MANCHESTER, United Kingdom – Europe is undergoing one of the most radical population shifts in its history as hundreds of thousands of people travel from the Middle East and North Africa across the continent, overwhelming several nations and leading to the near collapse of the Schengen agreement.
Not that you’d realise any of this in Manchester. Until the Theresa May’s speech today – which, for a Home Secretary, was bizarrely heavy on foreign affairs – the Conservative Party Conference was almost totally silent on the migrant crisis.
In contrast to Theresa May, Philip Hammond – whose job it is to actually deal with foreign affairs – barely even mentioned the crisis once in his speech. He spoke of Europe, Islamic State and had plenty of criticism for Labour, but did not even make an allusion to the huge wave of people crossing the continent.
Chancellor George Osborne mentioned “millions fleeing warzones, and a crisis in Europe” but did not go into any further details.
Other than Theresa May, the only speakers to deal with the issue have been International Development Secretary Justine Greening and Ashley Fox, who leads the Conservative group in the European Parliament.
Greening praised her own department’s response to the crisis, saying: “On the Syrian crisis, yes, we will help resettle up to 20,000 of the most vulnerable refugees,” adding: “We are working in South Sudan, the Central African Republic not just because it’s life-saving work and right, but supporting people where they are means they are less likely to head north to Libya and then to Europe.”
Meanwhile, Fox claimed the crisis “exposed cracks and [has] driven wedges across the continent.”
“By forcing countries to take migrants against their will,” he said, “Brussels has trampled on a core principle of national sovereignty.”
If the ministers have been quiet, though, the fringe is almost totally silent. Very few events at all are on the subject of immigration, the main exception being a discussion hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on immigration in an art gallery outside of the official conference zone.
The only politicians on the panel were two backbench MPs – Oliver Colvile and Suella Fernandes. Fernandes, herself a child of immigrants, gave a strong speech calling for tougher restrictions on low-skilled migrants, clearly trying to position herself on the party right.
However, the conference has offered little more than this panel of backbenchers and lawyers outside the secure zone. Even this fringe event failed to make much mention of the waves of migrants crossing Europe’s borders apart from passing references to the UK’s asylum seeker policy.
Perhaps the reason for the silence is simple – the government knows it is impotent. It can only sit and watch as Europe is overwhelmed, and while it remains in the European Union it only has rudimentary control over our borders.
As Europe changes before our eyes, the political elite knows there is nothing it can do – so best just ignore it and hope it goes away.