Fortress Europe clashes with European ideal
The greatest danger behind immigration is the ease with which it can be exploited to fight battles that have nothing to do with the issue's complexity.
- Tuesday, 06 October 2015
When the revolts that ousted President Ben Alì from power exploded in 2011, Kasserine, a four-hour drive from the Tunisian capital, was one of the hotbeds of the uprising. As the funeral procession for the four young men killed by the police filed past, elderly locals explained what was going on. The men spoke in an old, piecemeal Italian dialect learned from the Italian miners. We used to work underground, in the fields, in the ports; we were manual labourers, fishermen, tradespeople.
In Istanbul, Giuseppe Garibaldi welcomed Italian migrants into the Workers Society, recently restored by a Turkish benefactor and today one of the exhibition venues of the city’s Art Biennial.
And when Italy colonised Libya, our farmers were invited to settle across Tripolitania and Cyrenaica and later forcibly repatriated to Italy after the disastrous WW II campaign on the infamous navi bianche (white ships) only to be interned for years in refugee camps. Romain Rainero describes this little-known and painful historical episode in his recent book, Le navi bianche.
The current migrant crisis is European but it highlights the broader crisis afflicting Western capitalism: manual workers are not essential as they once were, despite the current demographic decline. After WWII, Italy signed a bilateral agreement with Belgium, to send thousands of Italian miners to Wallonia in exchange for wagonloads of coal. Economic recovery was beginning on the continent and millions of labourers were abandoning the European and Italian countryside, having been recruited for industrial and service jobs. As the great Swiss writer Max Frisch summed it up: “We asked for workers. We got people instead”.
In 1964, West Germany celebrated the arrival of its millionth Gastarbeiter [foreign worker]. Today, no European leader would dream of celebrating a foreign immigrant. Recently, the European media made fun of Angela Merkel for trying to explain to a young Palestinian girl why she could not stop her family’s possible deportation. Yet many forget that last year, Germany received 200,000 asylum requests, more than any other country in the EU.
We’re good at criticising but little inclined to self-criticism. Worse still, immigration is exploited by political parties and movements, to wage battles that have little or nothing to do with immigration. When a group of thugs lie in waiting for a busload of 19 asylum seekers for three months so they can create havoc and instil fear in the elderly and retired they hope will vote for them, it means the problem lies above all with us. Of the 170,000 migrants who landed on Italian shores in 2014, more than 100,000 of them are no longer in the country.
Italy does not pass the migrant test because the country has been misgoverned for decades, but nor does Europe: expanded to 28 member states, it has become a patchwork of unmanageable national interests. Europe remains a continent; not a state. The setting of migrant quotas was emblematic of this state of affairs, preceded as it was by the drama in Ventimiglia, where migrants could be seen clinging to its rocky shores, only to be ferried into France, with typical Italian cunning, along the smuggling routes of old.
No one wants to agree to large quotas partly because its bad press: Spain, for one, was required to take over 4,000 asylum seekers but will ultimately only accept 1,500. Because in passing the migrant buck, not only is there no European solidarity, even Mediterranean solidarity falls short.
The truth is that the European community was first brought about by World War II, then the Cold War and, lastly, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. At the time the United States and Germany wanted certain nations to became member states that would have been better off being granted EU associated country status. We thus brought on board the debris of a collapsed society we barely knew and knew even less about.
The latest disaster, in Ukraine, another bankrupt state, is another case in point, which we don't know how to get out of. We live under almost ridiculous paradoxes. Russia played an important role in the negotiations to lift Iran’s sanctions at the nuclear talks table in Vienna – yet Russia is itself under sanctions for having occupied Crimea.
The migrant problem is strictly tied to European geopolitics and their distorted interpretation. The 1995 Schengen Agreement was sold as the opening of internal borders and above all the closing of external borders, entrusted to the guards of the EU border countries, including our own. This is the same ‘Fortress Europe’ that was prepared to strike a deal with Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in order to contain African refugees, though no one bothered to explain that, in Libya, there is no such thing as a refugee or an asylum seeker, only illegal immigrants. This law was not changed once Gaddafi’s regime fell, and certainly won't be now, with the country plunged in chaos.
In actual fact, the vast majority of refugees fleeing poverty or war don't land in Europe but in neighbouring countries. There are over 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, and over one million in Lebanon (which has an overall population of four million), followed by Pakistan, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan.
How do we solve this problem? Instead of wasting time theorising on nation-states, the failure of multiculturalism or xenophobic tendencies, all issues widely debated and exploited by politicians to increase their share of the ballot, we would do better to acknowledge the situation on the ground.
The migration explosion is the result of the disintegration of the post-colonial states in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. These migrants are fleeing chaos that is rife in our European backyard, while we attempt to shut the doors and especially our eyes on a disaster we helped create. The European and Italian leaders handling this emergency have to explain that the migrants are the last link in a chain of resounding political errors. Now that the 2011 ‘Arab Springs’, the most illusory of definitions, have been shelved, it is time for the spring of responsibility and consciousness to begin.