In so far as it was ever a reality, the era of a liberalising Europe with diminished national tensions and ethnic conflict is over, writes Kevin Ovenden
The structures of official Europe – that is the European Union, the eurozone and their capitalist, neo-liberal architecture – are now beset by deepening chauvinist antagonisms, institutional racism, the exclusion of refugees and migrants, and the reimposition of national borders.
On one level, alarm at the rise of anti-immigration rhetoric and policy is common ground among progressive and liberal opinion in Britain and across Europe. The centre-left media across the continent was full of anguish at the victory of the racist, national conservative Law and Justice Party in Poland on Sunday.
There was widespread condemnation – and a very effective campaign by Amnesty International – over the summer spotlighting the vicious anti-refugee measures introduced by the hard right government of Viktor Orban in Hungary.
At the same time, the broad common sense among progressive opinion, from Greece to Britain, is that in someway membership of the EU mitigates the xenophobic right.
Most socialists are highly critical of the undemocratic EU, especially after the “water-boarding” and “crucifixion” of the Greek government at the hands of the Troika in July. Few have positive illusions. Many, though, do underestimate just how reactionary the EU is.
The whole of the radical left recognises that the European-wide enforced policy of austerity creates the conditions in which racism and the far right can grow.
But the responsibility of the EU, the actually existing organisation of European capitalism and its national state components, is much deeper than what has become something of a simplistic, journalistic commonplace: economic hard times bring social tensions.
It is true that parties ranging from Golden Dawn in Greece, through the Front National in France to UKIP in Britain – the spectrum of the radical right from fascist to xenophobic nationalists – are dangerous political actors, helping to drag official politics towards reaction.< /p>
And it is extremely important that there is a specific political effort – a front, uniting the labour movement, migrant communities and others, in confronting the fascists.
You only have to imagine where Greece would be now had there not been a sustained, broad and militant struggle directed against Golden Dawn for the last six years.
But the forces generating racism and actually implementing now – not in some Nazi nightmare vision of the future – murderous racist and anti-immigrant policy are not exclusively, nor even mainly, to be found on the far right.
The main drivers of racist exclusion – which provides the basis for the xenophobic climate in which the far right can grow – are the EU, its states and its parties of government: mainly of the centre right, but also of the centre left.
This is true of the recent past. In my book on Greece I explain how it was first Pasok and then New Democracy that pursued extreme racist policies when Golden Dawn could muster barely 30,000 votes (Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth, pp 65-87).
Today also the racism and xenophobia are being generated by what Tariq Ali has termed the “extreme centre”, not by the periphery. That is true in two senses.
The driving force is coming neither from the far right margins, nor from the periphery of the EU: Hungary, Greece, the Balkans and southern Europe.
On Wednesday of this week Austria announced it was erecting a fence along its border with Slovenia.
In August, as the movement in support of the refugees heading into Europe gathered pace, the Chancellor of Austria, Werner Faymann, criticised Hungary for building a fence along its border with Serbia.
He said: “To think that you can solve something with a fence, I believe this is wrong.” Now he is doing exactly what Viktor Orban was regarded as something of a pariah for doing.
There was an immediate reaction from Prime Minister Miro Cerar of Slovenia, which borders Austria to the south.
He said after Wednesday's session of the National Security Council that Slovenia could erect a similar fence along its border with Croatia, to its own south, within 24 hours.
Cerar said that Slovenia is waiting to see if the commitments adopted at the EU-Balkans summit on refugees in Brussels on Sunday will be implemented by all parties first:"But if the commitments are not respected, this will be proof that EU policy is not working and it will prompt Slovenia to step up measures on the border."
Then the Croatian prime minister also followed suit.
Part of those commitments in Brussels – from much the same people who are helping to enforce further austerity on Athens – was for Greece to tighten its borders and to hold, in effect against their will, something like 50,000 refugees over the coming weeks.
No one seriously expects either of these things to happen. The flow of refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere through Turkey to Greece is continuing unabated despite the coming winter.
Despite preposterous claims for both the US and Russian bombing in Syria, it is making the multifaceted war there even worse.
Stopping the flow of refugees via Turkey would require a dramatic intensification of authoritarianism following the Turkish general election this coming Sunday and, in effect, the total militarisation of the Eastern Aegean.
No one in Greece expects the enervated Greek state to be able to meet the commitments it gave in Brussels last weekend. So it is very likely that within weeks the fence building and securitisation of borders will extend to the frontier between Macedonia and Greece.
It would most likely be enforced on the Macedonian side, with material assistance from the core European countries and cant about “Macedonian sovereignty”.
Merkel, welcome and racist exclusion
The response from Angela Merkel’s government to news that Austria is building a fence on the Slovene border was “we do not believe that fences are the solution”.
That goes to the sleight of hand and shifting of responsibility that lie at the heart of the policy of Germany and the European core.
It gives every impression – playing on chauvinist myths about the Balkans and Eastern Europe dating from at least the 19thcentury – that Berlin, Paris and London are stuck with some kind of “white man’s burden” in dealing with the benighted, bigoted, backward south and east of Europe.
But the driving force for the fence building, now spreading out like concentric ripples on the surface of a pool, is the modern, post-1989 Europe centred on Berlin, Paris and the rest of the core.
How can that possibly be when Merkel declared in August that Germany would welcome 800,000 refugees? As two major articles in the Financial Timesthis week made clear, she is now under attack from the more racist of her electoral base and from an increasingly active xenophobic and fascist right, in the shape of the Alternative für Deutschland and Islamophobic Pegida movement.
Making sense of that requires understanding the contradiction at the heart of Merkel’s approach, which has turned the refugee migration into a political crisis spiralling out of her control.
There was much conjecture over the summer about what prompted Merkel, fresh from an embarrassing televised encounter in which she told a 14-year-old Palestinian girl she would have to be deported, to shift to publicly welcoming predominantly Syrian refugees.
Was it high German liberal principle, keen not to project the still resonant image of the racism of the Third Reich? Was it the demand for labour in a country that faces an aging population with low birth rates? Was it an attempt to compensate for the image of a bullying Germany, which is how many in Europe saw her handling of Greece?
Major articles earlier this month in Handelsblatt, Der Spiegeland FAZ concurred: her shift was a pragmatic adaptation. She did not have time for her default policy-making posture, caution and masterly inactivity.
The reason for that was the self activity of the refugees themselves and of the movement of solidarity which they aroused. No officials in Europe in the depths of summer expected them to do anything other than remain despairing and victimised on the Greek Aegean islands or stuck at the Macedonian and Hungarian borders.
But with their bare hands they tore down the razor wire and forced their way into the centre of Europe, home to great concentrations of capital, which, of course, are entitled to roam the world freely and whose states arrogate to themselves the right to bomb, sanction and conduct financial terrorism against anyone they choose.
As the bitter chill of winter beckons, and with it what will certainly be heartrending images of destitution and death, we should not lose sight of the fundamental truth of this summer: it was the refugees and the movements that rallied to them which forced a shift in the policy of Berlin. Something the conventional methods of the Syriza government in Greece proved incapable of doing at the same time.
Merkel was forced to adapt. But that exposed the inability of her and of the German business class she studiously represents to come up with a coherent response.
Capital, labour and immigration
The liberal business wing of the ruling CDU party, and business figures more generally, took to the airwaves saying that the new arrivals could contribute to German economic prowess.
It is, indeed, the relative strength of the German economy that is the reason why it is a favoured destination for new arrivals to Europe. But that strength is based upon two conditions.
First, the structural inequalities built in to the eurozone. The single currency and attendant financial strictures privilege German export power, at the expense of deflationary pressures in the periphery, which nevertheless remains locked in by the monetary union.
Second is the considerable squeeze on wages – both salaries and the social, welfare wage – accomplished in the 2000s with a major and sustained assault on working class living standards in Germany, in the main under a Social Democratic government.
So the “welcome” that Merkel was forced to adopt in a U-turn was also defined by those two critical conditions for the German capitalist class.
The German economy does indeed require, in the medium term, immigration. But there is no German “economy” serving the German people. It is geared to generating profit and power for German business and the state that represents it, not to unlocking the potential for sustainable growth to improve people’s lives.
That all meant that Merkel sought from the beginning to re-impose control and to stop the self organised flow of refugees.
What immigration was to take place into Germany was to be under the control of the German state and bent towards the needs of capital, not as a result of the collective wishes of those on the move or of already settled working people.
Doing so by imposing razor wire borders around Germany was not politically feasible (it may become an option – and sooner than we may imagine) for two reasons.
First, the political shock and uproar it would cause within Germany and Europe given the historical connotations it would invoke. But more importantly, the way in which the post-war German state has had to exercise its power has been through the mechanisms of the EU.
That’s precisely because of the history of Europe at points where Germany, its strongest power, has pursued its national capitalist interest in its own name: what was a modern 30-year war between 1914 and 1945.
So Merkel sought EU-wide arrangements that would defray the numbers coming to Germany by setting quotas for other countries to accept a “share” of refugees. Given that very few new arrivals to Europe would prefer to settle in Hungary rather Germany, that could only happen through some kind of restriction on internal movement.
And from the beginning she sought to seal the borders of Fortress Europe and cut off the routes people had forged through Greece and the Balkans.
One glaring problem, of course, is that there is no EU state. It is a collection of 28 national states. So the instruments that Germany and the core had to turn to are offering financial inducements (to Turkey and Greece), bullying and the kind of European negotiations that attend which farmers get what subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy.
Only this time the objects of bitterly conflictual negotiations between national governments are human beings not dairy produce.
It further meant that the integration of newcomers into Germany was to take place under the still overarching policy of shifting the share of wealth from working people to the bosses. In other words: under austerity on public spending and “liberalisation” of employment protection.
The German employers federation put it very clearly. In order for the refugees to find work, it would be necessary to cut the minimum wage or to exempt them from its provisions, it claimed. Of course, it wants to cut the minimum wage and social protection no matter whether people are coming to Germany or not.
And the same employers federation is against allowing local government to borrow and spend on the necessary infrastructure for the refugees to be housed and schooled in the same way as others in Germany.
It wants their power to work, but in an epoch of privatisation and deregulation of everything from housing to health it does not want the social investment without which there would have been no educated and healthy German workforce in the post-war years to power the economic miracle.
It is crucial to be precise about the process at work.
As very many studies of immigration into Britain demonstrate, immigration does not depress wages or consume social resources. Measured over anything except a very short timeframe limited to those employment categories at the very top and bottom of the scale, there is a consistent pattern of immigration contributing to economic growth and having no effect on wages.
Why should the arrival in Britain of 6,000 people currently imprisoned in Calais reduce wages? Bosses have to decide to reduce their workers’ wages. Wages are not set by some impersonal market on the stock exchange, supposedly according to supply and demand.
They are set by the conflict between what bosses are allowed to get away with and workers – through the collective organisation at work, in society and in the political sphere – are able to impose themselves.
But when there is an assault on living standards by employers and governments at the same time as immigration it can appearas if the one is caused by the other.
It is not just that people can be open to that misapprehension. That often leads to prejudiced views about “the white working class” being irredeemably stupid and bigoted.
The very mechanism of how the bosses manage immigration encourages and creates the basis for that mistaken view, which powers popular racist sentiment.
Critical to this is denying the new migrants the social rights which earlier arrivals have. That denial of rights is then used to mount an attack on those who do have those diminishing labour and welfare rights.
Here – it simply is not true that within Europe EU citizens have equal rights. Spanish nationals in Britain do nothave the same social welfare entitlements as British nationals. And the restrictions within each European country on foreign nationals are becoming greater.
Sometimes the intention is explicit, consciously to use the new migrants as scapegoats. But even in the hands of liberal capitalists who don’t intend to create racial division, the product of today’s austerity regime and immigration without rights creates exactly that scapegoating.
The problem is not that immigration is bad for the “economy”. It is that the neo-liberal, capitalist economy is bad for the majority of people. It will remain bad for people and will generate racism unless the labour movement is sufficiently organised to resist it.
The organisation of the bosses across the EU will not resist it. It will promulgate it.
The European Union and freedom of movement
This is the context and the fuel for all sorts of political adventurers to step forward and seek to mobilise support through deploying racism, anti-immigrant rhetoric and xenophobia.
The parties of the centre right, as well as much of the centre left, in Europe continue to suffer from a crisis of legitimacy. On the right it has led to a fragmentation of once fairly monolithic forces – such as the British Tory Party or the CDU in Germany – and the emergence of a rag bag of parties: the UKIPs and AfDs, the growth of the Front National and so on.
Within the centre right there are also figures turning directly to racist propaganda, not just as an ideological counterpart to policies such as the war on terror or austerity or restricting immigration, but for squalid political ends. Theresa May’s speech at the Tory Party conference was primarily about her leadership ambitions.
It is tempting under those circumstances to imagine that however bad the EU is, it will surely be worse if we were to break up that arrangement of states. Wouldn’t that mean not Cameron, but Nigel Farage, not Merkel but Pegida and the AfD?
The problem with that is that it is precisely the joint mechanisms of European capitalism that are producing the racism that allows the radical right a hearing. The radical right is now clashing with Merkel. But it is Merkel’s policy, including bending her response to the refugee crisis to the demands of austerity, which opens the door to the radical right.
When the far right and racist LAOS party broke through in Greece a few years ago, the EU was happy for them to join the government, after it forced out Pasok’s George Papandreou.
Over the coming months and years, hundreds of thousands of people – millions – will come to Europe. The politicians are lying if they say they can stop them.
Either the austerity dogma will be broken and there is a shift to social investment and programmes of sustained economic growth with redistribution from the top to the bottom (at minimum) or there will of necessity be an intensification of racism, from the centre feeding the extreme right.
Ending austerity and racism
How to break austerity in Europe? The experience of the battles by the Greek government in the eurozone has demonstrated that the European Central Bank, European Commission and the rest are less susceptibleto breaking from austerity than national parliaments are.
Opposing austerity means a clash with the European capitalist institutions. Strengthening them will not make it easier to oppose the national capitalist centres of power.
Syriza thought it could find in the EU support for confronting the worst excesses of the Greek business class. The EU went into battle instead for the Greek business class when its own parties collapsed.
Nor is it the case that the racism, national divisions and reappearing borders in Europe are a temporary aberration. The pressures towards those predate the great recession that began in 2008.
Many on the left, looking at the forthcoming referendum in Britain on EU membership, have tried to separate out the limited freedom of movement of EU citizens within Europe from the imposition of the Fortress Europe policy of keeping out non-Europeans which went hand in glove with it.
So goes the argument: We are opposed to Fortress Europe, but we must defend the limited freedom of movement that exists (though is now being restricted) within the EU. Voting to leave the EU would leave us still with refugees kept out but would also bring further exclusions. It would be worse.
But from the beginning, the highly conditional internal movement was bound up with external exclusion. It meant in Greece, for example, the direct linkage by the state of being seen to keep out migrants and of Greek passport holders being entitled to travel without restriction in Europe.
There was a mechanism even in the good years for popular racism in which drowning people in the Mediterranean was necessary if you as a Greek were to be accepted at an employment agency in London.
Now, with the refugee flows shattering the previous anti-migrant arrangements we are seeing that the re-imposition of Fortress Europe is necessitating borders within the continent, not just on its frontiers.
This is going to get worse, not despite the transnational arrangements of the EU, but precisely through them. And very quickly.
It would be a futile position for the left to say that we should oppose Britain rupturing with the EU in the referendum – a rupture which would enormously destabilise the EU, the British state and capitalist class – because we defend something which the actually existing EU is further restricting: the free movement of people.
Just like its German counterpart, British business wants to manage immigration flows to its benefit, and that means, whatever the intention of individual bosses, various patterns of exclusion of people and systematically generating the basis for racist ideas.
British business seeks to do that in the same way it seeks to manage its acquisition of profit at home and abroad through the conflictual arrangements of the EU (we may add Nato).
It is extremely worried that a weakening David Cameron may not deliver a yes vote.
We should do our best to make those fears a reality – not least because ending the racism against refugees and migrants – European and non-European – will not happen within an institution where David Cameron and Angela Merkel sit with their counterparts to coordinate their assault on migrant rights and upon the rest of us.
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.
More articles from this author
- Corbynism from Below – book review
- The devil and the deep blue sea: Labour and Johnson’s deal
- Israel's electoral stalemate shows Palestine is still the issue
- Corbyn can't win if Labour won't bring down the government
- Greece elections: the right is back in government
- Equating fascism with Brexit is disastrous, irresponsible and gives a hand up to Tommy Robinson
- Students protest in Albania: internationalist alternatives in the Balkans