Breaking down the Walls of Fortress Europe

I’ve been thinking for a while that I should write something here about the refugee crisis that has been stirring up passions in the media and social media in Britain (and I suspect in Europe and the US too) in the last few weeks. I have been struck for some time by the dogmatic features of a lot of discussion about immigration (though not all), so what I really want to do here is just point out some of the dogmas that I think need to be avoided if we are trying to apply the Middle Way to the issue. Beyond a certain point, in such a complex issue, the Middle Way doesn’t give us specific answers to the dilemmas involved. Questions like exactly how many refugees to admit, how exactly they can be accommodated, or how to avoid encouraging criminal gangs from people-trafficking operations are all more detailed questions of policy on which I’m going to try to avoid being too prescriptive. Instead, I want to reflect on the effect of frontiers on our thinking

Syrian_refugees_in_lebanonNational frontiers are political absolutisations of differences in geography, history, language, culture, religion, ideology etc that would otherwise be incremental. If I travel overland from England to Mauritania, say, I will pass through only 3 other countries (France, Spain, and Morocco), and as I go the climate and culture will gradually but imperceptibly change. By the time I reach Mauritania I will be in a poverty-stricken, Islamic, desert land where slavery is still common: a starkly different place from England. However, since national boundaries in the Sahara are extremely difficult to police, and under the Schengen agreement France and Spain share an open zone, that whole difference has become concentrated at the Straits of Gibraltar (and to a lesser extent at Calais). There migrants and refugees try to scale the fences of the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Mellila, just as they try to cross the sea between Libya and Italy or between Turkey and Greece. All European fear of the Other has become concentrated on those borders, with ‘home’ extended to one side of them and the Shadow lurking on the other side. The British tabloid newspapers have exacerbated this kind of reaction by using consistently negative or dehumanising language about the ‘swarms’ (a word used even by David Cameron) on the other side of it.

Whatever judgements we make need to avoid that absolutisation. Of course, when people of very different cultures are brought together (particularly when they have to share resources), difficulties of communication, adaptation and adjustment will follow. We can’t ignore that condition, but it is an incremental condition, a matter of degree. The ‘swarms’ on the other side of the wall not only share our basic humanity, but are like Europeans in lots of other ways too. Probably to list such ways would be patronising: anyone who has heard refugees interviewed on the media will have an impression of how much refugees are often not very different from us. Indeed, many people who have been refugees in the past are now settled citizens of Britain, the US, and other such countries.

It’s striking how the British tabloid Daily Mail, particularly, moved suddenly from dehumanising refugees to sympathising with their plight, after the shift in public mood that seems to have been triggered by pictures of drowned refugee children. But to blame them for that inconsistency (rather than for their previous negativity) is fallacious: we are all moved by such pictures, for we are embodied humans, not rational automata, and if those emotions help us to address conditions we were not previously addressing, that is helpful.

Frontiers also give us a sense of protective and egoistic ownership over ‘our’ land on this side of them, and this protectiveness can extend to worries about employment, the shortage of housing, and strain on welfare systems. But if we incrementalise such concerns, rather than absolutising them, we may be able to see them in better proportion: perhaps minor inconveniences or drops in service provision for us, and a major help to refugees. Perhaps if refugees did enter Britain in the kind of numbers they have been entering Turkey (where there are 1.9 million, according to UNHCR), we would see a noticeable increase in the strain on housing and welfare (employment is perhaps a different matter, as enterprising people can create their own jobs). But why should Turkey take that strain rather than Britain? How much difference would it really make to everyday life in Britain? Even if some British people would suffer to some extent in some ways, how would that suffering compare to the suffering of the refugees?

Yes, there are all sorts of practical difficulties that stand in the way of breaking down the walls of fortress Europe. I was in a local Green Party meeting the other day that brought some of those difficulties home to me: for example, currently a town in the UK that wants to host refugees will only be funded by central government for the first year to help the local authority meet their needs. Many councils are rejecting the prospect, because they fear that their overstretched budgets will be stretched still further by responsibilities for traumatised people that go on beyond that year. One can hardly blame local council officials, who have to make it all work, from being concerned about such points.

But we also need to keep in mind the big picture that such objectors neglect: that Europe cannot forever maintain a fortress policy. Exactly the same point applies to other developed countries, such as the US and Australia. How many refugees do there have to be, and how desperate do they have to be, before such policy becomes impossible to maintain? No border is absolute, not just in philosophical terms, but in terms of practical maintenance. If climate change produces a great many more refugees, as is often predicted, how will we deal with this? You cannot shut off a large portion of the world’s conditions behind a wall and pretend it is not your business – or if you do, you are engaging in repression, and that repression has a habit of springing back in the future with unexpected and often violent effects. Other social, economic and technological forces are also making the world more integrated, not less. It has been remarked that one of the drivers of the current wave of migration is the internet, where migrants can easily find out about their dreamed-of destinations.

How we precisely address these conditions is another matter. An open-door policy might actually produce a lot less conflict and suffering in the long-term. Of course we shouldn’t neglect the possibility of social conflict that might be created by such a policy. The details of where the right balance lies can only be worked out by those responsible, with all the practical information. But for those of us on the sidelines the general best policy seems clear: we need to work on the basis of the big picture, and that also means opening our hearts – not indulging our projected archetypal fears about the shadowy people on the other side of the border.

Picture: Syrian refugees in Lebanon (public domain)


About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

12 thoughts on “Breaking down the Walls of Fortress Europe

  1. This calm, thoughtful and wide-ranging analysis is, for me, another illustration of the Middle Way mind at work, looking compassionately and reasonably at the conditions surrounding the issue of migration calling up wide and non-partisan perspectives, and pointing tentatively to possible lines of further thougt and action.

    It seems so simple when I read it. I think, “Why can’t I see things so clearly?”, and feel for an instant that I’m a failure. But I also recognise that it’s a sign of my potential for clear thinking that I can recognise and appreciate the calmness, the thoroughness and the simplicity of the approach, and that I know it’s within my grasp too, if I approach it in the right frame of mind, and with a relaxed and open body.

    Reading Robert’s words induces a kind of calm in me, and some reassurance. I do read the Daily Mail (it’s my wife’s favourite, and was my own media bete noir), but since joining the society I’ve come to find things about the Mail that are admirable, cogent, and instructive. They challenge my absolutism; and taking on board points of view that don’t reinforce my own is a good experience, and enjoyable one, and the world doesn’t stop turning on its axis.

  2. Thanks Peter. I can see that reading views opposed to one’s habitual ones can be helpful in recognising wider conditions, but at the same time I wouldn’t underestimate the cumulative effects of reading a newspaper quite so regularly exploitative of people’s narrowest prejudices as the Daily Mail. Perhaps it has little effect on you, if your beliefs have been largely formed elsewhere, but there are many more impressionable minds. Also don’t forget the sleeper effect: things that we may reject when we first read them can still have an unconscious effect that comes out later. Personally if I’m going to read conservative opinions I would go for the Economist, or the Times Literary Supplement, which do generally offer well thought out opinions that address the kind of conditions conservatives think are important. For those who would find such reading too heavy, there’s always the ‘i’ (the little Independent), which does give unbiased but brief coverage of a good range of actual news.

  3. Hi,

    This is a great example of how a Middle Way approach can be easily, and effectively applied to ‘real world’ situations, helping to address the dogma’s that are all to often present in the portrayal of such situations while acknowledging the need to accept that further challenges are likely to arise from any intervention taken.

    The dehumanising effect of the large proportion of reports (prior to the photo of the drowned toddler last week) has been frustrating me for some time. It is not just the tabloid press that have been guilty of this either. Most of the reports have previously been about disruption at Calais, usually focusing on young men attempting to cross the channel in or on various vehicles. Even when the media did report something else, such as the capsizing of a boat in the Mediterranean, there would still be very little attempt to humanise those affected by the disaster. Furthermore, there was almost no mention of the reasons why these people were in Calais or crossing the Mediterranean – just various depictions of a mass of people and the occasional focus on individual stories (usually neglecting the reasons why they fled in the first place & focusing on the nature of their journey into Europe instead). Finally, this seems to be changing for the better, it is just a shame that it has taken so long for this change to start.

    By first breaking down the often bizarre barriers that we put up between ourselves and seeing those from beyond these barriers as human beings, with fears, hopes and desires much like our own – we can then begin to address the complicated issues that have created and will stem from the current refugee crisis with empathy and compassion. The ‘head in the sand’ policies of dehumanisation and repressive denial that we have seen thus far can not work, for either the refugees,the European states or the world as a whole.

    Of course the refugee crisis is symptomatic of much wider issues and I wonder how the Middle Way could be used to approach these. How should ISIS be responded to? Can military action be taken with a Middle Way approach? If military action is not the best course of action how can the situation in Syria and Iraq best be resolved? It seems to me that to do nothing is not an option; I just don’t know what can be done for the best, and often find myself navigating towards the shores of one extreme before veering off towards the other.


    1. Rich, I think it perhaps best to scope what you think you might do about the things that concern you in this total mess, perhaps by ‘brainstorming’ a list of things, without censoring yourself. Set it aside for a while, then reflect on it, perhaps doing a spider diagram from each item on the list to examine pros and cons, people and resources etc for each item.

      Make a list of (say) five items, and put them in order of importance, then list the same items in order of feasibility. Choose one or two (or more) to work on more pro-actively, and prioritise those for action.

      For each action try to identify a first step, thinking incrementally but not at first, perhaps, beyond the first step. Don’t at this stage concern yourself with end-results or achievable goals.

      Identify a date or time for taking the first step, then move forward on it with trust in yourself and your open-hearted and open-minded commitment to action in the wider context you’ve begun to clear in consciousness. Rest in the space you’ve made for yourself.

      I’ve signed up to support Corbyn’s leadership bid, and I’ve subsequently taken a first step towards re-instating the local constituency Labour party which has been moribund for almost a decade. A Quixotic move, perhaps but I think a move (for me) in the right direction. I’ve also discussed with the family how we might react to a refugee on our own doorstep, just as an overt consciousness-raiser, as is perhaps a role I’ve neglected for over forty years as husband and father.

      Robert, I take your views on the Mail very seriously, especially the point about its cumulative latent influence. My daily read is the “I”, and I read the Mail as a counter-balance, and because the journalism is very sophisticated as well as potentially sinister. Thanks very much for your comments, anyway.

  4. Hi Peter,

    Thanks for your helpful suggestion. I will certainly give it a go and see if I can develop a more coherent perspective. I think that part of my difficulty is in accepting that suffering will increase in one for or another, which ever course of action is taken. For example: if military action is taken then there is the serious and unavoidable risk of widespread civilian injury and death (which also creates further political problems), while taking a more diplomatic route may eventually lead to military stabilisation (although given the complex nature of Middle Eastern politics this is in no way guaranteed) but will do little for those that may be at risk of extreme persecution.

    I am naturally inclined to a pacifist approach; I have never been in a fight. However, I am also suspicious of a pacifism that is fixed and absolute. On a personal level I would use physical force to protect myself or another from an assault and feel that there are times when such forceful protection should be scaled up to a military level. In my college years I remember that almost all of my peers were vocally against the military action in Yugoslavia while I was not, a position that I stand by today. I was, however, and still am, very much against the action that was taken in Iraq at the turn of the century.


  5. Hi Robert,

    I’ve read this having previously researched a little bit about the middle way and your application of it, but I am by no means an expert on it so forgive me if this sounds ignorant. I am really just trying to get a better understanding of the middle way by putting forward some possible problems with it.

    My first question about the extent to which the middle way should address other people’s dogmatic thinking as a condition that needs to be considered. It strikes me that it’s all well and good arguing that individuals should stop thinking dogmatically about things like national borders. However, while there are people that still hold on to these dogmas, politicians surely need to accept that those dogmas exist and do not go away just by giving reasoned arguments such as the one you’ve just presented. Therefore although your advocacy of incremental change in the way we see nation states; borders and other human beings is admirable, for the time being do politicians and decision makers not need to accept that taking refugees in could cause further conflicts (both internal and external) while people still hold on to dogmas and prejudices?

    My second question is probably related to the first. You will no doubt have heard the criticisms that many intellectual ideas and movements face; that they can only really be followed by a privileged group of people who have sufficient education and material wealth. From this piece, it struck me that the middle way could be guilty of this in two ways. Firstly, when you speak of the minor inconveniences that people may suffer from drainage of public services such as the NHS. These inconveniences, while minor when we compare them to the suffering of many refugees, will probably be felt most by the least privileged within our own society. Secondly, without sufficient education that cultivates an individual’s reasoning skills, it must surely be harder for a person to develop the reasoning skills to overcome those dogmas. Is there a way that that the middle way can avoid being a moral approach that is useful only for those privileged enough?

  6. Hi Clive,
    Thanks for these thoughtful questions.
    Firstly, all conditions need to be addressed as far as possible from a Middle Way perspective, so obviously that includes the condition of people hanging onto dogmas. I’m not sure that there’s too much danger of politicians failing to notice that, though. It is the big picture that generally tends to be neglected rather than the small one. So, I’m not suggesting that politicians should make decisions that only take into account the big picture, and just impose that on people who strongly resist it due to their allegiance to dogmas. Rather, politicians probably need to push the big picture as far as they can whilst containing the internal political conflict. It’s partly a question of the kind of leadership that’s being offered, and perhaps we need more transformational leaders (as Jeremy Corbyn appears to be so far) who are prepared to argue for a view that may not already be popular, even though they are also pragmatic enough to listen to the counter-arguments, take them into account, and arrive at a practicable policy by democratic means.

    I don’t think that the Marxist-style criticism of a view as somehow undermined by the fact that it’s held by a particular group of people (in this case a privileged group) tells us anything helpful. It is ad hominem, and tells us nothing about how helpful that view itself is. An overweight doctor who warns you about your weight can still be justified even if he is guilty of a degree of inconsistency.

    In the case you point out, firstly I wouldn’t agree that the Middle Way can only be followed by people with sufficient education and wealth. It may be harder for people without those things, in practice, to come to understand it and give enough time and energy to reflecting on it, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be applied in any possible situation. Indeed the great strength of the Middle Way is its universality. Somebody in desperate poverty still has to decide how to engage with that situation, and if they do so on the basis of dogmas (e.g. blaming the government for everything, or alternatively falling into depression on the grounds that they are useless and can’t improve their situation) that will make it all the harder for them to improve their situation.

    However, even if it is significantly easier for those with wealth and education to engage with the Middle Way, that is not an intrinsic problem with the Middle Way itself. It may mean that gaining sufficient (not excessive) wealth and sufficient education needs to be pursued as a prior condition for engaging with the Middle way more fully.

    Coming back to the impact of refugees, you are right to point out that any negative effects of admitting more refugees on our society, as things stand, are likely to affect the disadvantaged more. That’s an issue of social policy that thus needs to be addressed at the same time as admitting more refugees. Grasping the nettle of more redistributive taxation, to rectify the drift in the other direction of 36 years of neo-liberalism in the UK, would be my recommendation here. But that’s a reason for better social policy, not for failing to admit more refugees.

    I agree that it’s harder for people to engage with the Middle Way effectively without sufficient education – though increasingly I am seeing this less in terms of ‘reasoning skills’ and more in terms of awareness of our assumptions. The remedy for this, though, surely, is more and better education. That in turn requires changes in cultural and economic attitudes that do not currently give enough priority to such education, and tend to privilege specialised technical instruction instead. I don’t understand, for example, why fifteen year olds have to learn calculus and trigonometry, which most of them are likely to promptly forget unless they are applying these skills in a small number of specialised occupations, rather than meditation, critical thinking, and basic practical psychology, which everyone needs regardless of their occupation. We can only keep arguing about these things and chipping away at them to try to bring about incremental change. Just because these crucial skills are not widely enough taught is not a reason to cease valuing them and giving them priority, especially when we can personally experience how great their value is.

    1. Thanks for you reply

      I agree that the middle way should acknowledge that there is a vast interconnectivity of issues between, for example, the lack of wealth distribution in society and the fact that the poorest in society could suffer the most as a result of more refugees being taken in. If we ignore this interconnectivity then we lose the bigger picture. However, my understanding of the middle way is that it forces us to not only see the bigger picture, but also to address conditions in a way that is practical. It seems quite possible that Britain will increase its intake of refugees in the near future. It seems less likely that wholesale redistributive justice is going to take place any time soon (although we should quite possibly consider it as a long term goal). Therefore if a leader such as Corbyn was to apply the middle way when discussing the refugee crisis, he must surely have to acknowledge that, under present conditions, he would have to make a choice between accepting more refugees or protecting the interests of the poorest within our society. I agree with you that the former might well be the more moral choice overall. However I don’t think an appeal to greater welfare distribution changes the choice that has to be made under present conditions. My guess would be that your response to this though would be similar to your response on the extent to which leaders must acknowledge that dogmatic thinking exists within society. I suppose that the interests of the electorate are less likely to be ignored by politicians than the plight of the refugees.

      I also agree with you that pointing out the privileges of a person presenting an argument is not relevant to how justified his argument is. However, I do think that such factors present psychological barriers that prevent other groups from listening to different viewpoints. In the case of the doctor giving advice on staying healthy, it would seem that the patient has good reason to listen to the advice even if the doctor does not follow it himself. However, the doctor would probably have to concede that his advice would be more potent if he set a better example. Therefore I think the doctor would have to see his own hypocrisy as a condition that prevents him from achieving a valuable goal (in this case, helping the patient to live a healthier lifestyle). Similarly, if a well paid MP advocated a more reflective attitude to the (relatively small) hardship that a poorer British person may suffer as a result of Britain taking in more refugees, I would not be surprised if the poorer person’s response was ‘well… easy for you to say’. There is – as you say – probably a moral responsibility on the part of the poorer person to acknowledge how his ad hominem response prevents him from considering the point sufficiently. However, if the middle way is about addressing all conditions sufficiently, then is there a moral responsibility of the doctor or the MP to try his hardest to break down these psychological barriers? I don’t know if there is an easy answer to this, but from my perspective I think political discourse in the UK is still strongly dictated by class divides. Perhaps there is no remedy for this until we have a more equal society. But it seems to me that if the middle way would advocate more reflective discussions on social issues, then these psychological barriers are a condition that need considering.

  7. Hi Clive,

    With regards to ideas expressed in this society: there is a risk – which I think we are all aware of – that some people could feel, or even be excluded due to the sometimes complex presentation. I think that one of the biggest challenges facing the society is the need to find a balance between communicating the often complicated and far reaching ideas involved in Middle Way Philosophy with the requirement for accessibility to a wider audience. Robert has attempted this (with much success in my opinion) in his introductory book ‘Migglism’ but there is always room for improvement, and any suggestions in this regard will be gratefully received. I, for one, often struggle with some of the finer details, but usually find that once I have gained a somewhat simpler understanding everything else begins to fall into place (or not, as is still sometimes the case).


    1. Thanks Rich,

      I plan to order an E copy of the Middle Way Philosophy omnibus edition (do you happen to know if Lulu ebooks can be read on Kindle by the way?). I might buy a copy of Migglism as well. I’m always reluctant to look at simplified versions of ideas because I tend to have a need to try and understand all the details, even if it would probably be more practical to get a basic understanding before I do this. It’s probably something I just have to get over.

      I think my concern is not so much that the philosophy is not comprehensible to certain groups (although that is obviously also a danger that we need to avoid) but that it can’t really be applied and followed by certain groups. There just seem to be obvious practical difficulties with it. For example, the idea of integrating one’s desires through the practice of meditation is – as Robert pointed out – something that I would deem to be valuable to any human being, regardless of wealth. But any basic awareness of socioeconomics would make it clear that this valuable activity is something that many people simply do not have the time to carry out (could a single parent afford to take a week out for the middle way retreat, for example). As Robert says, this isn’t a problem that is intrinsic to the middle way but it does suggest to me that sufficient wealth and privilege might be a necessary condition before the middle way can really be applied to a person’s life.

  8. Hi Clive, the MWP Omnibus ebook should be readable by Kindle, though to be absolutely sure check with Lulu or other supplier if/when you buy it from them. I have been expecting it to come up on Amazon as a Kindle edition, but so far it hasn’t: I’m not sure why. If you do have irresolvable problems with reading it on your hardware, let me know and I can always send you a pdf instead.

    I agree that a certain basic amount of wealth (and education) is likely to be needed to engage with the Middle Way deeply. However, a strength of the Middle Way is also its incrementality: you can go into it to varying degrees, as in the Buddha’s metaphor of a gradually sloping sea with different depths. How far one goes in may depend on a variety of practical circumstances, not just wealth: time, temperament, cognitive ability etc. There may also be a feedback mechanism, in that practising the Middle Way to a small extent in a situation otherwise dominated by absolute beliefs may make one address conditions better and thus be more effective, and thus practically able to go further, with more good effects, and so on. Such good effects are far from inevitable (I don’t subscribe to the law of karma), but I think there is a probability that practising the Middle Way will help one improve material circumstances on balance, just because it helps one face up to whatever the conditions are instead of taking refuge in absolutizing delusions.

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