A dark wave of racism engulfs Europe
A dark wave of racism engulfs Europe

From the vantage point of the Swiss Alps, world leaders and their wealthy friends who attended the World Economic Forum in Davos cast an eye over the potential threats to their order. This year they identified “large scale involuntary migration” as the biggest “risk” in 2016.

As they talked about how to address the risk posed by the 1.1 million refugees who had arrived in Europe in 2015, another 45 bodies were pulled from the Aegean Sea. In January, an estimated 187 refugees drowned crossing between Turkey and Greece. Four thousand drowned last year. Debate about the refugee crisis has dominated European politics for months.

The Dublin Treaty, which specifies that refugees must seek asylum in the first country in which they arrive, has proved unworkable. Most refugees have come through Greece and Italy, which do not have the infrastructure to process the high volume of claims, and most refugees want to make the onward journey to western or northern Europe. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, in effect suspended the treaty in August when she declared refugees were welcome in Germany.

The ensuing debate has been characterised as one between liberal-minded, compassionate Germany and the reactionary nationalism of eastern European countries that called for the reimposition of border controls. Merkel was even touted as a potential recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

These accolades were misplaced. Merkel’s celebrated “welcome culture” was predicated on fortifying Europe’s borders. On the eve of the Christian Democrats’ (CDU) conference in December, she proclaimed her aim was to “drastically reduce” the number of refugees reaching Europe.

Germany had vigorously pursued this strategy at the last European leaders’ summit and the Malta conference at the end of November, proposing to strengthen the powers of a European “coast guard”. However, European governments were reluctant to cede more power over their borders.

Tacit in Merkel’s declaration that “We can do it”, is the implication “and so should you” in relation to the rest of Europe accepting more refugees. This part of Merkel’s strategy – the establishment of quotas – has gone nowhere. Talk of resettling up to 180,000 refugees from Turkey has been scaled back to 50-80,000. The reluctance of the eastern European governments to allocate funds to the resettlement of refugees reflects the disparity between their struggling economies and Germany’s, which has a current account surplus of 8 percent of GDP.

Merkel also negotiated a €3 billion deal with Turkey to lock down the eastern border. Turkey’s repressive president, Recep Erdogan, is seen as the right man for the job – more reliable than Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras, who is churlish about building detention centres. Now EU leaders are reportedly exploring suspending Greece from the Schengen zone and locking down its northern borders, which would add another humanitarian disaster on top of the economic crisis in Greece.

Since news surfaced that groups of men of North African descent had carried out a high number of sexual assaults and thefts in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, the debate has shifted drastically to the right.

Far from there being a conspiracy of silence as claimed by the right, initial reports claiming 1,000 men had been involved were a great exaggeration. Four weeks later, 32 have been charged, of whom 22 are asylum seekers.

Predictably, this has emboldened the far right. Already buoyed by the strong result of the National Front in the French regional elections in December, it has seized on the attacks in Cologne to mainstream its racist bile while simultaneously escalating street violence. The anti-Islam far right group Pegida held rallies of thousands in Cologne and Stuttgart. In Leipzig hundreds rampaged through an enclave of the left, smashing up kebab stores and anything associated with Arab culture.

The far right in Germany should not be underestimated. The main party, Alternative for Germany, is polling around 10 percent, an increase of about 5 percent since September.

However, the most significant shift has been in Europe’s governing parties, which have outdone the fascists in finding ways to single out and demean refugees.

British PM David Cameron has called for migrants who do not earn above £35,000 per year to be deported. Their spouses must pass an English test to ensure they “integrate”. Denmark and Bavaria have passed legislation giving police power to search and seize refugees’ valuables. Sweden announced on 28 January it would deport 80,000 people whose refugee applications have been rejected. Refugees in Calais had to fight for their makeshift tents against police encroaching on the camp established in north-western France.

If smashing up shops in Leipzig could be compared to Kristallnacht, a state policy of painting red the front doors of houses accommodating refugees and confiscating wedding rings conjures a frightening vision of the Third Reich.

If smashing up shops in Leipzig could be compared to Kristallnacht, a state policy of painting red the front doors of houses accommodating refugees and confiscating wedding rings conjures a frightening vision of the Third Reich.

Domestically, Merkel has shifted to appease the voices on her right. She has vowed to deport refugees convicted of a criminal offence. She has also said that she will expand the list of safe countries of origin to include Morocco and Algeria, which will make it much harder for people fleeing these countries to be accepted as refugees, and further entrench the idea that hunger is a spurious danger. Deportations have increased from 40 to 100 per day.

In almost every report of these attacks, Cologne is the reference. In her statement, Merkel said, “We are vulnerable. We do not yet have the order, the control, we would like”. The French prime minister, Manuel Valls, said there was a danger Europe would be “overwhelmed” – language just close enough to “overrun” to excite the racists. They had been ever so generous, but Arab men just don’t appreciate “Western values”, especially when it comes to women, was the message of most of the statements by German and European leaders.

Cologne is a narrative to justify a shift that in reality has taken place because Germany is isolated. Unlike the Greek crisis in June 2015, in which Merkel called the shots, her promises to European countries have not stopped the arrival of refugees.

When she and German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble declare there can be no euro without the Schengen zone, it is a threat. Defy us, and we will use our economic clout to punish you.

However, underlying the threat of a bully is usually insecurity. In this case, it’s that if countries start taking back control of their borders, it sets a precedent that governments can reassert their sovereignty over anything when the policy of the European Union doesn’t suit.

Understanding the realpolitik should not mean dismissing the importance of challenging the narrative. As Dr Martin Luther King Jnr said, “Racism is based on an ontological affirmation. It is the notion that the very being of a people is inferior”. The commentary about Cologne stirs up the old trope of the virile, brown man chasing after the pure, white woman.

Many columnists who would reject this crude stereotype nonetheless reinforce it with calls for refugees to be educated in the ways of Europe. Charity workers extol the teaching of courses in refugee shelters that cover homosexuality and explain that the equality of women is enshrined in Germany’s constitution.

It does not occur to them that a culture that is responsible for the mass bombing of women and children may have nothing worthy to teach about the rights of women. They unabashedly list ideas to help “integrate” refugees, giving “assimilation” a benevolent gloss.

 The more leftish sounding version of this argument is that the feminist movement in the Middle East has not yet made the gains it has in the West. But in the current context this feeds the same stereotype that the Arab and Muslim men seeking asylum are not as enlightened as their Western counterparts.

After Cologne, there was a lot of consternation about the left “asking the hard questions”. It’s only hard if your instinct is to agree with the premise of the right that there is a problem with refugees but you are trying to maintain the pretence of supporting them.

The real question the left needs to address is how it will stand up to the vicious attacks on refugee rights that have been announced almost daily in the past month.

So far, the response has been encouraging. Solidarity actions were organised on the weekend of 23-24 January. Hundreds of activists converged on Evros in north-east Greece to protest the wall built on the border with Turkey and policed by the private security firm Frontex. Blocking the only safe passage between Turkey and Europe, the wall forces refugees to risk their lives crossing the Aegean Sea in dinghies.

On the other side of the continent in Calais, 2,000 people demonstrated – activists from across Europe together with residents of the refugee camp. Five hundred broke through police lines and shut down the passenger ports. Later, 300 refugees fought through tear gas and water cannon as police tried to evict them from a stretch of the camp.

The right is using the events in Cologne to undermine the outpouring of solidarity in the latter part of last year, when hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people donated or delivered goods to refugees. The right knows that this is a barrier to its plan to deter refugees from coming to Europe by making their lives sheer misery.

With the combination of dramatic acts of civil disobedience, confrontations with the fascists, mass protests and the resistance of refugees, the battle to dismantle Fortress Europe enters 2016.

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