Lithuania has wasted a decade in the European Union and NATO pretending that global issues have nothing to do with it and that complex problems are not so complex after all.
A car crash on a rural road is bigger news than cluster bombs killing dozens in a Syrian bazaar. The Greek financial crisis was caused, obviously, by Greek laziness alone. The Western powers are a bunch of cowards who fail to punish Vladimir Putin the way Lithuania insists they should. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea? Thousands slaughtered by Boko Haram? Where is that, anyway?
The world is a complicated place and its problems are interlinked, but Lithuanian opinion leaders have been taking the easy road for decades while the public simply shut its eyes. Many still take up politics for reasons other than achieving results, which is why many a Lithuanian minister stay silent in international forums on complex issues or merely read out pre-drafted statements. Parliament members keep indulging the urge to express their views on praying Muslims in airports or particularities of African culture.
All TV channels air interviews with expatriates who, upon encountering other cultures, are horrified by “babajai” [a racial slur used about people of Middle Eastern descent] in England’s town centres or Norway’s child welfare officials who “take away our kids”. A scarf-bearing woman can still make for a subject of a lifestyle show or publication. “Arab” and “Muslim” still mean the same thing. As do “burqa” and “hijab”.
Can you recall the times when Lithuania’s top leadership insisted, with straight faces, that Lithuania was doing its share in helping Europe cope with the influx of migrants by sending one helicopter to Greece? These times were a mere month ago, the helicopter is still to find its way back.
What’s special about this migration crisis in Europe is that everyone is starting to realize there are no simple answers – nor will there ever be. Welcome to global uncertainty.
Ever since Socrates, a discussion is valuable to the extent that it shuns sweeping know-it-all generalizations. In many a Western society, alongside clamorous tabloid headlines, serious media run a wealth of nuanced analysis. Meanwhile in Lithuania, over the few years that we have had a public debate in op-ed columns, the discussion has been usurped by sharp-tongued columnists who have unambiguous solutions for everything and take sides unwaveringly.
The current crisis, however, does not lend itself to clear-cut judgements.
– Europe was shocked by images of a three-year-old boy whose dead body was washed ashore in Turkey; a Swedish minister even shed a tear, promising to do everything she could. (Can you imagine a Lithuanian minister getting so emotional over this issue?) On the other hand, travelling from safe Turkey to affluent Europe was no longer or solely a matter of life and death for the boy’s parents, it was also about economic prosperity.
– Desperate scenes in Hungary‘s railway stations made many wonder if civilized countries were also humane – and whether old and new EU members had the same idea of “European values”. On the other hand, many also realized that Budapest was merely implementing EU agreements and were quite shocked by the newcomers’ insistence on their righteousness and refusal to obey the police or railway officers, as is usual in Europe.
– The Hungarian prime minister has warned that, should the situation persist, tens of millions of migrants will make Europeans a minority in their own continent. On the other hand, however, America has already accepted these processes; and anyway, will Europeans want to give up what makes them Europeans in the first place – humanist values?
– Several governments, including Germany, are so determined to give asylum to legal refugees that they agree to waive EU agreements which say that asylum applications should be handled by countries of first arrival. On the other hand, if we are in the business of bending rules, why not go a step further in order to prevent thousands of deaths at sea by altering several lines in the EU rulebook and allowing airlines to take passengers to Europe without visas? A plane fare from Turkey is much cheaper than the thousands of euros demanded by human traffickers.
Everyone, not just advocates of simple solutions, now realize that these solutions are impossible. We cannot accept everyone, nor can we stop the influx, let alone with bullets, barbed wires or turning ships away at sea. Nor can we stop the wars.
It is equally naive to believe that all the newcomers will end up in Western Europe when small-town employers in Lithuania can hardly find anyone willing to work even for decent pay. Just as it is naive to expect that incantations “we do not want Pakistani customs in our country” will help us steer clear of the problems that thrive in the immigrant ghettoes of Marseilles or Malmö, all but impenetrable even for the police.
This cobweb of difficult global issues that befell Lithuania is a payback for years of ignoring them, years spent stewing in its own juice. Lithuania cannot solve them, but nor can it isolate itself, as before, or stick to seeing things in black and white. Moreover, it is only the beginning: all the other global shocks will come and we will suffer them with the entire European community, from effects of climate change to cyber wars.
Western Europe had centuries of democratic discussion to develop complex and nuanced public debate; Western Europeans had decades of post-war prosperity before they had to take interest in not just new cars but also in melting icecaps. Lithuania does not have a decade; nay, it does not have a year.
The commentary was read out on LRT radio.