Images of suffering children have a unique power in politics. They forced the Trump Administration to end its policy of ripping migrant children from their parents at the southwest border. In 2015 a photo of a dead 3-year-old who drowned trying to reach Greece also inspired policy changes across Europe. But the goodwill did not last.
Three years on from that awful image of the late Alan Kurdi lying facedown on a Turkish beach, the wave of sympathy in Europe has almost entirely vanished. The politics across the Continent are now more toxic and divisive than they were before. Italy’s hard-line Interior Minister Matteo Salvini insists that his country’s ports are closed to all new arrivals. Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to open up Germany’s borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees has provoked strong backlash. Her own coalition partners have threatened the survival of her government unless she changes course. Sebastian Kurz in Austria and Viktor Orban in Hungary are united by their contempt for Merkel’s decision. She assumed that where Germany led, others would follow. She was wrong.
The European experience shows that temporary measures, especially if hastily adopted to answer outrage, do not fix the problem. They can even make it worse. And if it takes the sight of tormented children to move us to act, there is little prospect of a lasting solution, because we will be forever at the mercy of our emotional responses to passing events instead of durable values.
But by fixating on the sufferings of the young, we ignore the bigger picture: what makes immigration such a difficult issue for today’s democracies to resolve is the attitude of the old.
Ours are the first major societies in history where the elderly dominate the youth simply by weight of numbers. Stretching back to ancient Greece, democracy was always primarily a politics for young people. The constitutional safeguards that were put in place sought to protect against their excesses.
By David Runciman for T I M E
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