The Hon Tony Abbott MP, the former Prime Minister of Australia, was the guest of honour at AECR’s Gala Dinner at Lobkowicz Palace, Prague, Czech Republic on 17 September 2016. In his outstanding address to the AECR, he analysed the current political situation in Europe.
These are fraught time for Europe. Our job is to make them better.
As we meet, Britain gears up to exit the formal structures of the EU, on Europe’s borders, hundreds of thousands of people demand admission.
In Europe’s cities, Islamist fanatics plot carnage.
And in Europe’s east, Russia actively subverts the former Soviet states.
Daunting times indeed: for Europe, for democracy, and for western civilisation.
But as Marshal Foch said at a key moment in the Great War, “my centre is giving way, my right is in retreat; situation excellent. I shall attack”.
Brexit could diminish both Britain and Europe – there is indeed that possibility – but with goodwill and leadership, it could just as easily herald democratic renewal across this continent.
Brexit and the rise of populism across Europe could be symptoms of a broken consensus – or could prompt centre-right parties to be less politically correct and once more the true champions of the nation state.
The struggle of democracies everywhere to rein in debt and deficit and to boost productivity could herald a long economic decline – or could be what forces political leaders to be more honest with our electorates.
Western liberalism’s diffidence under threat could be a sign of civilizational self-doubt – or just the latest dark before the dawn.
In difficult times, it’s more important than ever to be brave.
We should never lose our faith in the rule of law, personal freedom, representative government and the gravitational pull of the Western way of life.
In this historic city, I am proud to declare that I am for Europe – because western civilisation, now emulated the world-over, remains the highest and the best manifestation of the universal dream of justice, freedom and prosperity.
Our challenge is to be unapologetic advocates for the ways of thinking that have largely created the modern world and have made these the best times in human history, despite all the challenges we now face.
It’s worth remembering that just 35 years ago, fewer than half the world’s people had safe drinking water; now 90 per cent do.
Just 25 years back, 37 per cent of the world’s population lived in absolute poverty; now it’s fewer than 10 per cent.
And in the past quarter century, global GDP per person has advanced as much as in the previous 25,000 years.
We should never let today’s challenges blind us to yesterday’s achievements and to tomorrow’s potential.
Conservatives are proud of what has been achieved; but we want to build on the past, not to re-create it.
Our task is always to make the most of these times, just as our forebears made the most of theirs; confident that we can find a way through our perils, just as they did.
Before leaving Australia, I asked our parliamentary library to survey and report on the post-Brexit literature.
Leaving the European Union, I was told, will mean Britain’s economic impoverishment and political and cultural isolation.
It was said that Britain will become irrelevant while Europe will be better off without its most recalcitrant member – as if such a world-ranging country would suddenly withdraw into its shell and Great Britain become little England.
This is the kind of arrogant tosh that prompted Britons to vote to leave.
After the United States, Britain boasts more Nobel Prize winners than any other country.
For the past decade, Britain has been the fastest growing big economy in Europe; and along with France, has the continent’s most powerful armed forces.
So an EU that tries to punish Britain will end up punishing itself.
Like many of you, I was not a Brexit supporter – I was, if you like, a reluctant remainer – but all of us have to respect the people’s verdict and make the most of it.
In dangerous times, what the world needs is less Europe-wide systems than Europe-wide values; a Europe that’s still united on the most important things like resisting aggression but less theological on secondary things like different national approaches to home affairs.
Obviously, the details of Brexit are up to the British and European negotiators over the next two years.
What’s pretty clear, though, is that everything stays the same, until it’s specifically changed.
No new Brussels directives will automatically apply in the UK and British courts will no longer be subject to European ones.
But – there’s no good reason why British goods should lose tariff free access to Europe or European goods tariff free access to Britain as continental free trade is in everyone’s interests.
There’s no good reason why British credentials should go unrecognised in Europe or European ones in Britain because it’s in everyone’s interests to maximise the useable talent pool.
And there’s no good reason why Britons shouldn’t routinely work in Europe or Europeans routinely work in Britain as like-minded countries benefit from this kind of exchange.
With Britain no longer subsidising the rest of Europe, Germany could also rethink its approach, to the benefit of taxpayers who shouldn’t have to prop-up inefficiency or failure.
Post-Brexit, the main difference, I suspect, will be a visa requirement for non-citizens seeking long-term residence in another country.
That need not end free movement – but it would end uncontrolled movement – and why shouldn’t each country keep the final say over who can enter?
As my country’s former leader John Howard famously put it, “we shall determine who comes to our country and the circumstances under which they come”.
After all, a country or a continent that can’t control who enters its territory will eventually lose control of its future.
In my judgment, it was the prospect of millions of new Europeans from the Middle East and Africa streaming into Britain that pushed the Brexit vote over the line.
Britons aren’t against Europe or against immigration but they voted against losing control.
Uncontrolled immigration didn’t cause Brexit but it did prompt Britons to take back their sovereignty.
Of course, it is a decent and a humane impulse to give a better life to people from wretched places.
But once people have gone beyond their first place of safety, they’re not asylum seekers but would-be economic migrants.
For some years, 500 million Europeans probably could absorb current inflows provided the newcomers were joining in, rather than breaking in.
But a million people coming by boat and almost a million people coming by land last year has the look of a peaceful invasion.
Some of Turkey’s leaders have even urged Muslims to take back parts of Europe; and among the would-be migrants are soldiers of the caliphate bent on mayhem.
Many of those taking to boats across the Mediterranean or clamouring at Europe’s gates look set to join an angry underclass.
Too many are coming, not with gratitude but with grievance, and with the insistence that Europe should make way for them.
Over time, this becomes an existential challenge.
And if Europe won’t meet it – as Brexit shows, as the reimposition of border controls show – individual countries will insist on dealing with it in their own way.
Now Australia is an immigrant nation; we well appreciate that people from Africa and the Middle East have every reason to seek a better life – but they have no right to demand that Europe should provide it to them.
Europe’s navies must do their humanitarian duty and rescue people who might otherwise drown; but taking them onto Italy and Greece just guarantees that more will make this dangerous journey.
So long as people think that arriving in Europe means staying in Europe… they will keep coming.
Sending them to more European countries won’t solve the problem; it will just spread it around.
People in no immediate danger have to be turned back at Europe’s borders.
People intercepted in the Mediterranean have to be returned to their starting point.
This crisis can’t be managed; it has to be resolved.
That’s what Australia did, under my government: we stopped illegal boats at sea and escorted them back to Indonesian waters.
If the boats were scuttled, we had big orange life rafts on hand so that people could safely return from whence they’d come.
I knew the risks to our personnel; I knew the damage this would do to relations with Indonesia; I knew the outcry it would spark from well-meaning activists but it simply had to be done.
Effective border protection is not for the squeamish, but it is absolutely necessary to save lives and to preserve nations.
The truly compassionate thing to do is: stop the boats and stop the deaths – and, for more than two years now, there have been no illegal arrivals by boat in Australia and the drownings have stopped.
And having stopped the boats, we’ve been able to increase our genuine refuge intake because the Australian government has been in charge, not the people smugglers.
Europe’s challenges are on a larger scale and the geography is different but with the right will and organisation there is no reason why there could not be similar success.
What it needs, though, is a conviction among the continent’s leaders that stopping people smuggling, stopping deaths at sea and protecting Europe’s way of life is the right and the moral thing to do.
You have to match the conviction of those demanding entry with the greater conviction that you have a right to say “no”.
What’s needed is an end to self-doubt about the entitlement of European nations, individually and collectively, to keep their character.
My instinct is that those best placed to end this crisis are those with the greatest faith in the Europe of free debate, of scientific enquiry, and of democratic pluralism.
This is the Europe that the world admires and that Britain joined.
The question for all of us, as democratic leaders, is how do we best win the confidence of our people?
Leaders of the centre-right have been good at promoting national security and maximising prosperity; our challenge now is to persuade people that we can equally be trusted to preserve the social fabric.
Part of that is an awareness of the “mystic bonds of union” which hold peoples and nations together.
Modern Europe may well have developed something akin to the old sense of Christendom that can transcend national loyalties.
I’m sure there is, for many people, a European identity – but it invariably co-exists with something older, deeper, and more powerful: a sense of belonging and connectedness shaped by shared values, a common history and the same language.
It’s easy for successful people, for citizens of the world if you like, to underestimate the emotional hold of the nation state that people will still give their lives for.
Of course, we must resist populism but if the sensible centre scoffs at people’s real concerns populism will increase.
The challenge is to engage with people, not to talk down to them, or to insult their intelligence by denying what they can see with their own eyes.
Disapproval of Brussels’ handling of the migration crisis runs as high as 94 per cent of Greeks, 88 per cent of Swedes and 77 per cent of Italians.
Acknowledging people’s concerns about uncontrolled immigration should help to build trust on other changes, especially the economic ones, that have to be accommodated.
Globalisation has made most people richer but it’s made some people poorer and it’s brought some of the problems of the third world into the cities of Europe.
We can’t be indifferent to people’s anxieties when asking them to endure short term specific pain for long term collective gain.
The more clearly we are protecting people’s values and way of life, the more trusted we should be asserting the great Burkean truth that some things must change so that what really counts can stay the same.
There can be more jobs, if we cut the red tape that suffocates business.
There can be higher wages, if we foster productivity.
There can be lower taxes, if we’re disciplined about spending.
There can be more just and humane communities, if live-and-let-live is what we demand of all our citizens.
And we can defeat the challenges to our way of life, if we are as committed to our values as our critics and enemies are to theirs.
At least in Australia, the centre right has stood for economic liberalism and social conservatism: for pragmatic liberalism and for sensitive conservatism, because economic dynamism and social stability are what normally give the most people the best life.
At least in Australia, the centre right has succeeded because it has known what it can and can’t change.
We can’t do much to change climate and we shouldn’t do much to buck markets but what’s the point of government if we can’t secure borders and control immigration?
This is one lesson that my part of the new world might usefully offer to your part of the old one.
Stand guard on your borders and you ease so much of the anxiety that now grips this great continent.