Today, Pope Francis is in Istanbul celebrating a rare moment of Catholic-Orthodox unity with a visit to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the Eastern Orthodox Churches (whose authority over his flock is considerably less than the pope’s over Catholics worldwide), with whom the Vatican has been in schism for almost a thousand years. But the big news from Francis this week was his jaw-dropping speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
The pontiff’s sharp public criticism of Europe’s troubled political culture received much comment in the secular media, which noted how strongly Francis castigated the European Union and its “bureaucratic technicalities,” adding: “In recent years, as the EU has expanded, there has been growing mistrust on the part of citizens towards institutions considered to be aloof, engaged in laying down rules perceived as insensitive to individual peoples, if not downright harmful.”
Were this not coming from the Pope of Rome, it would be close to boilerplate, given the widespread discontent across the EU about its troubled and sclerotic institutions. Yet Francis’s speech included more acid comments, including that Europe is increasingly out of step with the rest of the world, but nothing got more attention than his description of “a Europe which is now a ‘grandmother,’ no longer fertile and vibrant.” It’s not everyday the head of the Catholic Church refers to Europe, which has been the headquarters of the faith since the late Roman Empire, as “elderly and haggard.”
That said, it’s difficult to say that Francis is wrong about any of this. Virtually no European countries are replacing their populations through natural means, achieving a birth rate of 2.1 live children per woman to even maintain their populations, while several EU members are near the 1.2 rate signalling “death spiral,” i.e. the birth rate at which the population cannot recover. The reasons for this are many and varied — birth rates among native-born Americans are hardly better than in the EU, while the lowest rates on earth are found in East Asia, especially Singapore, Japan, and South Korea, indicating that there’s more than a European problem here — but it can be safely said that the Catholic Church’s ban on birth control is being widely ignored in countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal, which have among the fewest babies in Europe, per capita, yet which a generation or two ago were still strongly Catholic and impressively fecund.
While Francis’s analysis of Europe’s population problem, which is really a deep crisis of civilizational pride, identity and meaning, manifesting in a lack of will to even reproduce, is difficult to refute, it was his proposed remedy that received the most comments. The pope has previously spoken of his deep sympathy for migrants headed to Europe, but in Strasbourg he put his cards fully on the table, urging Europe to welcome migrants with open arms, adding, “We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery.” Getting to Italy via boat is hazardous, and it’s estimated that 3,200 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean so far in 2014 while trying to make their way to EU territory.
While no one to the left of Attila the Hun is presumably in favor of people drowning on the high seas, the pope’s words caused many comments, not all of them friendly, across a Europe that is increasingly questioning the economic, political, and social wisdom of having something like open borders to their south. Decades ago, Milton Friedman noted that you can have open borders or you can have an advanced welfare state, but you cannot have both (in any fiscally sustainable way, he perhaps ought to have added), a position that many overtaxed Europeans are finding sympathy for these days.
The Catholic Church’s enthusiasm for open borders is not new, including its categorization, like Francis this week, of migration foremost as a human rights issue, and has been in evidence for some time in the United States, where Catholic bishops have loudly campaigned for amnesty, including support for Barack Obama’s recent executive action on immigration enforcement. All the same, it’s not hard to see, beyond humanitarianism, why Catholic bishops might welcome millions of newcomers from the south, many of them co-religionists, to bolster the declining numbers (and enthusiasm) of native-born U.S. Catholics. It is rather more mysterious why the Vatican would press for the arrival of millions of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, most of whom are Muslims, a group whose assimilation into Europe to date charitably can be called incomplete, even troubled.
While there can be no doubt that Europe needs more people to sustain their economies and costly welfare states, one ought to question whether simply having an open door to Africa and the Middle East represents any sort of coherent immigration policy (the same can be said of America’s decision to not have much of a border with Mexico). It certainly does not seem to be a good way to attract the skills needed by advanced, information-age economies. Canada and Australia, for instance, which have more thought-out immigration policies than the United States, may offer a model for Europe on how to attract educated, talented, and economically desirable immigrants, rather than merely those who get in boats and hope for the best.
Nevertheless, Australia too now has a migration crisis, caused by its own kindness to refugees, with migrants drowning in significant numbers while trying to make their way to that affluent country. “Why aren’t hundreds of asylum seekers drowning trying to get to Japan?” asked one analyst, pointedly, a year ago. After all, Japan is a very nice country with a most advanced economy and a desperate shortage of people. But refugees don’t try to reach the coast of Japan. For the simple reason they know they will be turned away. Preferring to preserve its native population, Japan turns away virtually all refugee claimants, while Australia lets many of them in, with generous benefits to boot. South Korea, like Japan, is not open to more than few refugees despite a serious birth dearth, so few come. In 2014, any developed country that pursues a permissive policy towards refugees is going to get more of them, perhaps many more.
In this sense, Pope Francis may prove to be out of touch with much of his flock, at least in Europe. While the pontiff did not say anything as flat-out odd as President Obama’s remark this week that “the only people who have the right” to question immigration to the United States are “some native Americans,” which ranks as one of the stranger comments to fall from any president’s lips in public lately, the pope’s sympathy for migrants is clear. His prescription to open Europe to boats — how many, exactly? — of Africans and Asians does not seem to be in synch with where many Europeans are politically of late. At best, it’s a recipe for more troubles with difficult-to-assimilate, and not always very economically productive, immigrants, some of whom will collect generous EU welfare benefits while fighting to destroy Europe; at worst, it sounds like a path to the dystopia predicted by the notorious 1973 French novel The Camp of the Saints.
In France, where immigration and assimilation are very hot-button issues, Marine Le Pen has led her right-wing National Front to unparalleled heights of power and popularity, leading to speculation that she may be the republic’s next president. In Britain, the UK Independence Party has risen fast in the polls on a mixture of Euro-skepticism and anti-immigration sentiment, with its leader Nigel Farage questioning what Americans term “anchor babies”; while the British establishment has pooh-poohed UKIP as racists and yahoos, the fear of mainstream parties is mounting quickly before a possible UKIP avalanche, and its deep appeal to Britain’s white working class is undeniable. Even in Germany, where a phobia about the far-right lingers from 1945, the recently established Alternative for Germany (AfD) is making impressive political hay with a rather UKIP-like mix of Euro-skepticism and anti-immigration sentiments, all without any Nazi taint.
The reasons for this political shift are not difficult to determine. In addition to rising frustrations about the under-performing EU economy, there’s the troubling matter that quite a few European governments have promised reforms to ailing immigration and assimilation policies, without doing much of anything. Four years ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel raised eyebrows by stating that Germany’s multi–decade experiment in multiculturalism had “utterly failed.” While Merkel proclaimed “multi-kulti” to be “dead” in late 2010, it is still there in any real sense. Similarly, Britain’s David Cameron in early 2011 stated that “multiculturalism” had “failed” — and proceeded to do nothing about it, leading to the rise of UKIP. British voters, aware of the “fool me once…” paradigm, are likely to be skeptical of Cameron’s public counterattack on UKIP this week, at last promising real reforms to a broken immigration system.
Yet Cameron’s instincts are the right ones, however flawed a messenger “Dave the Chameleon” may be. If the European center-right does not make haste to address essential issues of immigration and national identity, in a way that is plausible and free of cant and condescension, they will surrender this huge issue to the far-right, which now is increasingly allied with Putin’s Russia on this and many other matters.
While the Kremlin’s outreach to the EU’s right-wing fringe has existed for years, the mainstream media is starting to notice what I was writing about months ago, and no longer are Russian intelligence payoffs getting to just the quasi-Nazi fringe. This week it was revealed that Le Pen’s National Front has secured a 40 million Euro loan from a Kremlin-linked bank, while Heinz-Christian Strache, head of Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ), was in Moscow this week to discuss “overcoming the crisis in Europe,” amid rumors that the FPÖ, too, is taking Kremlin cash. Germany’s AfD likewise has suspicious financial ties to Moscow, while the Russian position was made clear in a recent strategy paper published by a Kremlin-linked think-tank titled: “Putin: The Leader of International Conservatism.”
As I explained months ago, Putin and his worldview are in direct opposition to the post-modern West’s “WEIRD” demographic, which provides our elites. The Kremlin strongman is making no effort to hide his views, rather the contrary. In last year’s Valdai Club speech, Putin employed enough muscular faith-and-family language to warm the heart of any European traditionalist:
Another serious challenge to Russia’s identity is linked to events taking place in the world. Here there are both foreign policy and moral aspects. We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.
The excesses of political correctness have reached the point where people are seriously talking about registering political parties whose aim is to promote pedophilia. People in many European countries are embarrassed or afraid to talk about their religious affiliations. Holidays are abolished or even called something different; their essence is hidden away, as is their moral foundation. And people are aggressively trying to export this model all over the world. I am convinced that this opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis.
It cannot be missed that Putin considers the post-modern West to be a civilization in profound crisis, too bored with affluenza and so mired in the loss of faith that it has even lost interest in reproduction, one of the most basic of human desires. It is no exaggeration to observe that Putin sees his mission as saving Russia from that fate.
Although it has long been fashionable to note that Russia, too, has a terrible demographic problem, not helped by rampant alcoholism, there are signs that the corner has been turned. New evidence shows that Russia actually has one of the higher birth rates in Europe, thanks in part to Putin’s pro-natalism policies. As with many old-fashioned Kremlin efforts, Westerners have chuckled at things like “go home and have sex day,” but they seem to be working. (It bears noting that the only country in the former Soviet Union that has really kicked its birth rate up high is Georgia, a devoutly Orthodox as well as anti-Russian country, thanks to the offer by the country’s Patriarch to personally baptize all third-and-more children born to Orthodox families.)
There should be no illusions here. Putin sees the European right, by no means just the far-right, as his friends and allies on a wide range of political and social issues. Many right-leaning Europeans have greeted Putin’s defense of traditionalism warmly, seeing it as far more important than anything involving Ukraine, and have accepted Kremlin funding in an increasingly overt manner. Even UKIP’s Nigel Farage, the most moderate of the Kremlin’s EU friends, at the height of Russia’s Special War on Ukraine in the spring, stated that he considered Putin the world leader he most admired.
While there is little chance of full Putinism, which is a distinctly Russian and post-Soviet phenomenon, taking hold in the EU, there is ample room for politicians to exploit opposition to immigration and multiculturalism, as well as support for traditional family values, in a distinctly Kremlinesque fashion. What that might look like can be gleaned by looking at Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is leading his country towards a sort of Putinism-lite on the Danube, allowing democracy in form if not always in content. His increasingly authoritarian ways are much noted in the Western media, more than might be expected from a small country of ten million people. But Orbán is a gadfly, and he holds a commanding majority in Hungary’s parliament, where under him the once center-right Fidesz party has ditched the center and has headed towards unapologetic traditionalism and nationalism — xenophobia to his detractors.
Yet it should be noted that, excepting occasional bone-headed missteps of the sort Putin made in his early years in Moscow too, Orbán remains popular with most Hungarians, who view the post-Communist period as one of corruption and incompetence, against which Fidesz has defined itself, plus the only plausible alternative is the more or less neo-Nazi Jobbik, which holds one-fifth of the seats in Budapest’s parliament, and compared to whom Orbán looks like a sensitivity trainer.
Orbán, like Putin, does not hide his program, which seems designed to make the WEIRD demographic’s heads explode. He has unabashedly extolled Hungary’s Christian values (he is not a Catholic, like a plurality of Hungarians, rather a member of the country’s politically influential Calvinist minority) while hailing Europe’s Christian Democratic leaders of the 1950’s, comparing them harshly with the post-modern liberal political, economic, and social values that reign in the EU today. Needless to add, such comments have not endeared Orbán to the Brussels smart-set, which is embarrassed to have such a caveman leading an EU country, but as long as Fidesz and its leader remain popular with Hungarians, there’s not much the EU can do about its Orbán problem.
Unsurprisingly, Orbán has spoken warmly of Putin, while pursuing close economic relations with Moscow, which has the oil and natural gas that Budapest needs. Adding fuel to the fire, Orbán has toyed with historical revisionism, noting the injustice of the post-Great War Treaty of Trianon, which took away two-thirds of Hungary, which is a sure-fire way to aggravate fellow EU and NATO neighbors Romania and Slovakia, which have appreciable ethnic Hungarian minorities. Just as bad, from the EU’s viewpoint, were Orbán’s comments this summer on immigration.
He more or less strapped on a flamethrower, stating, “The goal is to cease immigration whatsoever,” he said: “I think the current liberal immigration policy, which is considered obvious and morally based, is hypocritical.” When later asked about how this went down with fellow EU leaders, Orbán added fire: “There were two types of reactions: some envied me because they mustn’t say things like that although they’d very much like to. The others disagreed because they’ve failed to turn around demographic trends with family politics; have kept social tension at bay by subsidizing the jobless; and aren’t fazed if the ethnic basis of a nation state is broken.”
Not content to stop there, Hungary’s prime minister noted that his mission was to keep his country, which is far from wealthy, ethnically Hungarian and Christian. While this was met with horror by postmodern Europeans, there was less outcry in Hungary. To secure the country’s future, Orbán is implementing natalist policies including cash incentives, three years off work with pay for new mothers, and encouragement from Budapest to newlyweds to produce more Hungarians the old fashioned way. “If your love for one another becomes the source of a new life, that’s the greatest gift to your family. A child is a blessing, and the pledge of survival of the family and our nation,” says the congratulations card sent by the government to new brides and grooms.
Will this work in raising Hungary’s birth rate? That remains to be seen, though the cases of Georgia and Russia of late demonstrate that it can be done. What is certain is that the future belongs to those who show up for it and, at current birth rates, in fewer decades than anybody wants to imagine, much of Europe will be aged and infirm, and in severe financial crisis for no reason other than a lack of Europeans.
During the Cold War, clever anti-Communists were careful to deprive the militant Left of much of its program by increasing pay and benefits for workers, and generally treating the working class fairly, thereby nullifying the appeal of Bolshevism. In the United States, Washington, DC’s embrace of civil rights had more than a little to do with a desire to take away from Moscow a powerful propaganda point about how badly America, the supposed land of freedom, treated African Americans. In a similar vein, Europeans who want to blunt the rising appeal, and influence, of Putinism and its fellow travelers would be wise to wage a political counterattack, soon.
Mainstream EU political figures must acknowledge that grass-roots concerns about immigration and assimilation are not simply due to racism and related unfashionable views. Native, working class Europeans have valid reasons, not about hate, to question these policies. Moreover, in no EU country did any government ever ask the population if they wanted these currently controversial policies that have opened the door to Africa and Asia. If mainstream European political parties do not make a sincere effort to address these concerns, they will be exploited by friends of Putin whose commitment to democracy is weak, at best. And it will happen sooner than you think.
Time will tell if Pope Francis’s Strasbourg speech is as out of step with as much of European opinion as it seems to be. It is, however, safe to say that an era has ended, one of huge historical significance. Only ninety years ago, the Anglo-French Catholic layman Hillaire Belloc (in)famously pronounced, “Europe is the faith and the faith is Europe.” And he was right. As of this week, this is no longer the case.