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The political centre of the EU is legitimating far-right racism in its migrant and refugee policies, argues Kevin Ovenden

Deepening social crisis and war on its border already dominate the politics of the European Union. Now there is a further dangerous slide towards anti-refugee and anti-migrant scapegoating across the continent. It is, in part, an attempted diversion from the real problems facing people. The European Commission, for example, has agreed a gas-price cap, but it is not to be enforceable at moments when the price of gas surges.

The Commission is moving with much more vigour over what it calls a crisis of ‘irregular migrant crossings’ into Europe. An emergency meeting of interior ministers of the EU states is to take place on Friday. Already, Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, has declared the current situation of refugee and migrant crossings, via the Mediterranean, Aegean and Eastern Atlantic, as ‘not sustainable’. 

But the 50% increase she points to in the number of people arriving in Europe across the central Mediterranean, largely from war-ravaged Libya, is a comparison with last year. Yet, 2021 saw a collapse everywhere in international travel and the means of travel due to the pandemic. The increase in numbers is from that suppressed baseline. 

The Commission is going far further than spreading panic about an ‘unsustainable influx’. It has indicated a further clampdown on the NGO rescue vessels that are operating in the Mediterranean. These step in where European states fail to and where the Frontex border force is in collaboration with the rival militias in Libya, to whom the Europeans have essentially franchised out the stopping of migrant movement. 

Johansson says of the rescue efforts: ‘The situation today with private vessels operating at sea is a scenario which still lacks sufficient clarity. This kind of challenge was not thought of when maritime law was first agreed.’ The EU has already rewritten what was called the ‘mare nostrum’ principle to limit rescue operations in the Mediterranean. 

Convergence with Italian fascists

This is music to the ears of the new far-right prime minister of Italy, Giorgia Meloni. She recently refused to allow a rescue ship carrying 231 people to dock. There were some perfunctory complaints by liberals in the institutions of the EU: the parliament, some of the officials, and the legally minded. It has been the same with the Greek government’s illegal policy of pushing back boats to Turkey in the Aegean.

Now the muted criticism falls silent. The Commissioner responsible for this area of policy has given a generous fillip to Meloni, who is reportedly jubilant at being ‘vindicated’ for her and her right-wing coalition’s racist anti-migration policy. When the fascists of the Brothers of Italy party came first in the Italian general election and led a hard-right coalition, there was talk in liberal quarters of the EU restraining the new government. The former banker-prime-minister of Italy, Mario Draghi, hinted that pressure could be exerted. The actions of the European Central Bank said the same, as did the president of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

But the limits they sought to enforce on this unknown quantity of a government had nothing to do with the defence of civil liberties against authoritarianism, and still less with opposing violent racism and xenophobia. First, they wanted a clear commitment to the EU, and that the new government would not threaten a financial crisis in a confrontation with the European institutions to try to reverse the catastrophic economic decline of Italy. That had been the rhetoric of Meloni’s party in the past. Second, they insisted on the new Italian government continuing the policy of its predecessor of 100% loyalty to Nato and support for its proxy war in Ukraine against Russia. Meloni has been happy to oblige on both, though there is some disquiet from her coalition partner, the old crook Silvio Berlusconi. 

So we have a meeting of minds between the liberal EU and the far-right-led Italian government on two fronts. Completely pro-system financial and foreign policy, and a vicious intensification of Fortress Europe, in which the EU, far from admonishing the fascist MPs in the Italian parliament, gives them a political boost. 

It is an indication that for all the anti-system rhetoric, the far right always ends up carrying out the main capitalist policy where it matters, and it reserves its ‘militancy’ for racist and xenophobic campaigns.

EU racism and the left response

This is also of a piece with the EU’s policy, especially towards North Africa. In 2015, during the flow of Syrian refugees, the EU accelerated its interventions in Africa above the equator in order to stop refugee and migration movements. One gloss put on it was to launch a seemingly benign sounding Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. Despite promises to invest in creating employment opportunities in the region, the biggest chunk of the funds went to repressing migration.

Aid to poor countries was linked to them stopping their own people from moving. Wars, climate chaos and social crises have led to increasing refugee flows in parts of Africa. But 80% of those are to a neighbouring African country. At the same time, the EU with its giant market has used its economic power to enforce disadvantageous terms of trade on one country after another. It has simultaneously created conditions for refugee and forced migrant flight, while raising higher and higher the barbed wire around the European continent. In so doing it is legitimating far-right and fascist forces. 

Those are now attempting once again to exploit the social crisis and governmental hostility to refugees and migrants in order to build a political force backed by violence and diverting working-class people from fighting on the real issues that are hitting us. It is a matter of urgency that the labour and social movements confront those efforts. Part of that is being absolutely firm in not yielding a millimetre to the anti-migrant and anti-refugee campaign, which far from speaking for ordinary people is in the service of the bosses and governments in Britain and in the EU. 

A second part is putting this case as widely as possible, and binding it up with the strikes, protests and campaigns that are growing. With a horrible anti-refugee agitation taking place in a part of Dublin, there is to be an anti-racist bloc on the national demonstration over housing this Saturday. It is not just the big events. It is right down to neighbourhood and workplace level. That was the experience in Greece when the movement through the country of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees did not generate a xenophobic backlash.

There were urban myths about refugee children attending school. There were genuine questions: ‘we already don’t have enough teachers – how will this work?’; ‘have they had their vaccinations?’ There were some racist prejudices. And there were far-right agitators. A school near me held a parents’ meeting in advance of the children arriving. The head teacher was clear that the children were coming. The point of the meeting was to address parents’ questions. Fascist Golden Dawn members tried to take part, but the majority of the meeting voted after a debate to exclude them on the basis that no one could be free to speak if those thugs were present.

When people did speak, there was the full range of opinion: ignorance and wisdom, rumours and fact, racist sentiment and anti-racist argument. Even the ideas of Golden Dawn in their absence. It is not true that everyone was convinced. But the majority of parents were, and it is they who organised a lovely reception with the school for the refugee children when they arrived for school on the bus from their camp.

The forces of the centre in Europe are creating the conditions for the most awful racist and far-right reaction. Eruptions of popular anger may go in all sorts of directions. We need a stronger, more outward-going radical left that seeks to immerse itself among the mass of people and their struggles, and can make the socialist case.

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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