Immigrant factor

Print edition : July 22, 2016

Migrants walk past a graffiti reading "London my dream" written on a tent, at the "Jungle" camp for migrants and refugees in Calais, France, on June 24, a day after Britain voted to leave the EU. Photo: PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP

Volunteers help migrants and refugees on a dingy as they arrive at the shore of the north-eastern Greek island of Lesbos on March 20, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey. Photo: Petros Giannakouris/AP

French gendarmes stand guard during the eviction of around 200 Syrian refugees from a camp site in Calais, northern France, on September 21, 2015. Photo: AFP

The refugee influx, triggered by wars imposed by the West on Libya and Syria, is one of the reasons for Brexit and the call for national referendums on E.U. membership in other European countries.

A KEY ISSUE THAT PROMPTED THE BREXIT vote was immigration. The right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), led by Nigel Farage, the leading proponent of Brexit, circulated a colourful poster with the title “Breaking Point” showing hordes of refugees looking like Arabs and Asians jostling to get into the U.K., just before the British people cast their votes in the June 23 European Union (E.U.) referendum. After the results of the referendum were announced, there were incidents of racial abuse, mostly against people from eastern Europe. This correspondent, who was in London during the Brexit campaign, could see first hand the emotions at play on issues relating to immigration. Interestingly, from available data, most British citizens of Asian and African origin also voted for Brexit. They, too, were not happy with the fact that many of the low-paying and unskilled jobs were being taken by newcomers from the new E.U.-member states from eastern Europe.

Right now the racist anger may be directed at Poles, Bulgarians, Romanians and other East Europeans but it is only a matter of time before non-white citizens, too, face discrimination as the British economy faces a meltdown. The British media, which played a key role in the pro-Brexit campaign, focussed on “lazy” East Europeans and Greeks, “scary” refugees and “Brussels bureaucrats”. Forty-seven per cent of those who voted for Brexit were of the view that immigration had proved detrimental to the British economy. However, Britain’s National Institute of Economic and Social Research provided statistics showing that immigrants had actually boosted the country’s gross domestic product and lowered the cost of the National Health Services.

Far too many immigrants

Many prominent mediapersons were seen on television channels opining that the U.K. had “too many immigrants” and that it was advisable to keep a close watch on immigrants from Muslim countries. Prime Minister David Cameron has on several occasions made comments against threats to British society posed by a growing immigrant community. Surprisingly, the Dalai Lama, during a recent visit to Germany, told a German newspaper that “Germany cannot become an Arab land”. Pandering to growing anti-immigrant feelings in Germany, the Tibetan leader said that there were far too many immigrants in Europe. In 2015, more than 300,000 refugees crossed the Mediterranean Sea. Thousands have died in the perilous crossings. The preferred destination for the refugees was Germany.

The U.K. is among the countries that have accepted the least number of refugees. The few who have managed to get in have been deprived of their rights for welfare benefits. The British newspapers, which revelled in stories about crimes committed by a few asylum-seekers, portrayed the refugees streaming into Europe as a threat to the British way of life and said that they would “swamp” the country. One of the main talking points of the pro-Brexit campaigners was that staying in the E.U. would lead to an influx of immigrants from Turkey into Britain. All the top Brexit campaigners, including Farage and Boris Johnson, repeated this falsehood. The Remain campaign was not far behind. Hillary Benn, sacked in the end of June from Labour’s shadow cabinet, had argued that the U.K. should remain in the E.U. to block any possibilities of Turkey becoming an E.U. member.

Germany and France, two powerhouses in the E.U., have made it clear on several occasions that there was no question of admitting the Muslim-majority country with a population of over 75 million into the E.U., which is essentially a club comprising Christian countries. Admitting Turkey into the E.U. would change the population demographic of the E.U. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had held out the bait of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens within the E.U. provided the government in Ankara stemmed the refugee flow into Europe from West Asia.

In fact, it was the refugee influx, triggered by wars imposed by the West on Libya and Syria, that gave a fillip to right-wing and racist parties all over mainland Europe and Britain. The waves of refugees heading for Europe first started coming through Libya, after the brutal overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi. The Libyan leader, had at the prompting of the E.U. and Italy, drastically curtailed the movement of economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. During his long rule, only a trickle of migrants was able to make the dangerous sea crossing to Italy. Cameron and his ideological soulmate at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, the then President of France, had led the campaign for regime change in Libya in 2011. The United States, to use President Barack Obama’s term, preferred to “lead from behind” at the insistence of his two North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies, France and Britain. Obama has indirectly blamed Cameron and Sarkozy for the Libya misadventure.

Obama, however, allowed his Secretary of State at the time, Hillary Clinton, to take a hands-on role in Libya, using the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and British MI6 to distribute the large amounts of sophisticated arms Qaddafi had accumulated to rebels in Syria who later metamorphosed into groups such as the al-Nusra Front and the Daesh. The consequences were there for all to see. Syria and Iraq were devastated, with a significant section of the population having no other option but to flee or be killed. Many of them naturally looked for refuge in Europe. But the U.K. and France, the two European countries most involved in the wars in Libya and Syria, were also the most unwelcoming to refugees. No lessons have been apparently learnt. In the U.K., both the Leave campaign and the Remain campaign had reiterated their strong support for NATO, which is currently ratcheting up tensions along Russia’s borders. If Ukraine once again plunges into a war, the refugee problem will be further accentuated.

The E.U. has been callous in its response to the horrors unleashed by recent NATO wars, beginning with the Balkans in the late 1990s and the invasion of Iraq. In fact, the E.U. has been central to NATO’s military programme. It is not a coincidence that the headquarters of both the groupings are located in Brussels. The fear that the NATO alliance may crumble along with the unravelling of the E.U. is a cause for concern in Washington. This was the main reason why Obama campaigned forcefully for the U.K. staying in the E.U.

Britain has been the U.S.’ strongest ally and has played a key role on its behalf in Europe. Britain has been described as the U.S.’ “Trojan horse inside the E.U.”. It is the only leading European country to blindly support all the military adventures of the U.S. in West Asia and elsewhere. France and Germany had criticised the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

With Britain’s departure from the E.U., the foreign policy of the E.U. could see some changes. Statements from French and German Foreign Ministers indicate that the two countries are not enamoured of the NATO build-up along Russia’s borders. Many E.U. members feel that NATO should have instead focussed on the cross-Mediterranean threats to European security. The migration crisis could have been blunted and a key factor for Brexit thus neutralised.

It is the nexus between the U.S., NATO and the E.U. that is responsible for the refugee crisis in Europe. NATO’s wars in West Asia and Ukraine triggered the refugee crisis, which has affected all E.U. countries. Twenty-two E.U. members are members of the NATO military alliance. Mainly because of the refugee crisis, many of the left- and right-wing parties in Europe have become vocal in their criticism of the close ties between the E.U. and the U.S. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Far Right National Front party, who is currently leading in the polls in France, wants the country to distance itself from NATO. Left-wing politicians in Germany have criticised NATO’s recent moves against Russia. The German Foreign Minister, Frank Walter-Steinmeir, even accused NATO of “warmongering” against Russia.

After Brexit, the U.K.’s Foreign Secretary, Phillip Hammond, said the “Kremlin will be happy with the results”. During the campaign, Cameron, resorting to vicious scare tactics having racial overtones, had stated that a “leave” vote would make it harder “to combat Russian aggression” and would make both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Islamic State’s emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi very happy.

Much of the vote for Brexit came from the British middle class and the working class. The “Leave” vote has been described by many left-wing commentators as a vote “to withdraw” from the U.S. model of neoliberalism which has been ruining Europe. George Soros, the billionaire investor who wants the E.U. to remain in place, noted in his recent Project Syndicate article that “tensions among member states have reached a breaking point, not only over refugees, but also as a result of exceptional strains between creditor and debtor states within the eurozone”.

French exit

In many European countries, right-wing parties that are growing fast in popularity, mainly because of the migrant crisis, are demanding national referendums on E.U. membership. Marine Le Pen, whose party is expected to get more than 40 per cent of the votes in the first round of national elections to be held next year, has been among the most vocal supporters of a French exit from the E.U. Right-wing leaders in Hungary, Poland and Slovakia are openly hostile to immigrants. Hungarian President Viktor Orban has announced that he will hold a referendum on the refugee issue. Hungary is against the quota for refugees that each E.U. country has to accept. The Slovakian government had initially stated that it would not accept any Muslim refugees. Another openly anti-immigrant party, the Northern League in Italy, has been calling for a referendum. In Greece, the Golden Dawn Party, which is openly racist, has emerged as the country’s third biggest party.

Meanwhile, left-wing parties such as Podemos in Spain that have come up in the wake of the E.U.’s austerity-driven policies will also be more critical of the E.U.’s policies. After the Brexit vote, Spain has renewed its demand for the return of Gibraltar, which is situated on the Spanish mainland. The small enclave has been under British occupation since the 18th century. The U.K. could also lose E.U. support for its continued occupation of the Malvinas (Falklands). Britain and Argentina had fought a war over the island in the 1980s. Spain, however, could meet the fate that many have predicted for the U.K. If a centre-left coalition comes to power in Madrid, it will in all probability allow referendums on independence to be held in Catalonia and the Basque country. The anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which has a good chance of coming to power in Italy when elections are held next year, is also a Eurosceptical party.

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