These days you are able to consume the UK’s media coverage only piecemeal or in dribs and drabs. If you try to get any distance from it, in order to procure an overview, then the lack of joined-up thinking or the sheer impossibility of an overview can be clarified unbearably. Take the supposed “crisis” that is ongoing at the border between Poland and Belarus. You can process this story only by fixing on it alone, with a single, mad Cyclopean stare.
Belarus’ dictator Alexander Lukashenko, or so this story goes, had been posing as a friendly, avuncular figure. He had decided to extend a helping hand to thousands of African and Middle Eastern migrants, many of them Kurds and Yazidis, who were fleeing from Iraq. He had organised charter flights from various Middle Eastern cities to his capital Minsk and happily granted these migrants tourist visas. This was an all-inclusive package, sometimes with hotel rooms thrown in too. Once the migrants were at Minsk, an abundance of transport was laid on to whisk them to the borders of the EU. But here, the migrants received the most horrible of surprises.
For Lukashenko was no longer their lovely friend and he had been all this time using them to essentially troll his neighbours. His ultimate plan had been to humiliate the EU by unleashing an influx of migrants that its easternmost governments would be unable to humanely turn away. In a win/win situation, he would thus exhibit the EU in either its impotence or its inhumanity. Poland, which is one place where Belarus ends, judged it far better to appear inhuman than impotent. Its irascibly xenophobic government has sent a force of 15000 troops to seal the border.
Now thousands of migrants are stranded on this border, pushed forward and pushed back again, day in and day out. The forests where they have sought refuge drop to sub-zero temperatures at night. There is often no drinking water and no food. The Polish authorities are not letting charities and aid agencies minister to the migrants. Either, it seems, these migrants starve to death or else the pressure builds until there is an outright explosion of violence. This is a pattern that can be already spied at other points on the EU’s borders (such as Greece and Turkey, or the UK and France) where migrants have been used as toy soldiers in largely inconsequential, proxy scraps between states that are otherwise too circumspect to ever fire real shots at each other.
The very worst weapon that any torturer can possess is empathy. Lukashenko is skilfully using the EU’s own racist phobia of outsiders and foreigners to terrorise it, rather as George Orwell’s torturer O’Brien had bludgeoned Winston Smith with his own silly fear of rats. With such an atmosphere of irrationality developing at the Belarusian border, with so many people squashed into a place where there is nowhere to go, and with such an obscene disregard for basic humanitarian norms, some commentators are already preparing for a military overspill. The Estonian Defence Minister Kalle Laanet has conceded that “we can’t say that there is no risk [of war]” and that “the potential for escalation is extremely high.”
I have a bad feeling in my bones about a war between Belarus and the EU. Since the EU has only previously fought democracy within its own borders, I suspect that it would go completely to pieces when put up against the steel of a dictatorship. I can imagine listening to the radio every evening and hearing news of Berlin and then Paris and then Brussels falling to the Belarusian troops. Ireland would, of course, drop the EU at once and delete its number from its phone. In the final indignity, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, would be obliged to set up a government-in-exile in the UK.
Anybody who takes their eye off this escalating nightmare for a second and allows it to settle on other areas of recent news coverage might grow quickly bewildered or even vertiginous. For the situation at the Belarusian border is a news story about Europe being too full, of there being a human surplus and of complications arising when nobody knows what to do with these excess individuals. This, after the newspaper that I read, the Guardian, has spent months issuing a daily figure of deaths from COVID-19. Not many days will skip by before the tally of the UK’s COVID dead has quickly dwarfed the tiny numbers of people who are distressed at the Belarusian border. And this, after months of news stories about the UK being too empty, of there being a human scarcity, of there being not enough people to work in the NHS and drive the goods lorries and pick fields of decomposing vegetables.
The gift that is waiting for us at the Belarusian border is not really a serious answer to our economic problems because there is actually not nearly enough migrants. We could do with many, many thousands more of them. The competition for their labour is rising steeply, in fact, with Germany being set to have nearly 20 million job openings between 2021 and 2030. So Lukashenko needs to pull his finger out. He does not appear to realise that he is our sole lifeline. He has made a start, by cobbling together his crude infrastructure of charter flights and shuttle buses. But there is some way to go until his country can be identified as a reliable supplier of the labour that we need.
It must be difficult for him. After all, is anybody thinking of his feelings? The entire country that is under his control is being treated as merely a road or a corridor to somewhere else. Or even as just a doormat, on the threshold of Europe. Still, the needs of our own economy render it inevitable that such a peripheral nation as Belarus be regarded in this way. Either we welcome these migrants, train them, give them jobs and try to entice them to spend most of their wages over here or else we are condemned to rue our ageing workforce and our declining productivity.
When you peel back the obstinacy, the xenophobia and the paralysing neurosis that surround the migrant crisis, the question becomes this basic. There is no problem at the Belarusian border. There is no crisis. There happens to be a load of unemployed people camping in a forest and our own economy happens to have thousands of vacancies. If we cannot organise this, can we ever honestly organise anything?