Skip to main content

Framing the left as anti-migrant bigots

Across Europe the centrists are fitting up socialists as fellow travellers of the far right, explains NATHAN AKEHURST

DYSTOPIAN BBC drama Years and Years has a scene where the Spanish radical left has taken power and forced out migrants, including the refugee boyfriend of Daniel, a protagonist.

Daniel invokes the “horseshoe theory” to explain why this scenario has happened — you go so far left and you end up near the far right.

This bears zero relationship to political dynamics in Spain, so it seems Daniel’s character is acting a sock-puppet for the writers’ views.

And among decent liberals, there is a widespread perception that the indignities suffered by migrants and refugees, which have received more media coverage in recent years (although still much less coverage than absurd and inconsequential Westminster dramas), are the fault of the growth of political “extremes.”

In Greece, this week’s return of the centre-right to government under Kyriakos Mitsotakis is being taken as a return to “normality” by commentators.

This is coded chiefly as economic stability, but he has also accrued significant political capital over promising better solutions on migration.

But it’s mainstream, “moderate centrist” governments that have created the extreme hostile environment at European shores in which 80 people are again feared to have drowned last week.

The far right has called for harsher laws, more patrol boats, less resettlement — but is largely working to extend what exists. The left at its worst has merely failed to oppose the violent excesses of what already exists.

Former banker and Establishment delegate Mitsotakis’s interventions on the refugee crisis are a case study in how this status quo works.

They work by institutionalising incoherence. He says things that are fundamentally incompatible but when said together create a mirage picture of sensible compromise solutions.

Last year Mitsotakis visited Moria, the chronically overcrowded Lesbos refugee camp drowning in mud, rubbish and critically for him, allegations of EU funds being misused.

These claims ring true. But the refugee crisis was not caused by predatory contractors jacking up the price of mattresses.

It was a system built up over many years in the corridors of European power which has worked to normalise an utterly abnormal, dehumanising situation.

But for Mitsotakis, Moria was a narrative, an opportunity to frame the crisis as merely one of corporate mismanagement on part of the Greek state.

He placed the moral crisis within this frame too. “During this government’s tenure, the hellish Moria hotspot was created, which insults the very concept of human dignity.”

He adds in explanation: “Hundreds of millions of euros have been allocated to deal with the refugee problem, money which, it seems, has been lost in the dark corridors of government murkiness.”

Let’s leave the worrying language of “solutions to the refugee problem” to one side.

Mitsotakis does argue against the closure of Greece’s northern border by the EU to prevent northward migration, but fundamentally he accepts the European practice of paying to keep the crisis in camps in their periphery.

He adds a pledge to “speed up” asylum applications — which while invariably useful for those in limbo, is a convenient evasion of the question of how many of those applications he expects to accept.

In his account, Mitsotakis will simply manage the money better — and that will restore humane practice. And, of course, he says that he will be better than his predecessor (he doesn’t specify how) at identifying “genuine” refugees.

Once he has reduced the problem to one of efficiency and innovation, it buys him the political space to rhetorically satisfy the aggressive right inside and outside his party. (Existing policy should materially satisfy them for the most part; but the far right is particularly obsessed with shifting how we think and talk about refugees, with the aid of the mainstream tabloid press.)

He blames the crisis on advocates of “open borders,” although they do not exist in any positions that have presided over the situation.

He tells Europe’s centre-right politicians at a gathering that “the effective guarding of our borders must be our first priority,” framing himself as a better overseer of Europe’s iron wall.

Finally, in a turn reminiscent of Donald Trump’s “build the wall and make Mexico pay for it,” Mitsotakis promises to make Turkey take back more migrants, faster.

The existing EU-Turkey deal he refers to is described by Amnesty as “blithely disregarding international obligations.”

Turkey has received €6 billion (£5.4bn) to take back refugees kicked off of Greek islands. The promise of safe, legal routes emerging through this deal has not materialised.

The deal has institutionalised the violent limbo of Lesbos, keeping ever more people trapped on an island that cannot cope before they are eventually removed.

Returns then happen in breach of asylum laws. Turkey denies full refugee status to non-Europeans, meaning those there have no way to work and build lives. Some have been reportedly deported back to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is the same status quo Syriza provided over. But that evidence, along with the existence elsewhere in Europe of forces like migration-sceptical left-wing party Aufstehen in Germany, has been deliberately twisted by neoliberals keen to play up the “liberal” side of their credentials as demonstrating that the left is not much more progressive than the far right.

To this end, evidence as absurd as the existence of Mette Fredriksen in Denmark (a mainstream social democrat who is a migration-sceptic) or Jeremy Corbyn’s relative pragmatism over the Brexit referendum is conscripted into the narrative of a radical left that can be thrown in with the far right in a bag labelled “populism.”

This narrative then pops up not just in think pieces but in TV dramas with a progressive message.

It’s not just a PR strategy for reviving discredited centrism among young liberals. It directly contributes to the normalising of inhumanity; undermining those who want to change the world while feting as reformers those like Mitsotakis who do not.

This leaves people like Mitsotakis free to carefully frame the problem as a dry technical problem rather than a political or moral one, pay equal lip service to those who believe and reject the notion of human dignity, and then crack on with enforcing the same old practices.

Welcome to the centre of Europe.


We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 7,566
We need:£ 9,434
23 Days remaining
Donate today