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European leaders are at loggerheads – but not in the way you might think

There is agreement between liberal and far-right 'populist' EU leaders over strengthening the repressive Fortress Europe measures against refugees and asylum-seekers. They just disagree about how to do it, writes KEVIN OVENDEN

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A dozen European leaders are to meet at an informal crisis gathering in Brussels on Sunday.

That’s two years to the day since the results of the UK referendum piled up showing people had voted to leave the European Union.

We were told then, and conventional wisdom has repeated it since, that the process would pit a fractured British government against a united bloc of the remaining “EU27.”

The weakness of the Tory government, resting since last year’s general election on the ultra reactionary DUP, is plain to see (though so is the class loyalty of its serial non-rebel MPs).

But despite the bombast of the likes of the EU’s Michel Barnier and Guy Verhofstadt — and the projection of so many of the Blairite continuity Remain campaign — the EU27 are very far from united.

In fact, the coming days leading to a full EU summit at the end of next week, and its fallout, are set to bring acrimony and division to boiling point.

It is not only Theresa May who is weak and a prisoner of events. So too is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, her authority draining, perhaps already fatally.

The latest focus for the morphing European crisis is asylum and immigration. And it is spotlighting policies across the continent every bit as inhuman as the Trump regime’s caging of immigrant children in the US.

The issue threatens to rupture relations between the core EU states and also within the government of Germany, meant to be the sheet anchor of the bloc.

One thing the crisis is not about is some clash between “liberal European values” and “populism.” There is agreement between “liberal” and far-right “populist” leaders over radically strengthening the Fortress Europe policy and repressive measures against refugees and asylum-seekers. They just disagree about how to do it.

It would be noteworthy that the measures under discussion mark a fundamental breach with the international conventions on refugees established after the second world war.

Except the EU and component governments are already in breach.

That is what the shameful deal with the authoritarian Erdogan government in Turkey did two years ago in preventing those fleeing war-ravaged Syria from coming to Europe.

That mechanism has already been extended to franchising out to barbaric Libyan militia the task of preventing desperate people crossing from North Africa to Europe.

Now the aim is to extend that by establishing euphemistically named “hotspots” or “disembarkation points” elsewhere in North Africa to return refugee boats and refugees themselves to.

That is not some plan from the far right extreme. It is the policy of both Emmanuel Macron in France and Merkel in Germany. So far no North African government has agreed to set them up (Libya doesn’t have a government worthy of the name — thanks to the Nato intervention seven years ago).

The scheme was in a draft plan drawn up by the European Commission — that nice liberal bastion, you understand — in advance of the EU summit. It also contains a raft of measures to turn the welfare system and public services into repressive mechanisms against refugees.

All that is common ground among governments from Copenhagen to Rome.

The great sticking point is over so-called “secondary movement.”

The German and French governments want to stop those who make it to Europe from heading northwards from the Mediterranean countries. This is already the case with Greece. They want to make it easier to deport people back to the country of entry.

The Italian government, driven by its far right component, wants the opposite. All are agreed, however, on the Mediterranean continuing to be a watery graveyard.

The clash is intensified because it is also driven by a crisis at the heart of the German government, just three months old.

The governing coalition comprises Merkel’s centre-right CDU, its hard right Bavarian sister party, the CSU and the hapless centre-left SPD.

The CSU’s Horst Seehofer holds the position of interior minister and his party, which has long dominated the southern German state, faces elections in Bavaria in October.

Polls show it losing ground to the far right Alternative for Germany (AfD). It has lost four percentage points in recent weeks, with the AfD rising to 13.5 per cent. It is the attempt to outflank the fascist right in Bavaria that is driving Seehofer’s “master plan” of anti-immigration and asylum measures.

In turn, he has been partially successful in blackmailing Merkel. He threatened to use the powers of his ministry this week to impose a hard border and turn back asylum-seekers from entering Germany.

He pulled back only on the promise of a two-week deadline for Merkel to get agreement for such a plan either at the EU summit or through bilateral arrangements.

The reason Merkel baulked at Seehofer’s plan to introduce unilaterally a hard border is nothing to do with liberal decency. She had reportedly agreed to the other 62 out of 63 elements of his plan.

It is because an uncontrolled re-establishment of hard borders – which in any case exist already in parts of Europe — would signal a further breakdown of a political and economic arrangement that has been crucial to the success of German big business.

It would open up further fault lines on the continent — north and south, east and west. Instead, she poses a “European solution.”

But the adjective “European” does not mean progressive or liberal.
It is an attempt to contain the national antagonisms between different state and capitalist interests through the institutions of the EU – implementing reactionary policies in concert. That, ultimately, is what the EU is and was established for.

It may not be possible to pull that off in the coming two weeks. And the reason is more those growing antagonisms, and less the ideological or political spats between centrist governments and the far right.
 

Seehofer and his Italian counterpart Matteo Salvini, for example, are no strangers to one another on the hard right of the ideological spectrum. The same could be said of either of them and Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

But far from being a unified bloc, they are in bitter dispute as each — in their own perverted notion of “national interest” — seeks to displace the “burden” onto the other.

The primary antagonism is not between liberals and populists. It is between national blocs of capitalist interests.

And all should be clear. The cause of “European unity” in the coming couple of weeks is to be served by trying to hold together the bloc on an agreed racist exclusion of non-Europeans.

This is so very far from the fairy tale that pro-EU liberals have told themselves over the decades. But it is the reality.

That’s why calls upon the left and anti-racists to abandon good sense and embrace the supposedly liberal pro-EU forces are so wide of the mark.

Die Linke, the German radical left party, refused that course at its congress in Leipzig last weekend. While firmly opposing the openly racist rabble-rousing of Seehofer, and summoning direct action against the far right, it refused to fall behind the idea that a euro-racism was better than a national-racism.

The situation is urgent and there are all too few voices speaking as clearly as many delegates did in Leipzig.

One place where those voices can be found is in Britain, where a left and internationalist leadership of the Labour Party has meant that it has bucked the trend of ruination of the centre-left elsewhere in Europe. The SPD in Germany is down to just 16 per cent.

Two years on from the UK Brexit referendum there is a remarkable contrast. It is true that racist politics, Islamophobia and xenophobia remain a potent threat in Britain. The recent far-right mobilisation in London shows that alarmingly.

At the same time, Theresa May this weekend is cynically trying to co-opt another anniversary — 70 years since the arrival of the Empire Windrush and the beginnings of the enriching immigration into Britain of black and Asian people in large numbers.

While interior ministers in Europe fall over themselves over how to implement ever more racist policies of exclusion, Britain’s Home Secretary Sajid Javid faces a problem.

He would like to continue, in reality, the nasty policies of the “hostile environment,” but alone among his EU counterparts his immediate predecessor was felled by public outrage at the consequences of those policies upon the Windrush generation.

As in Europe, the siren and reactionary politics of racism are a threat in Britain and require a direct, popular and uncompromising response.

But in surveying the European scene today, no anti-racist should feel that in Britain they are beleaguered and “if only we could remain in the EU.”  

For whatever the outcome of this mounting crisis over asylum and immigration policy in the EU, it is certain that it will be one form of deepening reaction or another.

Certain too that there will be resistance from the left. And the left in Britain is in a very good position to encourage that.

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