For the people of my generation, when we were children about 35 years ago, Europe used to finish in Germany. Beyond Berlin, what existed was a diffused group of countries whose history and geography was hardly studied at school and whom we were told to fear. Europe was divided in blocks, and we defined ourselves, as Westerners, very much by opposition to what ‘they’ were, and we were not. This consciousness of belonging to one Europe, and not the other, was present not only in the news, but also in popular culture, and we learnt to grow up with a remote feeling that the Soviets could finish off our world any day, any time.
After some years, the borders of Europe moved further East, and old-time antagonists were today’s new friends. When Europe was still waking up from the celebrations of Germany’s reunification and the end of the Soviet menace, a series of terrible wars (1991-2001) in the country that was considered to be the most Western of all the former members of the Warsaw Pact –although Yugoslavia always had a special status– forced Europeans to look into a reality they did not want to accept: the possibility of another war on European soil. After long and complicated negotiations, in which new legislations had to be drawn and sometimes whole new different ways of approaching reality had to be challenged, Europe’s last frontier was set just before East Slavic borders. With the incorporation in 2004 of the Baltic Republics (Letonia, Lithuania and Estonia), the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia, Europe ended now just before Ukraine and Belarus, the buffering zone, together with Moldavia, that Russia would probably prefer to leave as it is. Since then, three more countries have joined the Union, Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, and finally Croatia in 2013.
The current crisis of refugees and/or migrants is showing, however, where the weak spot is. Despite the efforts made to create a strong block of Europe, the countries and/or regions that are still not part of the European Union (Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo) have created a no-man’s land in the middle of Europe where European laws are difficult, almost impossible, to implement. It was known long time ago that these territories bordering with Europe where like the Far West for mafias trafficking with everything, including people, precisely because they were pockets where resources to fight the same crimes that Europe did not want to see, or whose existence does not want to admit, where unavailable to these governments. All these territories but one, Albania, are the heirs of the Yugoslav Wars, countries with very weak or broken economies, mainly supported by foreign aid, and where national tensions are far from settled (there are strong rumours now, for example, of a further partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina into two separate countries). As if Europe were some sort of new Ulysses, the gods have turned her boat again away from Ithaca. Whenever Europe starts feeling happy with its own achievements, some humanitarian crises or armed conflict comes to remind her that wars and refugees are not exclusive to other continents. The price of her hybris, maybe. Without seeking it, without having put its foot in it directly this time, Europe has thousands of people knocking at her doors. Some would like to see her rather as poor Penelope, with all the guests at her house, eating and drinking out all her resources and never leaving, but that would be a terrible mistake. If the difficult and trying incorporation of the countries of Eastern Europe showed anything was that it is easier in the long run to give the Polish plumber better conditions to stay and work in Poland than contempt and subsidies in Germany or the UK, whose reactionary politicians made of the famous Polish plumber the epitome of the new, greater Europe. A short-sighted policy of walls and camps will not solve the problem of the thousands of people escaping their homelands in times of war and fear. It is often heard how the IS and other similar movements convince young people living in Europe to go there and sacrifice their lives and status for them. This is precisely what the people arriving are demanding, and there could be no better opportunity for Europe to promote its core values and traditions than to transmit them to the newly arrived.
Nowadays, there are more Europeans in Europe, despite all possible criticisms, than when we were children, and sometimes it is terrifying to think how our lives would have been completely different if it had been the other way round, if the whole of Europe was now the Warsaw Pact. The people ad portas probably never thought either that one day they were going to have to leave their homeland because some lads were making too much noise on Fridays after the prayer.