We may be witnessing a seismic shift in our world view. It is currently playing out on the news each night.
This change may equate with, in its effects on Europe, the fall of the Roman Empire, the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution that signalled the beginning of the end of the ancient regime. It may supersede the end of the Cold War in its impact on Europe.
The massive flood of Middle Eastern refugees into Europe is a direct challenge to the concept of nation states and national sovereignty.
Human history is littered with such seismic shifts that were seldom appreciated as they occurred. The concept of independent countries is a relatively recent development in history. Many historians date this development in Western Europe to the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. This treaty ended the devastating 30-year war that ravaged much of western Europe. It established the legal concept of nation states in international law. One of the defining aspects of a nation state is the sanctity of its borders. At that point in history countries such as Italy, Germany and India had yet to emerge. Countries such as Syria, Iraq and Lebanon were later carved out of the Ottoman empire by the victorious allied powers following WWI. Our concept of nation states is a recent phenomenon. It is not a concrete reality that has always existed.
The huge inflow of refugees into Europe is a direct challenge to the concept of nation states with defined borders able to exert control over who enters these borders.
The concept of nation states and national self-interest has always been flawed. It has contributed to world wars, genocide, environmental destruction and financial turmoil. The crucial global dilemma is how to create an omnipotent, effective and acceptable political entity able to enforce its authority over nation states. The United Nations and European Union are attempts to achieve this goal. Nations have a natural tendency to act in their own self-interest, often to the detriment of wider humanity. This is very evident in the reaction of those countries of immediate proximity to current refugee inflows. Many are eager to pass the problem on to their neighbours. The refugee crisis in Europe is a major challenge to the national sovereignty of the countries of Europe.
Previous mass acute refugee flows in recent times have been largely confined to less developed regions such as Africa and Asia. Many countries in these regions had porous borders and their Governments lacked the resources to enforce those borders. This time is different.
The refugees banging on the doors of the European Union are challenging our concept of the sanctity of national borders. They are literally walking over this concept. They are assisted by the visual images of modern media and their sheer numbers.
We are living in an age of globalisation. But this concept is not new in human history. The 19th century was also a period of globalisation with advances in communication and transportation making huge advances in international interconnectedness. It was also a period of mass migration largely unhindered by restrictions such as immigration laws and passport requirements. The outbreak of the First World War brought an abrupt end to this period. Our current era of globalisation is unique because of stringent restrictions on migration, particularly by prosperous nations. This control is now being challenged.
Until now, the need to address global issues has usually floundered in the face of national self-interest and a lack of immediacy. Attempts to address global issues such as environmental degradation, poverty, war and financial instability have invited lip service but little real progress. Nations largely continue to act in their own self-interest.
The mass refugee flows into Europe are a direct, immediate and very visual challenge to the sanctity of nation states and national borders. This requires immediate action on a global level. This challenge could prove a turning point in human history. It challenges our view of what is a normal natural order.
• Peter Lyons teaches at St Peter's College in Epsom