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The road to nowhere: the Syrian refugees left out in the cold by Europe

More than two million people have fled the civil war in Syria. Many of them are desperate to get into Europe – but no country wants them.

One day at the end of October last year, Mohamad Hussain went to a café in the Istanbul neighbourhood of Aksaray to meet a smuggler. The smuggler said that, for €400 each, he would drive Mohamad and his family to Edirne, a city close to Turkey’s north-west frontier. From there, the smuggler said, he would find them safe passage into the European Union.

The Hussains were Kurds, from Qamishli in north-east Syria. Twelve of them – Mohamad, his mother, brother and sisters, and their cousins – had travelled to Istanbul together, and although it may not have felt so, they were among the lucky ones. Mohamad, a 24-year-old engineering student at university in Homs, had been lucky to escape injury when the Assad regime fired a rocket at the building next to his dorms. He was lucky that when, at the end of term in August, his bus back to Qamishli was ambushed by Islamist rebels, they only pretended they were going to cut off his head with a sword. When Mohamad’s mother insisted that this threat to her youngest son was the last straw, the family was lucky to sneak unnoticed across the Turkish border, even though it entailed wading through an open sewer.

The Hussains had relatives over the border, and so they could avoid being sent to one of the vast refugee camps Turkey operates on its south-eastern edge and where, they were told, “you’re stuck until the war ends”. They made it to Istanbul, where they rented a cramped apartment in Aksaray.

In this, too, they were lucky: just a few hundred metres away from where Mohamad met the smuggler, other Syrians were sleeping on camp beds under the arches of a Byzantine aqueduct. Since the autumn, thousands have been appearing destitute and starving in Istanbul’s parks, faster than the Turkish aid agencies can find them.

And the Hussains were lucky the smuggler didn’t simply steal the €400 per person he’d asked for; instead, he drove them to Edirne, then to a forest along the Bulgarian border, and said: “Walk that way.”

It was 3am when the Hussains arrived at the forest’s edge. They were joined by other refugees; there were 73 of them in total. At each stage of their journey they had been stripped of possessions, first their homes, then their savings, then all but the few clothes they could carry with them through the forest. The long walk through the wet autumn night would even destroy many people’s shoes. But the Hussains told themselves the sacrifices were worth it, because on the other side of that border lay Europe.

****

It was more than a month after that trip through the forest when I first met Mohamad. In early December, I had travelled to Turkey, and then Bulgaria, to find out what was happening to Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe. Of the two million who have fled abroad, the vast majority are living in three of Syria’s neighbours – Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. But the number reaching Europe has been increasing steadily since summer. Bulgaria, which estimates it had received up to 15,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2013, has been placing new arrivals in hastily opened “overflow” camps. It was at one of these, just outside the town of Harmanli, 30 miles north of the border with Turkey, that Mohamad approached me.

He had been at the camp, with scant access to the outside world, for 45 days by this point. Dressed in jeans and leather jacket, with neatly gelled hair, Mohamad had walked up to me and begun asking questions. Were Arsenal still top of the Premier League? Did I know that their attacking midfielder Mesut Özil was Kurdish? Was I a fan of Taylor Swift, the singer? Did I know how Mohamad could contact his uncle in Germany? Was Britain accepting any refugees? And most of all, did I know a way his family could get out of the camp? “You didn’t see here when it was raining,” he said. Around us, the wild, hilly countryside of southern Bulgaria was lit sharply in the winter sun. “A river of water. I would rather go back to Syria and be killed than stay here.”

We were standing on the steps of a dere­lict building at a Communist-era army base, now repurposed as a refugee camp. Inside, staff from Médecins Sans Frontières were busy setting up an emergency clinic. Outside, in front of us, stretched rows of canvas tents and metal shipping containers. At least 1,500 people, with more arriving daily, were crammed into a space no more than a few hundred metres square. Groups of children played, piling up and smashing the blocks from rubble that littered the ground, jumping back and forwards over broken wire fences, or hanging from rope swings strung between the few trees that hadn’t been chopped down for firewood. The camp was bordered by a concrete perimeter wall: low enough to hear passing cars and pedestrians, but not to see them.

It’s not easy to find your way across the forest that separates Bulgaria from Turkey. After wandering lost in the woods for hours, the Hussains’ group was found by border guards. “We knew we were in Europe,” Mohamad said, “because one of them had a flag with yellow stars on his shoulder.” Details of the procedure for receiving refugees arriving in Europe differ from country to country, but in essence the process is the same: they should be registered and interviewed, have their fingerprints taken and be given temporary documents while their claim is assessed. In theory, it should take only a few days.

Instead, Mohamad and his family were taken to a detention centre where their passports were confiscated. Syrians aren’t the only undocumented migrants who cross Bulgaria’s southern border; at the detention centre, said Mohamad, “They separated us into groups: the Syrians, the Afghans, the black Africans. Like animals.” The same seg­regation seemed to have taken place at Harmanli. Syrians, the largest group, occupied the tents and containers at the centre of the camp; a hundred or so Afghans lived in an old schoolhouse, smoky with fumes from wood-burning stoves and whose toilets leaked; a smaller group of African men – the ones I met were from Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Mali – was in another, smaller building. It had bars on the windows.

After seven days in detention, the Hussains were moved to Harmanli’s closed camp, its entry and exit controlled by the local police. When they arrived, there was no running water or electricity. Food deli­veries were sporadic and the only medical care was an emergency visit by an ambulance. “If people wanted to leave to buy food or see a doctor,” Mohamad said, “the police asked for money.” Some of the refugees were sold bogus contracts by men who arrived at the gates posing as lawyers. The “contracts” promised accommodation in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia: those who handed over their money found they were driven there and dumped on the street. The Hussains wanted to leave and try a nearby camp where conditions were rumoured to be better, but their savings were running out and, without passports, they couldn’t be wired money by friends or relatives.

“Do you want to see the camp?” Mohamad asked me. It was late afternoon as we set off from the steps of the new clinic, and the winter sun was beginning to dip. Even in daylight, the temperature had barely risen above zero, and now people were lighting fires outside their tents to keep warm. The fires mark time here: lit once at sunset, they are rekindled in the early hours of the morning as people’s legs begin to freeze and they wake up. In the final hours of daylight, I saw people scavenging for tree stumps, fallen branches, cardboard boxes – whatever combustible material remained.

In mid-November, the refugees had protested, piling their mattresses outside and setting fire to them. Some of the women went on hunger strike. Now, conditions have begun to improve. A local catering firm, run by Syrians, provides one hot meal a day to the camp; the food is distributed swiftly and efficiently by the refugees themselves. Slowly, families were being moved from the tents into metal containers, which have electricity, water and heating. But when I visited, many were still stuck with just canvas and a wood-burning stove to protect them from the elements.

As we walked along a row of tents, Mohamad stopped to chat to a family huddled around a brazier for warmth. They were Kurds from Syria, too, but unlike the Hussains, who are Muslims, they followed the Yazidi religion, distantly connected to Zoroastrianism. A father-of-three – still so frightened that he asked me not to use his name – described how he had brought his children and his 75-year-old mother to Bulgaria after their home village was ethnically cleansed by Islamists of the Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda. He suffered from diabetes; his mother had heart disease. “The pain is like a snake in my stomach,” said the old woman, complaining that the cold was making her condition worse.

Here, where until a few days before my visit the only contact with doctors was a single, urgent visit by the local ambulance, such common medical conditions can become dire emergencies. “This is more than just a health situation,” Stuart Zimble, the Médecins Sans Frontières head of mission who was in charge of setting up the clinic at Harmanli, later explained to me. “Health problems are being aggravated by the shortfall of the registration process at the border. The Bulgarian government were just not prepared.” There are women in their ninth month of pregnancy and cancer patients who can no longer get access to treatment, not to mention people afflicted by the psychological traumas of those who have fled war. When Eirini, the photojournalist who had come with me to take pictures of the camp, offered a sweet to one of the Afghan children, he just stared at her blankly.

****

When the Hussains left Istanbul at the end of October, their journey would have taken them along the highway that runs beside the Sea of Marmara and then up into the region of south-eastern Europe still known by its ancient name of Thrace. Today, it is where the Turkish, Greek and Bulgarian borders meet, marking the scramble for land that occurred after the collapse of the Otto­man empire. From 1945, it was where the Soviet and western spheres of influence collided. Now, another kind of struggle takes place: between migrants in search of refuge or a way to earn a living – or both – and an EU that increasingly wants to keep them out.

A few days before visiting Harmanli, I had travelled the same route as the Hussains from Istanbul, stopping off at Edirne, a capital in the Ottoman era whose centre is still dominated by three imposing medieval mosques. It has long been a last stop in Turkey for migrants but until recently their preferred destination was Greece, over the border formed by the River Evros. Most people would cross by night in inflatable boats; some would even swim. It was the most popular choice of route into the EU.

One evening I took a taxi from Edirne to the Evros border crossing a few miles outside town. It was dark when I crossed the no-man’s-land between the two roadside checkpoints, but just light enough to spot a few sandbagged gun encampments and a forbidding wire fence on the Greek side, stretching off into the distance. The road was empty, my passage held up only by a line of three geese that waddled through passport control before me. Waiting on the other side in an ageing blue Toyota was Panos, a resident of the nearby town of Orestiada whom I’d phoned earlier that day.

Panos, a young sales rep whose job takes him all around the region, is one of a handful of local people who openly opposed the construction of the fence I’d seen at the border. Six miles long and equipped with thermal sensors to detect movement, it was announced with much fanfare in August 2012 when Greece “sealed” its border with Turkey. “Most people around here support the fence,” Panos said, once we had found our way to a bar. “They aren’t affected by immigration themselves, but they see the migrants come, they hear on the television that immigration causes problems, then they see the fence and think: ‘This is dealing with the problem.’”

Many of those who crossed the Evros in recent years haven’t looked to Greece as their final destination; for them it was a first step towards refuge, work or family members in the wealthier northern European economies. For well over a decade, southern European countries have been asked to shoulder the burden of dealing with irregular migration: the 2003 Dublin II Regulation, for instance, made asylum claims the responsibility of the state through which the migrant first entered the EU. For the most part, that has meant Spain, Italy, Greece – and now Bulgaria.

Since the eurozone crisis of 2009, as European governments have grown ever more panicky about immigration, the pressure has intensified. Hundreds of officers from the EU border agency Frontex have been sent to patrol the Evros in the past few years. In August 2012, the Greek government redeployed almost 2,000 of its own police officers to the region. But the surge came at the very moment when the numbers fleeing Syria began to increase. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees believes there are now 838,000 in Lebanon, 567,000 in Jordan, 540,000 in Turkey, 207,000 in Iraq and 129,000 in Egypt, apart from the 6.5 million Syrians who are internally displaced.

The heightened security along Europe’s borders hasn’t stopped them coming but it has led to more deaths: many now choose to make a perilous crossing by boat from Turkey’s Mediterranean coast instead, and the trip is often fatal. Those who still attempt to cross the Evros find a harsh welcome.

Panos told me that on 12 November his group of activists received a call from someone in the border village of Praggi, saying that about 150 bedraggled Syrian refugees had arrived overnight. “By the time one of our group arrived they had gone,” he said. “The villagers said that the police had taken them away.” Nobody knows what happened to them after that; on 24 December the London Guardian quoted a local human rights lawyer saying the group had “lost all trace” of the refugees.

It is not an isolated incident. A report by the German NGO Pro Asyl, published in November, collected the accounts of 90 refugees who said they had been forcibly pushed back from Greece’s land and sea frontiers. Some of them said they had been forced back into the Evros. Pro Asyl argued this pointed to “systematic abuse of human rights” and estimated that 2,000 migrants could have been forced out in the course of a year. The Greek police deny that they operate a push-back policy; Frontex says it investigates reports of mistreatment whenever they arise. Soon, Syria’s Bulgarian border will be “sealed”, too. In November, the Bulgarians began building a fence of their own.

The village bar where Panos and I were sitting was empty except for a few old men reading newspapers. “This isn’t like a big city,” he said: “if I put my head up, everyone sees. When we protest outside the police station, the policemen inside are guys I went to school with.” He was growing angry. “But I can’t watch what’s happening and say nothing. Yesterday, they found a woman who had frozen to death in a field, just fifty metres over there.” He waved a hand towards the window of the bar. “How can I stay silent about this?”

****

Lazgin Musa sat back and took a drag on his cigarette while Mohamad translated for me. “And here is the paradise of Europe! We don’t even see any Europeans. We can’t leave the camp.” I was back for a second day in Harmanli and Mohamad was taking me to meet his cousins, then still living in one of the canvas tents. Thirty-one-year-old Lazgin, along with his younger brother Goders and their nephew Robar, were part of the group of 12 who had made the long journey here together from Qamishli.

Before the war the brothers had lived in Damascus, where Lazgin ran a clothing shop. Like many Kurds, whose culture and language have been suppressed for decades, they took part in the peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations that swept Syria in 2011. “We were protesting even before then,” said Lazgin, a little indignantly. “But when weapons got into this revolution, we said, ‘We are not with this revolution.’” As popular unrest tilted towards civil war, they held back.

Their fears were justified. First, Lazgin said, the conflict destroyed their livelihood. War drove his European customers away. The price of food shot up as the Syrian currency lost its value. Then, as fighting broke out between the Kurds, who wanted greater autonomy for their territory, and Islamist rebel groups, their lives were threatened on two fronts. “We escaped from Islamists, not from the regime,” Lazgin said, as he stoked the stove that sat in the middle of the tent, its flue poking out of a hole in the roof. “If Assad wins, he’ll kill everybody who was against him. If an Islamist group kills Assad there will be thousands of Islamist groups fighting each other. It will be like Afghanistan.”

Syria’s refugee crisis already compares in scale to that of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Millions who have fled their country are now resigning themselves to a long exile, looking not just for safe haven, but a way to earn a living. Yet by and large the doors of European countries have remained closed. Since the conflict started, only 10,000 refugees have been resettled formally in western countries – and that includes the United States. In December, a report by Amnesty International said the EU had “miserably failed” to provide support.

The excuses range in tone: some politicians, such as the Italian foreign minister Emma Bonino, say that harsh restrictions are necessary because there might be terrorists among the refugees. Bulgarian tele­vision channels have focused on the cost of accommodation – or on the dirt and chaos at the camps, implying that Syrians are bringing disease with them. And the British government, while pointing to the large sums it is donating to humanitarian efforts, says it thinks refugees would be better off in Syria’s neighbouring countries.

This last claim is questionable. It is widely accepted that Jordan and Lebanon, which have taken in more than a million refugees between them, are struggling to cope, but the pressure is also starting to show in Turkey, which claims to have spent more than $2bn on relief efforts so far. The Turkish government was quick to set up camps along the south-eastern border with Syria which are now home to roughly 200,000 refugees. But up to 500,000 more live elsewhere in the country. “There’s a perception that Turkey has less of a need because it’s spent so much money,” Oktay Durukan of Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, an Istanbul-based human rights group, told me. “That’s the wrong message to give.” UNHCR is calling on European countries to keep their borders open.

Bulgaria, one of the poorest EU member countries, complains that it has not received enough support to deal with the rising numbers of refugees. The economic downturn has sparked a political crisis there; in February last year the government was brought down by widespread street protests, and the unrest continues. A far-right party, Ataka (“attack”), is now the fourth largest in parliament, and it has been at the forefront of complaints about the presence of refugees. Other European states could help relieve the pressure. So far, they are largely choosing not to do so.

The refugees know they are being talked of as a burden, and it is something they find bitterly ironic. Mohamad wants to continue his studies in Germany, or even Britain. His brother has a degree in business management and his sister is a qualified psychotherapist. Another of his cousins, Jazia, works as a translator at the camp clinic, using the English she says she learned from watching American movies on TV. “Eur­ope needs people from the Middle East,” Lazgin said. “Europeans stay single; they have one, maybe two children. Middle East people are all married and have many children by the time they are our age. We are a young society.”

Lazgin was half joking, but the mention of children reminded him of something. Another of his brothers was at a camp outside Sofia, with a baby son. “If you go there, give his child a kiss from me.”

****

When systems fail, we have a choice: to accept the failure, or to take action. Many Bulgarians have been shocked by the images of refugees they have seen on television. A weekly delivery of clothes, toys and other supplies arrives at Harmanli – but it is not the usual donation from aid agencies. These are second-hand goods, gathered from around the country, collected in Sofia and driven down to Harmanli in battered old family cars.

It started as a Facebook group, Friends of the Refugees. Then an enterprising developer set up a website where you can track donations as they happen on a live map. But without the intervention of political leaders, will its efforts be enough?

After we left his cousins’ tent, Mohamad invited me back to his container. The metal box must have been no more than ten metres wide and five deep, yet inside it something approaching everyday family life was going on. In two cramped rooms, with a bathroom and a space for cooking, his mother fussed around, tidying up after two of Mohamad’s young cousins, both toddlers. It was warm and brightly lit. A friend knocked at the door. “He was our neighbour in Qamishli and now he lives in the container next to us,” Mohamad said. As I was getting ready to leave, another of Mohamad’s cousins joked that I should leave my passport behind. A UK passport, like those of the US and Finland, guarantees entry to the highest number of countries without any need for a visa. I didn’t know that – but then I’ve never needed to.

On 10 January, I spoke to Mohamad by phone. More containers had arrived and people were no longer living in tents. The Hussains had spent their first Christmas in Europe at Harmanli. On New Year’s Eve, someone had set up a PA system. “They played Kurdish and African dances,” Mohamad said. “But it was too cold to stay outside for long.”

After more than two months, the Hussains finally had their fingerprints taken. They are still waiting for their documents to arrive so they can leave the camp.

Daniel Trilling is the editor of New Humanist magazine

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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The Great Huckster: Boris Johnson’s reckless distortions of history

As a scholar of Churchill, Boris Johnson could have articulated a constructive vision for Britain and Europe. Instead, he wilfully manipulates and distorts the historical record.

This month, 76 years ago, the defeated British Expeditionary Force was making for the Channel ports. Thanks to the ferocious resistance put up by the garrison at Calais, and Hitler’s hesitation, the bulk of the men were safely taken off the beaches at Dunkirk to fight another day. Whatever their private feelings during those terrible hours may have been, most of them knew even then that they would return to Europe to finish the job.

Their forefathers had been intervening in Europe for as long as anyone could remember. From Shakespeare’s Henry V through to Elizabeth’s support for the Dutch revolt, the Second Hundred Years War against Louis XIV, the French Revolution and Napoleon, and the First World War, London had always been profoundly invested in the continent. Defending the “liberties of Europe” and thus British freedoms was what Englishmen and Britons did. It was part of what they were.

In early June 1944 – on D-Day – the British, Americans and Canadians hurled themselves into northern France as their ancestors had done since the late Middle Ages. At least one British officer tried to inspire his men that morning as the landing craft approached the strongly defended beaches by reading out Henry V’s speech before Harfleur, in which Shakespeare has him exhort the men, “once more unto the breach”. The film version of the play was released that same year, dedicated to the “commando and airborne troops of Great Britain”. In the popular mind, these Englishmen and their North American descendants were part of the continuity of a European story that went back to the medieval English empire in France.

Some of those liberating Europe thought that they could not simply return to “business as usual” after the war. One of them was the later Conservative prime minister Ted Heath, the man who took Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973. He first defended Liverpool as an anti-aircraft gunner and then took the fight to Hitler as an artillery man during the campaign in north-west Europe. Over the course of the next 11 months, Heath and his comrades fought their way across the traditional battlefields of northern France and the Low Countries, including the Walcheren swamps in which their ancestors had been mired in Napoleonic times; and through western Germany into the centre of the Reich. They were to stay there, at the heart of Europe, for some 60 years. They created a stable European order, based on Nato and what was to become the European Union, which remains with us to this day.

Now the Brexit stalwart Boris Johnson, my fellow historian, claims that it was all in vain. “The European Union,” he says, “is an attempt to do what Hitler wanted by different methods.” Worse still, the EU is a German plot, whose currency, the euro, was “intended by the Germans” to “destroy” Italian manufacturing and generally grind the faces of its unfortunate members. Johnson has also invoked the spirit of Churchill in support of his arguments. He has since doubled down on his remarks and has received support from other members of the Brexit camp, such as Iain Duncan Smith, though not apparently from more informed figures such as Michael Gove. Unfortunately, Johnson’s claims are as historically wrong as it is possible to be, comparable in their crassness only to his predecessor as London mayor Ken Livingstone’s suggestion that Hitler supported Zionism.

Far from supporting European political unity, Hitler was violently and explicitly opposed to the idea. This was partly because it was proposed by his opponents on the “left” of the Nazi Party, such as the Strasser brothers. They belonged to the “anti-imperialist” wing of the Nazi Party, which wanted a pan-European front against the Jews and the British empire. Hitler’s hostility to the European project was also in part due to a racial antipathy to the half-Japanese Richard, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, the author of the widely discussed book Pan-Europa (1923). One way or the other, Hitler condemned the Pan-Europa movement as “a fantastical, historically impossible childishness”, which would be no more than a “Jewish protectorate”.

Nor did he hold back with his alternative view of what the continent should look like. “The solution,” he wrote, “cannot be Pan-Europa, but rather a Europe of free and independent national states, whose spheres of interest are separate and clearly delineated.” Comparisons involving Hitler are usually odious but if one is going to draw parallels, his view of European integration then was much closer to that of the Brexiters today than that of the advocates of the European Union.

Moreover, the European project did not originate in the Nazis’ attempt to mobilise the continent on their behalf but rather in the resistance movement against Hitler. Take Sicco Mansholt, who hid Dutch resisters on his farm during the war, at great personal risk. He subsequently became the Dutch minister for agriculture and one of the fathers of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Take Altiero Spinelli, the Italian anti-fascist who spent ten years in Mussolini’s prisons. It was there, in June 1941, at the height of Hitler’s power, that he secretly wrote his draft manifesto For a Free and United Europe.

Take Paul-Henri Spaak, later prime minister of Belgium, first president of the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community – the forerunner of the EU – and secretary-general of Nato. He was forced to make a daring escape from wartime Europe in the false bottom of a lorry in order to carry on the struggle against Hitler in exile. Indeed, across Europe there were thousands of men and women who fought, died, were imprisoned or tortured because they believed in a free and united Europe. To suggest that they were trying to achieve the same thing as Hitler by different methods is an outrageous slur on their memory. If Johnson ever makes it to the top of the Conservative Party, and thence to No 10, he will have a lot of explaining and apologising to do in Europe.

***

As if all this were not bad enough, Boris Johnson’s invocation of Churchill flies in the face of everything we know of the great man’s attitude to the European project. To be sure, he began as a Eurosceptic. When army reforms were proposed in 1901 to support the creation of a substantial land force on the continent, the young Winston Churchill was one of the few MPs to oppose them on the grounds that the navy, rather than the army, was of crucial importance to British security. Writing in the Morning Post, Churchill argued that “history” and “geography” showed that the British empire was “essentially commercial and marine”, and had been defended by armies of foreigners.

As the German threat loomed large, however, he changed his mind. Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, told the Australians and New Zealanders in April 1913 that Europe was “where the weather came from”. It was the terrible storm of the First World War that caused Churchill not only to believe in the centrality of Europe but in the need for European – or at least continental European – unity.

In May 1930, the president of the Pan-Europa Union, the former French prime minister Aristide Briand, made a formal proposal for a “European federal union” based on a “European conference” with an executive to co-ordinate economic and military co-operation. The British government of the time rejected the surrender of sovereignty involved but many were sympathetic to the idea of continental European union under liberal auspices. The arch-imperialist Leo Amery, secretary of state for the colonies and later a powerful critic of appeasement, was a strong admirer of Coudenhove and his projects, which he regarded as the extension of Anglo-Saxon principles to the continent.

Likewise, Churchill, then chancellor of the Exchequer, told parliament in June 1925 that he hoped that one could “weave Gaul and Teuton so closely together economically, socially and morally as to prevent the occasion of new quarrels and make old antagonisms die in the realisation of mutual prosperity and interdependence”. Then, he continued, “Europe could rise again”. Churchill did not believe, however, that Britain should be part of any continental political union. “We are with Europe, but not of it,” he wrote in 1930. “We are linked but not compromised. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.”

In mid-June 1940, however, as western Europe buckled under the Nazi onslaught, Churchill went a step further. He made an unsuccessful offer of union with France – involving joint citizenship and a common government – designed to lock the French into the war effort against Germany or, failing that, to secure their fleet. The Nazi threat was so existential, in other words, that it justified the surrender, or at least the pooling, of British sovereignty.

When the threat of invasion passed, Churchill returned to the theme of continental European integration. In October 1942, he “look[ed] forward to a United States of Europe in which barriers between the nations will be greatly minimised. He “hope[d] to see the economy of Europe studied as a whole”, and the establishment of a council of “ten units, including the former Great Powers [and thus presumably Britain], with several confederations – Scandinavian, Danubian, Balkan, etc, which would possess an international police and be charged with keeping Prussia disarmed”.

Churchill returned to the subject immediately after the war, as the Soviet threat menaced Europe. In a speech at Zurich University in September 1946, he urged the continent to “unite”, with Britain supporting the project from the outside. Once again, including the Germans was central to his conception. Churchill urged no less than the full political union of the continent in a “kind of United States of Europe” under the “principles embodied in the Atlantic Charter”. He again praised the work of Hitler’s bugbear, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi’s “Pan-European Union”.

Churchill demanded an “act of faith”, beginning with “a partnership between France and Germany”, assembling around them the states of Europe “who will and . . . can” join such a union. Its purpose was clear, namely “to make the material strength of a single state less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honour by their contribution to the common cause.”

Moreover, Churchill argued, “The ancient states and principalities of Germany, freely joined together for mutual convenience in a federal system, might each take their individual place among the United States of Europe.” In short, the new polity was designed to solve not merely the European question but the German problem, the two being one and the same. Once again, Churchill conceived of this United States of Europe alongside but not including the United Kingdom and the British “Commonwealth of Nations”, that is, the empire. Instead, he believed that Britain should be one of the “sponsors of the new Europe”.

Churchill’s attitude to continental European union was, unlike Hitler’s, highly positive. For Johnson to suggest, therefore, that he is donning the mantle of Churchill to prevent the current European Union from achieving Hitler’s aims through other means is a complete travesty of the historical truth.

Far from being intended to promote German power, the European Union was designed to contain it, or at least to channel it in the right direction. Contrary to what Johnson suggests, the euro was not planned by Germany to subjugate Italian industry or any other European economy. It was insisted on by the French to decommission the deutschmark, which they described as Germany’s “nuclear weapon”. Likewise, the Germans are not incarcerating the Greeks in their European prison: Greeks are desperate not to be released back into the “freedom” of the drachma and the corrupt national politics that they joined “Europe” to escape. If there is one thing worse than being dominated by Germany in the European Union, evidently, it is not being in the EU at all.

Boris Johnson may not have known the details of Hitler’s attitude to European integration, or the European sympathies of many resisters, but he is very well informed about Churchill and Europe. His ignorance is thus not just a matter of making mistakes; we all make those as historians. Nor is it simply a matter of these mistakes being, like bank errors, in favour of one’s own argument. To say that Johnson knows better is not a figure of speech: he has shown in print that he does. His recent book, The Churchill Factor, contains a very balanced account of Churchill’s position on Europe, including most of the statements listed above.

In making his arguments, Johnson is not appealing to the baser instincts of the electorate; it is far worse than that. The deeply ingrained British instinct to fight European tyranny is not base but fine. What Johnson and those who defend his rhetoric have done is to take something virtuous and pervert it. The European Union is not, as we have seen, the continuation of Hitlerism by other means and to suggest so is blatant manipulation.

The shame of it is that there is a perfectly plausible Eurosceptic argument on its own merits. It was well stated by Michael Gove at the start of the campaign. It insists on the historical distinctiveness of the United Kingdom, whose history does indeed set it apart from the rest of the continent. It makes the case for a reform of the EU. It rejects the scaremongering of “Project Fear”, on the cogent grounds that the United Kingdom has the political, economic and military weight to prevail even without the stabilisers of the EU. It scorns President Obama’s impertinent warning that Britain would have to “get to the back of the queue” for a trade deal after Brexit, with a reminder that Britain and her empire defied Nazi Germany for two years before the Americans joined the fray, when Hitler declared war on them (not vice versa). One does not have to accept every detail of this discourse to feel its force. Uniquely among the democratic European powers, the United Kingdom can “stand alone” if it must or wants to.

The Achilles heel of the Brexit campaign, however, is that it has no viable vision for continental Europe. Even Gove falls down here, as his idea of a British departure unleashing a “democratic liberation” of the continent is pure fantasy. It seems odd to have to explain this to Brexiters but Britain really is special. Casting off the bonds of Brussels will not emancipate mainland Europe but let loose the nationalist and xenophobic demons tamed by the integration project. This is clear when we look at the rise of radical anti-European parties in France, Hungary, Austria, Germany and many other parts of Europe as the European project fragments. These developments should not surprise anyone who knows the history of mainland Europe before the mid-20th century and to a considerable sense beyond.

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Most of continental Europe had failed before 1945 and even now the European Union is only failing better. Unlike virtually every other European state, which has at some point or other been occupied and dismembered, often repeatedly, England and the United Kingdom have largely – with very brief exceptions – been subjects of European politics, never merely objects. In this sense, too, she is exceptional. Yet this should not be an occasion for British triumphalism. Whatever the outcome of the referendum on 23 June, the European Union is not an enemy of the United Kingdom. It should best be understood as a modern version of the old Holy Roman Empire; hapless and officious, perhaps, but not malign. It needs help. The failure of the European project and the collapse of the current continental order would be not only a catastrophic blow to the populations on the far side of the Channel but also to the United Kingdom, which would be
directly exposed to the resulting disorder, as it always has been.

In short, the Brexit camp in general and Boris Johnson in particular are missing a great opportunity in Europe. A student and partisan of Winston Churchill, the former mayor of London was qualified to articulate a constructive vision for Britain and the continent. He has failed to understand that the only safe way that Britain can exit from the European Union is not through Brexit – whose consequences for mainland Europe would be dire – but through Euroexit; that is, a Churchillian political union of the continent in close co-operation with the UK.

Instead, in addition to their distortion of the historical record, Johnson and the Brexit camp are committing the cardinal sin of making a decision before they need to. The European Union is not, sadly, a United States of Europe, even though it needs to become one to survive, and is becoming less like one every day. If and when it musters the strength for full political union, there will be plenty of time to leave. Meanwhile, the EU needs all the support that Britain can give it from within.

In 1940, the British forces had been defeated and retreat was the only option. The situation could not be more different today. This is no time to head for the beaches in what will be a legislative Dunkirk of epic proportions, with incalculable consequences not so much for Britain as for the rest of the continent. Unlike in 1940, the United Kingdom is not being forced out of Europe. It has hardly begun to fight there, unless shooting oneself in the foot through Brexit counts as combat. The battle in Britain today is a distraction from the great struggle on the mainland. There is much work to be done in Europe. It is time the British stop tearing themselves apart and return unto the breach once more.

Brendan Simms is a NS contributing writer. His latest book is “Britain’s Europe: a Thousand Years of Conflict and Co-operation” (Allen Lane). He is president of the Project for Democratic Union

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster