrage at being cut out of immigration decision-making has its American parallel in the attempt to railroad through a gigantic immigration bill in just days, with virtually no debate — and the public outrage that’s followed.

But what about differences between the American and European experiences with immigration? American immigration is largely Hispanic. If culture is important, then surely Mexican immigrants should be judged culturally closer to Americans than Muslims are to Europeans. True enough, but this is far too simple a response.

For starters, Muslim immigration is a non-trivial issue even in America, as the terror plots at Fort Dix and JFK Airport show. (See “Look to Europe.”) For another thing, Mexican immigrants in the United States are reproducing some of the problems of Muslim immigrants in Europe. Chain migration through family reunification can transport entire extended families — even whole villages — from Mexico to the United States, and that creates serious barriers to assimilation (see “Chain, Chain, Chain“). The problems of Mexican immigrant families in America are very different from the problems of extended immigrant Muslim clans in Europe, yet in many ways they are equally severe, as Heather MacDonald shows in her remarkable article, “Hispanic Family Values?

In focusing on immigration, I’ve given short shrift to the bold, subtle, hopeful, piercing, and absolutely terrifying dissection of Europe’s prospects at the conclusion of Laqueur’s book. The Last Days of Europe‘s chilling climax is not to be missed. But the terrifying fate of Europe is precisely what we need to avoid. While America may not yet be in Europe’s dire straits, it would be sheer madness to for the United States to repeat Europe’s deadly immigration mistakes — at the very moment when the depth of the continent’s tragic errors are emerging into the light of day.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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