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7 July 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 5:44pm

Defend Europe’s plan to block migrants is just the far right setting sail on the Med

Don't let them pretend they're motivated by anything except anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant xenophobia.

By Joe Mulhall

Researching the far right on a day-to-day basis becomes desensitising. Monitoring their publications, websites, forums, demonstrations and videos often means spending hours each day reading and watching appalling xenophobia as well as hearing of racist attacks and terrible hate crimes.

While it never becomes less abhorrent, it sadly becomes less shocking. Yet just occasionally the far right does something so extreme it is impossible to ignore.

Defend Europe is a new collaborative project launched by far-right activists across Europe. With over 2,300 people already dead on the Mediterranean this year, and more than 5,000 last year, Defend Europe has launched a mission to disrupt the lifesaving work of search-and-rescue NGOs working on the Mediterranean Sea, crowdfunding over €100,000 to charter a ship. In the words of Martin Sellner, a prominent Austrian leader of Defend Europe: “Now we are able to organise a real mission with a big ship that will cruise in the Mediterranean and block those NGO ships from going to the Libyan Coast.”

This could pose a serious risk of loss of life at a time when the situation on the Mediterranean is (again) reaching crisis proportions. Italy has been threatening to close its ports, Austria has placed armed patrols on its Italian border, Hungary has thrown up border fences to prevent crossings and EU states are squabbling over responsibility for the migration situation.

When the Defend Europe project was first launched – with a failed attempt to block an SOS Mediterranée ship from leaving a Sicilian port back in mid-May – most, understandably, thought it was merely a stunt. However, it has since upgraded from a small rigid inflatable boat to a Finnish-made research ship named Suunta, which is nearly 40m long and has a 422 gross tonnage. According to the group, the ship has “a range of 3000 nautical miles”, a “place for a crew of 25”, and a “crane for RIBs [small inflatable boats]”.

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Hope not hate has tracked the ship to the port of Djibouti on the east African coast, where it is shortly due to begin its journey before arriving at Port Suez at 3am on 13 July, with a view to travelling onward through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean to begin its mission.

We have been closely monitoring this situation and working to brief NGOs and activists. We have commissioned a comprehensive legal briefing that will outline the exact maritime laws Defend Europe could break should it enact its plans.

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We have also profiled key activists and provided an explanation of the far-right movement behind Defend Europe itself, which is drawn from a pan-European network of so-called “identitarians”.

This movement began in France in 2003 and has spread across various European countries (notably Germany, Austria, Italy, and the Netherlands), comprised mainly of young men in their 20s who emulate some of the direct action tactics made famous by environmental movements. They’ve occupied mosques, blockaded roads around Calais, scaled the national theatre building in Vienna, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and produced slick videos of each event, as well as of martial training camps, which are then shared on social media platforms.

The identitarians try to deny they are racist and talk of “defending European culture” and “remigrating” (forcibly repatriating) immigrants. But strip back the gloss and you have, at its core, a network of far-right activists who hold deeply anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant views, and who talk of a need for a “reconquista” in Europe (referring to the Christian recapture of Spain from the Moors).


As the international press has begun to pick up on this story, Sellner has started to significantly moderate his tone and portray Defend Europe’s plans as a “search and rescue mission”. However, a cursory glance at the people involved and what they have been saying about Defend Europe for the past month-and-a-half make such comments laughable.

Just a few days ago on BBC Newsnight, the Italian identitarian leader Lorenzo Fiato echoed Sellner’s earlier statements about blocking NGO boats. The group has even produced a graphic titled “You Shall Not Pass”, that depicts an NGO ship being blocked.

It is also worth remembering that the identitarian movement from which Defend Europe emerged is explicitly far right, with a long track record of being anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and espousing thinly veiled racism. A promotional video linked to the project states: “We are the generation of ethnic fracture, total failure of coexistence, and forced mixing of the races”, while a statement on Facebook from Italian activists explained that they blocked the NGO ship in May because it aided in the “ethnic substitution”, and they wanted to stop the “silent genocide against Europeans”.

International far right support

All of this requires huge resources, but lucky for Defend Europe their plan has excited huge interest and garnered economic support from across the international far right spectrum, totalling in excess of €100,000.

News of their plans have spread across the Atlantic with an article on the world’s largest neo-Nazi website, The Daily Stormer (currently being sued by a large US civil rights organisation for encouraging harassment of a Jewish woman), stating:

“This is a great initiative […] These parasites need to be inculcated with a deep fear of making the trip across the Mediterranean sea. […] Godspeed, men. Your ancestors are proud.”

Others on the American extreme far right have encouraged economic support, with David Duke, former “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan and a white supremacist veteran, tweeting to his 40,000 followers:

As well as funding support the project has resulted in an expansion of the far right identitarian network. We have already seen the “launch” – at present it is just a Facebook page – of Generation Identity Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, the “newest branch of the pan-European identitarian movement” which is another example of how Defend Europe is capturing the imagination of the international far right.

This is why it is so important to state clearly and unequivocally that whatever disingenuous justifications Defend Europe might offer for its possibly life-threatening plans in the Med, this is in reality a far right project, being carried out by far right activists, motivated by anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant xenophobia. 

Joe Mulhall is Senior Researcher for HOPE not hate. You can support or learn more about HOPE not hate’s campaign against Defend Europe here.