To Vienna where Kartnerstrasse gleams in the crisp, early spring sunshine. Running from St Stephen’s Cathedral to the Staatsoper, it doesn’t take long to walk if you are completely uninterested in shopping. Otherwise you can spend the whole day there, walking slowly between and into shops, talking rich coffee and sacher torte between equally rich meals and exploring the delicate edifices, exquisite squares and other architectural treasures of the imperial era just around every single corner.
Incidentally, the imperial era has not passed in Vienna; it is simply that the royal family has left, perhaps only temporarily. The city’s tourist industry depends on their distant yet still powerful patronage in addition, of course, to that of Mozart and the Strauss family. And incidentally, at least as far as I am concerned, Herr Mahler never left for New York and remains in charge of the Staatsoper.
Emerging with a small-gang swagger from the St Stephen’s metro station into this reservation of pre First War Germanic Europe with her timeless and certain values, three young men – one 12 and two 14 – head off in the direction of Mahler’s bastion.
This could be a Saturday morning scene in any large city street, the boys just arriving in town from a poor neighbourhood beyond the peripherique looking for action, but in Vienna the circumstances are more exotic. The boys are thinner and shorter than the local average, with jet black hair, wearing crumpled fake leather jackets and ill-fitting jeans. They mumble endlessly to each other in what could be Hungarian, Romanian or Albanian. Their conversation echoes between the imperial facades, a very audible symbol of their obvious otherness in this most fastidious of European capitals.
It doesn’t matter if they are in Austria legally or not; considerations of this kind concern only those with passports and registered places of residence and business. Their education is still in progress, entirely on the streets and their protection comes from above, through complex family/commercial relationships. They move freely and with assurance across the city without being harassed by the police and other nominally interested state authorities.
Who knows what the boys’ task is on this particular morning? As they amble along the street they attempt to sell postcards to tourists coming the other way. They have no training in this and make the mistake of trying to sell to a very refined, fur-coated, Viennese woman of a “certain age” who refuses even to look at them.
However, their dynamic body language is full of purpose and moves in a very particular direction. Clearly they are not just here to sell post cards. They are messengers, delivery boys and intelligence gatherers; the vital foot soldiers and a very important part of a continent-wide network of organized crime dealing in the distribution and sale of smuggled goods and smuggled people.
These kids are at the bottom of their particular career ladder, working their way up and they have many colleagues in the same ‘service’ industries all over Europe.
We watch largely from the sidelines as our continental leaders (unelected) create their business-friendly environment comprising the free movement of goods, labour and capital and do whatever they can to maintain their stable single currency with fiscal and regulatory harmony. But we really do have to ask if they have given any deep thought to any accompanying social policy that might deal with issues like the parallel growth in imported organized crime and corruption, the culture and status of travelling people in the EU including those known generally as Roma and the development of a strategy to look after “nomadic” children who will certainly grow up to reshape and expand the criminal culture of the EU itself.
I do not subscribe to the view that Europe is being overrun by economic migrants from the east and that our civilisation is under threat. I am more of the opinion that people move, in some periods more than others perhaps, but it has been a constant dynamic throughout history. Indeed, many of those reading this piece (I do hope there are many) might remember how they arrived where they are today.
On my own travels, I have observed similar scenes to the one I describe above in Amsterdam, Prague, Barcelona and Cambridge; and have spent an interesting afternoon in the centre of Paris watching organised teams of teenage migrants posing as human rights campaigners, taking signatures of support and cash from tourists in the name of some bogus cause or other, supervised by their adult minders nearby. Recently the sprawling migrant camp in Dunkirk was destroyed by a fire started during a battle between Kurds and Afghans. Now those people have dispersed along the northern French coast, setting up smaller camps where they can while still hoping to cross the English Channel to the UK.
While I do not believe that we are being “swamped”, enough people experiencing similar encounters to that of the elegant old European citizen in Vienna, think that we are and their concerns are being expressed at the ballot box. Not everyone celebrates an ill-defined diversity that sometimes seems to exist beyond the rule of law and it is no surprise that island Britain voted last year to leave a European Union whose open borders policies are blamed by a significant number of people who sense a growing chaos in their lives. These same voters are expected to award the Conservative party with a new mandate and an increased parliamentary majority on June 8 this year.
Similarly, in Holland and France this year nationalist anti EU parties promising traditional border controls and economic protectionism have increased their support at elections although they continue to fall short of taking power. Ordinary people vote based on what they see with their perceptions reinforced by media and agenda-heavy politicians. This makes those three youngsters on Kartnerstrasse far more important than they could ever imagine.
Ronnie Smith is a British writer. At present he is living in Languedoc, France.