Let's open Europe to immigration

Why Pope Francis's visit to Lampedusa highlights a challenge for all of us.

The symbolic power of the trip of Pope Francis to Lampedusa has drawn the world's attention to the persecution and deaths of migrants who attempt to join the European continent. The Pope's visit also highlights a striking paradox: although Europe needs more immigration, public discourse about it is tinted with mistrust and fear.

Indeed, taking into account the demographic evolution in Europe since the end of WWII, and more specifically the steady birth rate decline and the increase in life expectancy, it appears that our continent needs the contribution of immigration to escape the perpetual weakening of social security, the raising of retirement age, and the shrinking of pensions.

Yet in recent decades, immigration policies implemented all around Europe by every party and every political leader regardless of their political backgrounds, have been characterised by distrust. Hence, these policies are extremely restrictive.

The establishment of the European agency Frontex, whose main mission consists in intercepting migrants at the European borders, encapsulates current immigration policies in Europe. Distinguished by its violent interventions, Frontex became the symbol of "Fortress Europe", a closed and self-sufficient continent, a territory remaining unmoved by those who risk their life during long months, who do not hesitate to follow dangerous routes and who hope that a better life awaits them. Last year, more than 500 people coming from Africa died, to our worrying indifference, while attempting to reach Lampedusa. At the very moment of this tragedy, millions of other refugees were shut up in prison-like detention centres.

The "Dublin II" agreements are another illustration of European immigration policies. These agreements enable Member States to send back illegal migrants to the country that they first cross when they arrived on the European territory. Given the fact that Greece is, along with the south of Italy, the main entry point for migrants in Europe, many refugees land in Greece. Such a situation is unmanageable for local authorities and is exploited by Greek neo-Nazis to guarantee electoral and social support for their political party Golden Dawn, and enable them to freely persecute and kill migrants.

Distrust of migrants is now the dominant political position in Europe. It is not a coincidence. This stance embodies the ideological victory of extreme right-wing partisans and is the result of their fierce struggle to impose their viewpoint. As they knew that open antisemitism and racism would not lead them to an electoral victory, many extreme right-wing parties opted for the strategy of stigmatising immigrants and gradually imposed their opinions.

The implications of this ideological success from the far right are extremely painful: on the one hand less social rights for the entire society, and on the other hand more violence and more racist murders just like in Greece.

Similarly, the way in which extreme right-wing street movements and far right political parties complement one another is obvious. When some, sometimes very close to power, claim to be "normalised", they actually ensure the ideological victory of their political family and intend to raise tensions that enable violent acts.

However, we have to understand that more immigration is necessary in Europe not only because we need to ensure high level of social rights, but also because it is a necessity for democracy and human rights in the world.

First, welcoming more immigrants would increase the number of persons who stand to benefit from the rights as guaranteed in Europe. On condition that such a policy would not deprive poor countries of their elites, more people could enjoy democratic values.

Second, the future of Europe and the future of democracy are tightly linked. Stimulating immigration toward Europe could expand the European market, galvanise innovation, create an economy more open to the world and more dynamic and thus enable our old continent to compete with the new economic leaders whose political systems are often too authoritarian. As a consequence, we can imagine that emerging countries would be more attracted to democracy, and thus that democratic values and practices could spread worldwide, as it would be still recognized as an effective model of development.

If Europe wants to meet the challenge of immigration, that is to say face its future, it must win a cultural victory: to overcome distrust.

Such a shift implies the end of indifference to the "penning" of immigrants, the imprisonment of people - who, by the way, often come from former European colonies in Africa and Asia - in detention centers where living conditions are inappropriate for human beings. It also means fighting for equality, to set out a continent free from racism and antisemitism. It means placing democratic values at the heart of the common Europe project; and it also means rejecting austerity dogma as the current leading political principle of European institutions and governments.

The future of our continent and the future of democracy in the world are at stake.

Benjamin Abtan is President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement - EGAM

Pope Francis visits migrants on the Italian island of Lampedusa. (Photo: Getty.)

Benjamin Abtan is the President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM).

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Is it OK to punch a Nazi?

There are moral and practical reasons why using force to stop a far-right march is justified.

It says a great deal about Donald Trump that for the second time under his Presidency we are having to ask the question: is it OK to punch a Nazi?

More specifically, after the events in Charlottesville last weekend, we must ask: is it OK to turn up to a legal march, by permit-possessing white supremacists, and physically stop that march from taking place through the use of force if necessary?

The US president has been widely criticised for indicating that he thought the assortment of anti-semites, KKK members and self-professed Nazis were no worse than the anti-fascist counter demonstrators. So for him, the answer is presumably no, it’s not OK to punch a Nazi in this situation.

For others such as Melanie Phillips in the Times, or Telegraph writer Martin Daubney, the left have seemingly become the real fascists.

The argument goes that both sides are extremists and thus both must be condemned equally for violence (skipping over the fact that one of the counter-protesters was killed by a member of the far right, who drove his car into a crowd).

This argument – by focusing on the ideologies of the two groups – distracts from the more relevant issue of why both sides were in Charlottesville in the first place.

The Nazis and white supremacists were marching there because they hate minorities and want them to be oppressed, deported or worse. That is not just a democratic expression of opinion. Its intent is to suppress the ability of others to live their lives and express themselves, and to encourage violence and intimidation.

The counter-protesters were there to oppose and disrupt that march in defence of those minorities. Yes, some may have held extreme left-wing views, but they were in Charlottesville to stop the far-right trying to impose its ideology on others, not impose their own.

So far, the two sides are not equally culpable.

Beyond the ethical debate, there is also the fundamental question of whether it is simply counterproductive to use physical force against a far-right march.

The protesters could, of course, have all just held their banners and chanted back. They could also have laid down in front of the march and dared the “Unite the Right” march to walk over or around them.

Instead the anti-fascists kicked, maced and punched back. That was what allowed Trump to even think of making his attempt to blame both sides at Charlottesville.

On a pragmatic level, there is plenty of evidence from history to suggest that non-violent protest has had a greater impact. From Gandhi in to the fall of the Berlin Wall, non-violence has often been the most effective tool of political movements fighting oppression, achieving political goals and forcing change.

But the success of those protests was largely built on their ability to embarrass the governments they were arrayed against. For democratic states in particular, non-violent protest can be effective because the government risks its legitimacy if it is seen violently attacking people peacefully expressing a democratic opinion.

Unfortunately, it’s a hell of a lot more difficult to embarrass a Nazi. They don't have legitimacy to lose. In fact they gain legitimacy by marching unopposed, as if their swastikas and burning crosses were just another example of political free expression.

By contrast, the far right do find being physically attacked embarrassing. Their movement is based on the glorification of victory, of white supremacy, of masculine and racial superiority, and scenes of white supremacists looking anything but superior undermines their claims.

And when it comes to Nazis marching on the streets, the lessons from history show that physically opposing them has worked. The most famous example is the Battle of Cable Street in London, in which a march by thousands of Hitler-era Nazis was stopped parading through East End by a coalition of its Jewish Community, dockworkers, other assorted locals, trade unionists and Communists.

There was also the Battle of Lewisham in the late 70s when anti-fascist protesters took on the National Front. Both these battles, and that’s what they were, helped neuter burgeoning movements of fascist, racist far right thugs who hated minorities.

None of this is to say that punching a Nazi is always either right, or indeed a good idea. The last time this debate came up was during Trump’s inauguration when "Alt Right" leader Richard Spencer was punched while giving a TV interview. Despite the many, many entertaining memes made from the footage, what casual viewers saw was a reasonable-looking man being hit unawares. He could claim to be a victim.

Charlottesville was different. When 1,000 Nazis come marching through a town trying to impose their vision of the world on it and everywhere else, they don't have any claim to be victims.