Continent sans frontière [Continent Without a Border] directs a powerful spotlight on one of the central issues in current political life in Europe and the United States: immigration policy.
Ever since the tidal wave of over one million unprocessed, illegal migrants hit European shores in the summer and early autumn of 2015, the questions surrounding the EU’s “open borders” policy practiced at that time under the welcoming slogan of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel “wir schaffen das” [we can handle it] have changed the political landscape on the Old Continent.
The author argues that this unprecedented flood of immigrants was a major contributing factor to the decision of the British to leave the European Union during their June 2016 referendum (Brexit). This wave aggravated a pre-existing resistance to newcomers in Britain resulting from the settlement of more than a million Poles and others from Eastern Europe since their accession to the Union in 2004, with the accompanying depressing effect on wages and housing conditions for native Britons.
He also argues that the 2015 wave of illegal arrivals consolidated opposition to Brussels in the Central European Member States known as the Vysehrad Four, raising the possibility of a further disintegration of the Union if the underlying differences over immigration and multiculturalism are not resolved. And, of course, it gave impetus to protests against the ruling elites that we now know as the “populist” parties on the right and left extremes of the political spectrum, which may unseat the centrist majority in the European Parliament in the May 2019 elections. Across the pond, border control has been one of the main issues used by Donald Trump to take and hold the presidency. In a word, the issues confronted in this book are of primary importance in the world’s leading democracies.
Who is the author?
Theo Francken is uniquely qualified to present the subject. From 2014 until the fall of the coalition government in which his party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) was the power behind the throne, Francken was the State Secretary for Asylum and Immigration.
As a central figure in the controversial immigration affairs, he was a highly visible member of a party that until its grudging acceptance into a coalition government formed under pressure of financial crisis had been dealt with at arms’ length by polite Belgian society. It was precisely disagreement over his dossier, immigration policy, that pitted the N-VA against the Center-Left Prime Minister Charles Michel in December 2018 and brought down the Government. The point of contention was N-VA opposition to Belgian participation in the intergovernmental conference to adopt a global compact on migration backed by the United Nations and held in Marrakesh earlier in the month.
In his official capacity, all during his tenure Francken participated not only in Belgian internal wrangling over the immigration issue but in talks at the European level where he represented the country.at respective meetings of the European Council. In this book, he explains the dynamics of the European tug-of-war over immigration from his insider perspective.
As one of the younger members of government who made his share of gaffes along the way, Francken has been the object of vituperous attack not only from opponents in other political parties but from the Belgian mainstream media, academics and NGOs as a moral reprobate, a man without a heart. He has been labeled a xenophobe, a fascist. Thus, it is no accident that in this book the author goes out of his way to show us his utter reasonableness and lawyer’s training in presenting carefully researched and argued positions. Unlike his detractors, Francken claims the high ground of intellectual debate and does not engage in ad hominem attacks which are the bane of modern political life. This makes the book all the more extraordinary and much more valuable than one normally expects from political memoirs.
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In Continent sans frontière, Theo Francken covers his subject comprehensively, from many angles, past, present and future. In this segment, I will call out the subjects and to a limited extent the argumentation of the sequence of chapters.
Francken opens by introducing us to the misrepresentation of the migrant crisis from the get-go that made it possible for the well-intentioned European public to accept an influx it might never have tolerated had it known the facts.
In September 2015, the migrants were by official account and by unanimous media coverage described as being largely Syrian refugees, often well-educated folk, fleeing the bombs of Bashir Assad and the terror imposed by ISIL. However, from the information available in Belgium’s Office of Foreigners, the reality appeared to be quite different: less than 20% of those who applied to settle in Belgium in the period from September to December 2015 were of Syrian origin. Most were young Afghan and Iraqi males, and they came not from war-torn parts of their countries but from the capitals, Kabul and Baghdad, which were relatively stable at the time. By his estimation, these were strictly economic migrants seeking their fortunes in Europe and having no right to consideration for asylum or to entry without advance processing and issuance of visas. Moreover, the majority of even those who claimed to be Syrians when reporting to authorities across Europe had not come directly from Syria, but from UN-administered camps or from the major cities of Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan, where they had taken temporary residence. That is to say, they faced no threats to their lives prior to entering Europe.
Francken insists that these facts were all accessible to the media, but that they chose instead to present an entirely false image of pretty young female and child asylum seekers or of young men with artistic ambitions. In this effort, the media were backed up by progressive politicians who took liberties with the facts, all for the sake of a good cause. The shared objective was to elicit sympathy from the broad population while blackening the reputation of politicians of the Right, of realists, who called for shutting the borders and pushing back the migrants.
Francken then asks what was the driver of the migration if it was not war. This he identifies as the Eldorado principle, the hopes for a better life among the lower middle classes of Northern and Western Africa as well as from the extended Middle East who could find the several thousand dollars to pay smugglers the passage to Europe as clandestines.
He asks why it was precisely these geographic areas that have generated the millions of candidate migrants to Europe, and in the end, concludes that it is the very high birth rates in the source countries which exceeds any sustainable economic growth and produces each year a surplus of young and dispossessed males who form the legions of migrants if given a chance. The heightened fertility comes back to a cultural factor in common: Islam.
Francken turns next to the question of why millions of people living in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa are drawn to Europe. Prosperity, stability, liberty are all factors. But why Europe? Why not to Japan, to Indonesia, to Australia, where the same positive attractions beckon? The reason is that Europe’s frontiers have been left unprotected, whereas the other possible destinations firmly protect their borders and push back would be arrivals.
This brings us to the question of how and why Europe’s borders are open. One is that European society and countries are divided in their thinking about migration, with the left of the political spectrum expressing considerable sympathy. They draw on Christian ethical teachings, charitable impulses and feelings of guilt over our own good fortune, which is deemed to be arbitrary. The result is a mentality that “the world belongs to all.” The notion of “illegal” immigrants is rejected on principle. Those reasoning in this way go on to claim that migrations have existed in every epoch and that there is nothing that can prevent them.
Francken also finds many apologists for mass migration among business elites. The influx of immigrants will provide new consumers and workers, rejuvenating Old Europe and providing a net benefit for the economy. He patiently walks us through the facts, showing that yes, immigration can bring benefits, but only if it is controlled, if the candidates are vetted in advance to match their skills with the needs of the economy in the country of arrival. Thus, there has indeed been benefit to the economy in the United States, in Canada, in Australia, where such screening is done. However, chaotic arrivals and passive immigration based on the principle of family reunification give no such positive proofs. On the contrary, they indicate net losses from financial assistance to the majority who are not placed in jobs within four years of arrival. Studies in Germany already in October 2015 indicated that the majority of arrivals in the country were illiterate or had very little education. And the final bill to Germany for its open arms to illegal migrants in 2015 was a whopping 50 billion euros annualized.
Francken moves on to explore how it was that Europe was politically powerless to control its borders and push back against the illegal flows of migrants in 2015. Here he walks us through a sequence of judicial decisions by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg starting in 1989 with an extradition case which expanded the provisions of the 1950 Convention on Human Rights, Article 3, prohibiting torture and inhuman or degrading treatment beyond any semblance of the limited intentions of the framers and original signatories of the Convention. The Court effectively curtailed sharply the options of government authorities across Europe to refuse entry and to forcibly eject illegal immigrants and unprocessed asylum seekers. What we are shown is the judiciary at the European level encroaching on the legislative powers and violating the principle of separation of powers.
One consequence was to render inoperable the provisions of the compromise framework of Member States on handling immigrants known as the Dublin Agreement. That governed return of immigrants to the Member State where they first entered the EU. These problems were aggravated by follow-on court rulings at the national level. The end result is that when the hundreds of thousands of migrants arrived in Greece in 2015 from Turkey and elsewhere, they no longer could be kept in place or returned to Greece if they moved further into the Schengen area, and Greece became just a transit country.
The courts also exerted a decisive and baneful influence on Europe’s options for controlling arrivals from the sea. The European navies were denied the right to turn back migrants at sea. The result is that very quickly the passage to Europe on chartered boats destined for European ports hundreds of kilometers away morphed into passage on unseaworthy small rubber dinghies dispatched from the Libyan coast and sailing to international waters just beyond the 12 mile limit, where they could be met and “rescued” by mercy ships made available by European NGOs promoting immigration who conveyed them to Europe.
Further decisions at the European level, in this case the Dublin Agreement itself, shaped and encouraged yet another outstanding feature of the migrant influx of autumn 2015: the arrival of nearly 90,000 undocumented, unaccompanied minors. The well-circulated fact that such minors would be given freedom to choose their country of asylum within Schengen, whereas adult migrants had no such right, encouraged parents in West Africa, in the extended Middle East to forcibly send children on their way to the hazards of passage to Europe in the expectation that once they arrived they would establish residence, being untouchable till they reached 18 and in the meantime would file on behalf of their parents and siblings on the principle of “family reunification.”
Francken goes on to explain that whereas Belgium and The Netherlands used radiographic techniques to establish the true age of self-declared undocumented “minors,” Germany, the biggest destination for the “children’s crusade” did nothing whatsoever to verify ages and by ignorance or deception granted asylum to persons who were de facto adults. The knock-on effect was that such young adults were placed in schools where they were several years older than their native-born peers. The most egregious such cases were recorded in Sweden, which of all European countries was the most zealous to take in “refugees” and demonstrated the most suffocating conformism in denying the realities of those who were arriving at its processing centers.
Theo Francken takes his time walking us through these developments precedent setting case by case.
Although, as I said at the outset, the author does not engage in character assassination when discussing his political opponents, he does name names and bring out inconsistencies and prevarication. This is particularly the case in his indictment of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, whose unqualified position in favor of open doors and unrestricted immigration was made clear at the height of the crisis in September 2015 and in his determination thereafter to force Member States to accept quotas of immigrants, notwithstanding the strong resistance of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia (Vysehrad Four). Thus, he finds that Juncker has done serious damage to EU solidarity and credibility.
Finally, Theo Francken looks at how other industrialized countries have managed to stay on the right side of international law, while enforcing a robust defense of their borders against illegal migration. He sees the practices of Australia as exemplary in this regard and discusses them at some length. His point is that given the political will, Europe can also implement a rational and at the same time humane immigration policy.
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Continent sans frontière was first published by the author in his native Flemish. The French language edition was put out very soon afterwards. At his book presentation in a French-speaking literary club in Brussels in mid-December, that is about a month after publication, where Francken spoke very good French and established rapport with his audience, he proudly announced that more than 10,000 copies in French had already been sold. Given the small scale of the book trade in this country, given the curses sent his way by the press, this achievement was quite remarkable.
It is a great pity that so far no English language edition has yet appeared or been promised. The issues addressed in this book have relevance far beyond the state of Belgium,
Finally, I note that this book has value as a chronicle of our times in a wholly different dimension. Throughout, Francken shows how the ruling elites in Belgium, in a manner undistinguishable from counterparts in the United States, in Germany and elsewhere, link arms with mainstream media, with universities, think tanks and NGO’s to dictate what our values should be and what can and cannot be the proper subject of public discussion.
Exactly the same phenomenon occurs with respect to a couple of other major issues which are the defining moments of our day: climate change and relations with Putin’s Russia.
Suppression of free debate on immigration may lead to the break-up of the EU, which we will all survive even if we have deep regrets. Suppression of free debate on climate change may lead to economic slowdown that serves no useful purpose, to much higher energy costs for the public and industry, to power blackouts due to the irregularity and shortfalls of renewable sources. We can also survive that. However, suppression of free debate on relations with Russia is something we may not survive. Our present policies, which are uninformed by public discussion and face no challenge thanks to blacklisting of anyone putting a question to our complacent Establishment, are leading us directly into nuclear confrontation and possible Armageddon.
In this book, Theo Francken wears his politics on his sleeve. He is a proud Rightist, and he denounces at every turn the uninformed and lazy idealism of the Left, of “progressive humanity” and “constructive media” for the bad policies on immigration handed down and enforced by our courts, by our legislators and by the executive arm of government at the national and supranational levels. He makes a compelling argument.
However, in our democracies with their alternation in power, the vices of enforced conformism can and do attach themselves to Right as well as Left over a period of decades, The greater principle is that muzzling or denigration of political opponents impoverishes our thinking processes. Destructive policies are not required to prove themselves in an open marketplace of ideas. Political correctness of all stripes curtails pluralism, which is the precondition for a vital democracy.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019