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How Leave.EU threw its backing behind a far-right anti-migrant boat

As the Italian navy enters Libyan territorial waters for the first time, they are joined by strange allies: Europe’s far right.

The Italian government has begun what it describes as a “limited naval” mission to help Libya's coastguard curb migrant flows. 

"(We will) provide logistical, technical and operational support for Libyan naval vessels, helping them and supporting them in shared and coordinated actions," defence minister Roberta Pinotti said ahead of Wednesday's parliamentary vote authorising the operation.

"There will be no harm done or slight given to Libyan sovereignty, because, if anything, our aim is to strengthen Libyan sovereignty," she told parliament, stressing that Italy had no intention of imposing a blockade on Libya's coast.

Some Libyans reject the Italian initiative, arguing that it is an infringement of their country’s rights. General Khalifa Haftar, who controls most of eastern Libya, threatened to use his own forces to repel the Italians if they enter Libyan waters

The Italian government is facing mounting criticism at home for allowing tens of thousands of Africans to arrive on its shores. This year year more than 95,000 have landed, according to the UN’s refugee agency. A further 2,385 have lost their lives or gone missing.

Italian attempts to curb the African exodus now has the support of the European far right. Members of the “Identitarian movement” have sent their own ship into the Mediterranean with the explicit aim of returning Africans to Libya.

Defend Europe has raised over $180,000 to support their mission to intercept the refugees on the high seas. They accuse the rescue missions of organisations like Médecins Sans Frontières and Save the Children of working with traffickers, and see the NGO’s as their targets.

Defend Europe is explicit about its aims: “Our goal is to document the doings of the NGOs, expose their collaboration with the human smugglers, and intervene if they do something illegal. Our goal is to step in where our politicians are failing and to do what is necessary to stop the deadly illegal migration into Europe.” 

Their work has been backed by several far-right organisations, including fringe groups operating in the UK. This includes Generation Identity UK, whose mission is "the preservation of our ethno-cultural heritage". 

“The Defend Europe project has been funded by the international far-right and this no doubt includes UK far-right activists,” said Dr Joe Mulhall, Senior Researcher at the campaign group Hope not Hate

“However, most worrying is the encouragement being shown by Leave.EU, the pro-Brexit campaign run by former Ukip donor Arron Banks, who has the influence and resources to significantly support the dangerous Defend Europe mission should he choose to,” said Dr Mulhall.

The backing of Arron Banks is certainly a boost for Defend Europe. Leave.EU has produced a video lauding the work of Defend Europe, saying that they “are doing some valuable work in raising awareness of ongoing crisis in the Med and the alarming role NGOs are playing.”

Defend Europe’s boat – the CStar – is now off the Libyan coast. Exactly what it will do is unclear.

The organisation intercepted an MSF boat leaving the Italian port of Catania in May. “They tried to halt us, but were intercepted by the Italian coastguards, interrogated and released,” MSF humanitarian co-ordinator Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, told the New Statesman. “We don’t want to engage with them: people are dying. Rescuing them - that’s our mission.”

But the operations of CStar are little more than a distraction for the international rescue effort. Italy has introduced a code of conduct for the NGO’s rescuing the migrants off the Libyan coast.

A number of the rescue missions refused to sign – including MSF. The code banned the transfer of survivors from one ship to another – insisting instead that the ship disembark them at a port.

“We refused to sign because it would decrease the number of rescue vessels at sea at any time,” explained Sahraoui,. MSF also rejected plans to station armed police on board the boats, arguing that this would compromise their neutrality.

One of the eight humanitarian vessels operating in the Mediterranean has already been impounded by the Italian authorities. The Iuventa, a boat operated by German NGO Jugend Rettet, was impounded on the Italian island of Lampedusa

“This looks like a reprisal,” says Ms Sahraoui. “The Italians are using administrative measures to try to halt the rescue operations, despite insisting that the code of conduct is voluntary.”

The Royal Navy is also involved in the maelstrom off the Libyan coast, as part of Operation Sophia, run from Rome. Their mandate has just been updated, and now includes training the Libyan coastguard.

But the Libyan coastguard has a poor reputation.

MSF says it has evidence that the Libyans use force, including firearms, to escort any migrants back to their shores. Once in Libya they will be sent to the country’s notorious detention camps, where thousands of men, women and children are left to rot with little hope of ever making it to Europe. 

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Photo: Getty
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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.