|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Fortress Europe & the Seville summit
TEN MILLION workers shut down Spain in a one-day general strike timed to coincide with the European Union (EU) summit in Seville on 20 June. El País newspaper reported that 88 major demonstrations took place, including 500,000 in Madrid, 500,000 in Barcelona and 200,000 in Seville. This showed the continued resistance against EU neo-liberal policies.
In the weeks up to the summit, tougher immigration policies and border controls became the most important questions – issues central to the EU’s expansion process and its general neo-liberal strategy. Amnesty International delivered a sharp criticism: "Talk of sending warships into the Mediterranean, and threats of cutting aid to countries found uncooperative in taking people back – unrealistic or unlawful as such moves may be – set a climate in which people’s fears are confirmed".
Why did the question of asylum seekers top the agenda in Seville, and what did the EU leaders decide? The threat to cut aid to countries which do not ‘cooperate’ with the EU was at least temporarily withdrawn. Instead, ‘positive incentives’ will be offered to Turkey, Albania, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and others if they stop refugees from passing through their countries on their way to EU states. The argument for this was that suspending aid would increase poverty and force more people to head for Europe. Earlier, Britain’s Tony Blair and David Blunkett had pointed to Sri Lanka (devastated by a long civil war), Somalia (run by warlords), and Afghanistan as countries from where refugees should be blocked. This new New Labour position is fully supported by the Spanish prime minister, José María Aznar, and Italian president, Silvio Berlusconi, who seconded the proposals.
The common border police proposed by the Berlusconi government and others was not on the agenda. The summit, however, agreed on joint border patrols, tighter entry regulations and the beginnings of a new EU border authority. Under the headline, Fighting the Illegal Smuggling of People, the EU wants to block refugees from entering. But this will only increase the price and the danger for those who have no choice but to migrate. A ‘common policy’ on asylum seekers means that those countries with the highest wall will set the norm. All states are pursuing increasingly harsh policies.
In Denmark, new laws implemented on 1 July include a rule that immigrants have to stay seven years in the country without leaving before permanent residence is possible. They also have to speak Danish as well as a 14-year-old Dane. The Italian and Dutch governments are preparing similar laws. In the French election campaign, Jacques Chirac ‘promised’ to close the Red Cross refugee camp at Sangatte, Calais, and minimise immigration. In Germany, 12-year-old refugees are not reunited with their families if they do not arrive at the same time. Blunkett is abolishing the right of asylum seekers to appeal.
Why are these states cracking down on refugees? It is certainly not because of any big increase in the number of asylum seekers. In 2001 Belgium had 24,527 asylum seekers compared with 42,677 in 2000. Denmark had 12,403 in 2001 (10,077 in 2000). The figures for France were 47,260 (38,747); Netherlands 32,579 (43,895); Spain 9,219 (7,235); Britain 86,186 (98,866); Sweden 23,499 (16,283); Germany 88,287 (78,698); and Austria 24,513 (18,284). The total was 348,473 in 2001 and 354,762 in 2000.
Italy, considered as one of the ‘loopholes’ into the EU, had around 12,000 asylum seekers last year. Amnesty International says the number of refugees seeking asylum in the EU dropped to 384,530 in 2001 from 675,460 in 1992 (before compulsory visas were introduced during the Balkan wars). According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), the number has been between 350,000 and 400,000 annually over the last decade.
Denmark, with the most racist immigration laws, had 12,000 asylum seekers last year. And in the Netherlands, which according to the Lijst Pim Fortuyn is ‘full’, the number fell. Spain, one of the ‘tough’ countries, had a ratio of 0.21 asylum seekers per 1,000 inhabitants, the lowest in the EU. In Britain, which saw an increase of 8% in the first quarter of this year to 19,520, the full year from April 2001 to April 2002 was down 10% compared to 2000-01. So far this year, 75% of asylum seekers received a ‘No’ from Blunkett, and 3,000 were immediately deported.
‘If you look at these statistics, you see very little support for the idea prevalent in several European countries that they are being deluged by fraudulent asylum seekers’, commented UNHCR spokesperson Rupert Colville. He continued: ‘One commonly hears the charge that the vast majority of asylum requests are ‘bogus’, but these statements are themselves highly inaccurate and misleading’. He recognised that difficulties arise in managing immigration and integrating foreigners, but said, ‘It is wrong to paint the asylum seekers – and the large numbers of very deserving refugees among them – as the main element of the problem’.
So why then have the establishment parties around the EU stepped up the pressure on refugees? One reason is that the leading politicians think it will win votes. But this should not be taken for granted. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Lijst Pim Fortuyn, the Danish People’s Party, etc, probably gained as much from their attacks on establishment politicians, the EU and the mess in social services as from their racist policies. If politicians are losing support, however, they will divert attention from their policy failures and focus on asylum seekers.
Increased EU and state racism against refugees is also an important part of the neo-liberal strategy. That means attacks on the conditions of the poorest sections of the population, including refugees, as well as the unemployed, students from working-class families, and pensioners. There is friction between the EU countries, mainly over the costs of the refugees, as has been seen in the dispute between Britain and France over Sangatte. The EU Dublin convention ruled that the first country the refugee passes through should meet the cost.
The EU strategy also means a strengthening of repression. To control borders, as well as to register and catch refugees, there is a need to beef up the police and the intelligence services. Europol, the EU police, is monitoring people suspected of crime and also those with ‘interesting activities’. One of the current investigations concerns ‘illegal immigration and criminal acts by West Africans, specifically Nigerians, living in Western Europe’.
The politicians and the racists consciously mix crime with immigration. But the real link is between increased crime and social problems – caused by the politicians and their system. The undermining of socialism within Europe’s traditional workers’ parties and organisations has played an important role in alienating and segregating people. Any attempt to use state repression to force someone to speak a foreign language will increase the problems, not solve them.
Moreover, any increase in nationalism and splits within the working class serve to weaken the resistance against neo-liberal policies. A layer of the capitalist ruling class – beginning in Austria when the Freedom Party (FPÖ) came into the government – is prepared to give the far-right parties a chance in order to step up privatisation and cuts. The majority, however, prefer to give that job to Blair, Chirac and company.
A socialist view on refugees means, firstly, understanding that people are forced to leave their homes because of capitalism and imperialism, especially persecution and armed conflict. The West exploits the poor and sells arms to repressive regimes for war and repression. Secondly, socialists defend the rights of all oppressed people. Workers have to fight any worsening of living and working conditions as a threat to all, and must counter any attempts to divide workers and youth. We have to explain that no cuts in refugee budgets have ever given a penny to healthcare, and that the ‘populist’ far-right parties stand for increased attacks on public services and workers’ rights. The programme of Lijst Pim Fortuyn is one of extreme neo-liberalism: to abolish pensions for people with disabilities, deregulate the labour market, ban budget deficits, ‘reform’ (ie privatise and cut back) healthcare, etc.
A socialist programme includes the common struggle against racism and for a massive increase of resources in poorer areas, education, health, housing, childcare and care of the elderly. And it means a fight to defend the right of asylum and mass campaigns against the far-right, racists and neo-fascists.
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