God’s son, an early and astute observer of the limits of developmental economics, famously declared that “the poor will always be with you”. To judge by the otherwise enchanting streets of Paris, he knew whereof he spoke. The question is what should we, as members of the world’s privileged elite, do about it?
For anyone with the semblance of a social conscience and some sense of the randomness of existence, it’s quite a discomfiting idea. There but for the grace of God – or an entirely fortuitous, historically contingent, distribution of the world’s resources – go I.
This existential dilemma is currently at the forefront of Europe’s collective consciousness, if that’s not too reified a way of describing the efforts of the continent’s beleaguered political class and an increasingly restive population.
Everyone agrees there’s a humanitarian disaster and that something ought to be done, but no-one knows quite what or by whom. The limits of good intentions have been painfully revealed by Angela Merkel’s now threadbare claim that “we can do this”. Clearly there’s no “we” to do it.
Not even Europe’s much-derided elites can agree on how the burden should be shared; the national populations they claim to represent are even more divided about how to respond. The trajectory is clear, however: even the civilised Scandinavians are putting up the barricades, abandoning cherished principles and undermining longstanding elements of national identity.
This is not a criticism of the governments of places such as Sweden. If it had been up to me, I would have acted even sooner.
There are clear limits to the amount of – often radically different – newcomers a place like Sweden can absorb. Or there are if it wants to actually remain the Sweden we associate with progressive values, tolerance, gender equality and all the rest of it, that is. Luckily, most of us never have to take such monumental, life-changing decisions.
And yet at the micro level, perhaps we do. As I walk to work I see many of the same beggars every day. Quite how they come to be in this situation is an individual mystery, and not one that my pitiful grasp of French allows me to unravel. If I have change, though, I dole it out, despite the fact that I know it will make little difference and that they’ll be back the next day.
Even here, though, I discriminate. The obviously drunk – of whom there are quite a few – and smokers get nothing. Youngsters are top of the list, with one exception, I am ashamed to say. One of the regulars on my street – admittedly not in the swankiest part of town – is a young woman with a small child, which seems to sleep in her lap all day.
I never give her money and have actually taken to crossing over to the other side of the street ––like the priest and the Levite (whoever the Levites were). I am appalled at the thought she might be using the child as a prop to aid her begging. Perhaps she has nowhere to leave her child, although she’s not there at night so I presume/hope she has somewhere to go.
One other aspect of this illustration does me no credit either: she looks as if she’s probably from Eastern Europe. Yes, I know this is a racist observation and she could be French, but I suspect she isn’t. I also know that it ought not to matter, but it does.
It highlights in miniature a much larger problem: the dream of security and prosperity is attracting millions to Europe in ways that even the wealthiest countries cannot deal with.
The days of spontaneously opening up one’s home to strangers seem to well and truly be over as the reality of the seemingly unending numbers of would-be migrants hits home.
It’s also a rather telling indicator of our times that ageing chaps offering to share their apartments with impoverished young women is generally not thought to be a good look. The gap between principle and practice grows ever wider, I fear.
While Europe’s leaders dither and bicker, the rest of us have to decide how to deal with this on a day-to-day basis. Whether the odd one or two euro coins and a breezy “there you go, cobber” is likely to make much difference – especially to non-English speakers – is moot. Either way it makes me feel slightly better and that’s probably the point.
What to do about the rather biblical mother and child is another question, though.