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Events on the Polish border are part of a bigger picture

The latest refugee crisis is but an aspect of the ever-tightening Fortress Europe policy that began to take shape in 1991-2 with the end of the cold war and the dawn of a supposed ‘liberal golden age,’ writes KEVIN OVENDEN

ON THE eastern border of Poland a righteous villager lights a green lamp in a window on a freezing night to send a coded signal.

It is to desperate people hiding in the forests to let them know that help is available at that house.

In so doing, the household knows it will come to the attention of the special squads of armed men who are hunting down the refugees. Perhaps of the state, perhaps fascist vigilantes. Hard to tell. Independent journalists are banned. It is a state of emergency.

What is happening on the Polish-Belarusian frontier is not the Holocaust. But European and British leaders who tritely intone about learning its lessons are showing a remarkable capacity to close their ears to its echoes in the same ancient woodlands eight decades later.

As for the line that “excesses” in Poland may be regrettable but are explained by a monster further to the east, it is not quite the absolving argument the European Union thinks it is. At least for anyone with an ear for history.

The authoritarian government in Belarus is of course trying to exploit this crisis for its own gain — principally to ease sanctions placed on it by the EU. 

But Alexander Lukashenko is merely a pantomime villain to obscure the much more fundamental mischief. That is a murderous policy, three decades in the making, that operates throughout the EU. It includes Britain, as it remains aligned with Fortress Europe in these respects.

Boris Johnson has sent a further military detachment to Poland to help in the construction of a Trump-style border wall. A British-Polish arms contract has just seen missiles delivered. The Tory Party has the closest relations with the hard-right governing party of Poland.

Events elsewhere in Europe this week illuminate the central issue. Over 1,100 desperate people managed to cross the Channel from France to Britain. Three did not. They drowned.

The government of Emmanuel Macron in France sent in notorious shock police of the CRS to smash up an impromptu refugee camp in Dunkirk. 

The uniformed thugs saturated tents and belongings with urine and pepper spray. There is lots of Punch and Judy between Johnson and Macron over post-Brexit relations. They are in lockstep in bashing refugees. 

An aircraft of the Sea Watch civil rescue mission spotted a rickety boat in the Mediterranean heading north from Libya. The spotters say calls for help were ignored by government vessels. When rescue belatedly came, 10 refugees on the lower deck had died from suffocation.

On the island of Lesvos in Greece a trial began of 25 people on Thursday. Among them is Irish national Sean Binder. They are accused of people-smuggling and similar crimes because they stood watch on the beach and went out to save refugees from drowning. 

An equally absurd case reached the Greek supreme court on Friday. The prosecution is the kind of breach with international norms over human rights and against immunity for state killing that Priti Patel wants to legislate in Britain.

Another week would see a modestly different permutation of drownings, state repression and racist exclusion — from the Canary Islands along a vast and bloody arc stretching anti-clockwise all the way round to the Baltic states. It inscribes the richest region on the planet, though one that is obviously bitterly class divided.

Anyone who thinks that what is happening on the Polish border is some distinct horror produced by two especially illiberal governments has not been paying attention — for a generation.

It is but an aspect of the ever-tightening Fortress Europe policy that began to take shape in 1991-2. The expansion of the EU, on the train of Nato pressing eastwards, was heralded as a golden liberal age.

But insofar as border posts within the free-market bloc came down, so higher and higher rose the barbed wire around the continent.

From the beginning that meant a permanently expanding set of hard-state and European repressive mechanisms. The Schengen Agreement for relatively free internal movement went hand in hand with a Schengen Information System database aimed at non-EU nationals. 

Then fingerprinting of asylum-seekers. Then the Kafkaesque European border agency Frontex. Then easier deportation of non-EU nationals. Now biometric ID cards...

That was before the war on terror. It both boosted the security state and also fused in state-policy issues of migration and asylum with terrorism and security. 

Britain’s David Cameron and Germany’s Angela Merkel concurred at the 2011 Munich security conference that to this conjunction of issues must be added a “muscular liberal” rejection of the strawman they labelled “multiculturalism.” Opposing racism at home came to mean being soft on terrorism abroad.

The other thing the “war on terror” did was to make many more refugees and to destabilise one area after another on the European frontier. 

The starving and freezing on the Polish-Belarusian border are mainly from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. The Iraqi nationals are Kurds fleeing what is hailed as a success story in the north of their country. In reality it is a Western-backed gangster state run by two rival mobster families.

Thus the further raising of the barbed wire when in 2015 some consequences of those wars and great power politicking reached Europe with the movement of the Syrian refugees through Greece and into the interior.

The European states could not halt that surge to safety. They could set about stopping more. The mercenary EU-Turkey deal paid the authoritarian Erdogan government to clamp down on the movement of Syrian refugees. 

If people from criminal gangs to leaders of petty states now view refugees as a currency, it was the oh-so-civilised EU that minted the coin and fixed its exchange rate.

Trade, aid and military policy across north Africa to below the Sahara, had already been geared to stopping refugee and migration flows and ensuring that cheap inputs to European industry would not be accompanied by migrant workers following the fruit of their labour. 

Now that went into overdrive. Recall that authoritarian president in Sudan ousted by a popular uprising? He had an aid and trade deal with the EU provided he stopped poor people getting to Europe. The deal remains intact under the counter-revolutionary military regime that is shooting dead protesters in the streets today.

The same across the region — sometimes buttressed by direct military force, such as the abortive French-led intervention in Mali. Always supported by wealthy European corporate capitalism. 

You buy a shirt made in a Tunisian sweatshop. The high street name pockets a profit. It allies with those stopping Tunisian labour from working in Europe and with those in Tunisia restoring the old authoritarian rule. These are the effects of Europe’s “civilising mission.” As much as a century ago.

In his Discourse on Colonialism the great Martinican radical Aime Cesaire argued that one way to understand the Holocaust in Europe was as if all the filth and barbarism that had been practised by European imperialism on its frontiers and in its colonies had become concentrated and had refluxed back into the imperial metropolis. There to produce barbarity on an industrial scale.

What happens on Europe’s (and Britain’s) frontiers will happen in the interior. We have already seen how it generates and renews racism. 

When nearly a million Syrians passed through Greece six years ago over 80 per cent of Greeks, suffering from the worst austerity in Europe, said the government must help the desperate people from the east. 

It was only when so-called progressive forces and the whole political apparatus imposed a violent mechanism of exclusion that the better side of mass opinion became overshadowed by the worse.

We see it with rising authoritarianism. The excuse of a threat across the border is used to remove fundamental and democratic rights at home. 

Legal holes are formed. Like black holes they suck into them more and more established checks on state power. France tries to ban taking photos of police. Poland does it. A Dutch journalist reporting on refugees in Greece is advised by her embassy to get out because it is not safe. Outrageous sentences for non-violent protest in Britain. 

Each authoritarian and racist twist acts like a ratchet mechanism. Whether those doing it are constitutional liberals or racist national-conservatives, as in Poland and Hungary, it lowers the threshold for worse. 

By pointing to an external threat, the previously admonished Polish government is now hailed across Europe as holding the frontier against a modern Asiatic despotism.

Every tear gas canister in Poland fired against refugees authenticates in France the fascist Marine Le Pen and the racist demagogue Eric Zemmour in advance of the presidential election next April.

Like a sorceror’s apprentice, mainstream politicians adopt further panicked measures. The result is that immigration is the highest concern of voters in France. 

According to the World Values Surveys and other measures France has long had worse popular attitudes to migrants and ethnic minorities than Poland or Hungary. 

It’s not the people. It’s the politicians. There is more than one green lamp alight in Poland. In recent weeks there has been a large pro-refugee demonstration. 

The counter-protest to a fascist mobilisation was bigger than previously and the racists’ smaller. There is a massive women’s movement against the near total ban on abortion. 

Civil society and political mobilisations will take place this weekend in Austria, Germany, Britain and elsewhere. A large refugee contingent was firmly at the centre of the annual mobilisation of the Greek working class in Athens. That is where this question belongs. 

It is not a specialist NGO or foreign policy issue. 

It is a vital issue for the labour movement. What they do without journalistic witness on the border, they will do to us on the street or in our homes or at work. 

No Fortress Europe. No Fortress Britain. Let these people in.


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