Sunday, 19 April 2015

Europe’s Greatest Challenge

In The Economist on 4th April 2015 there was an advertisement for applications to the Nico Colchester Journalism Fellowship. Write an article of 850 words, it said, on the topic of What is Europe’s greatest challenge? How should it be met? and if they like what you have written you could get a fellowship in the offices of The Economist – it doesn’t say how long for – and an allowance of £6,000.
£6,000 would come in mighty useful but I don’t want the non-financial aspects of the prize so I won’t be submitting anything, but I thought it might be interesting – challenging even – to try writing the 850 words. Here is my piece.
What is Europe’s greatest challenge? How should it be met?
Europe’s greatest challenge in 2015 is the wish of so many people to make something better of their lives. On the face of it that should not be a challenge, it should be welcome, though in reality climbing the social ladder has ever been a struggle, it sounds fine in principle, but less appealing in practice to some in authority, and what makes it an especial challenge now is the very number of people with a foot on the rungs, their geographic spread, and their visibility.
Observing the poor in the East End of London in 1902, Jack London found people with not just a wish to make something better of their lives, more a desperation. But they had no idea how to even begin to set about it. And similarly in Germany in the 1920s and 30s, writers such as Joseph Roth and Hans Fallada chronicled the lives of those whose fortune looked mundane and bleak, but what could those people do about their lot? They had no idea and were at the mercy of fate.
War changed things. War needed soldiers and workers and in its aftermath needed investment in national infrastructure, and developing infrastructure means work – Germany was an exception mid-world wars, in the particularly dangerous position of being saddled with hopeless war reparations.
Rebuilding after a war has an optimism about it too, working together for a better world, many people keen to work to improve their lives.
The big difference now though is migration. In many ways migration is not so new, towns such as Middlesbrough grew from a population of 40 to 90,000 within seventy years as migrant workers came from other parts of the country to work in the burgeoning industry.
But then the people were moving to where there was work. Now, they move to where they hope there will be work, even though in reality there may be none, or none of the type that they can do. Migrants these days set about doing something about their poverty; they take a chance.
Ricky Igiewr left his family in Benin City, Nigeria, in 2008 and made his way towards Europe. He crossed the desert and travelled in an overcrowded boat over the Mediterranean, arriving on the island of Lampedusa. A lot of people died on the journey, says Ricky, but he survived. Yes, Ricky survived. God, believes Ricky, must have been on his side.
Transferred to the mainland of Italy where he joined the thousands, now hundreds of thousands, of West Africans trying to make a living on the streets, Ricky had no idea what work he might find, he just knew he must work, to make some money to send back to his wife and two daughters aged four and six in Nigeria, to pay for the children’s schooling.
And why could he not do that in Nigeria? In Nigeria, says Ricky, if you try and make something better for yourself you will tread on someone’s toes and then . . . and he makes a sign of a knife being drawn across his throat.
Ricky talks to his wife in Nigeria on the mobile phone every day. For some time – a year or two – this was a difficult conversation as he wasn’t making any money to send to her, and the school wanted money for books. He talked to the head teacher. I will send money, he told the teacher, I promise I will send money, I just cannot do that right now.
Now Ricky does send money. To obtain it he does what most of the West Africans in Italy do, he begs for it. First he buys a pile of goods – socks, hats, flyswatters – on credit at inflated prices from a supplier and then he stands outside a supermarket ostensibly selling them, but in reality helping everyone load their shopping into their car in the hope of a euro or two’s tip. And if someone does not give him a euro, he asks for it, he asks with a pitiful look if they can possibly help him out. Help my poor children. It seems all so Victorian.
And what a waste! Ricky is personable, well-presented and intelligent, but he is unskilled, and even if he did have a formal skill, he does not have permission to work in Italy, and furthermore he does not speak much Italian.
Many migrants travel further north. Ricky has seen the sleek red trains that someone has told him go through the tunnel to England. But he knows he would never be allowed to get that far, and actually the red trains get no further than Turin anyway.
Ricky is one of thousands in a similar position. Some people say they should all be sent home but that is no solution at all, no solution for an army of people on a mission.
The true challenge lies in work. No one should be begging on the streets in twenty-first century Europe. War must not be el dorado either. Work is the challenge. The true success is to labour.
That’s my 850-word piece. I’m not 100 per cent satisfied with it, I think it’s a bit lumpy or clunky in style, but there it is for the moment, it was a decent challenge writing it, and when the muse arrives I might try and make it a bit zippier.