By Avila Kilmurray

December 2018 – the ‘Salvini decree’ passes in Italy, abolishing humanitarian protection from migrants that have been deemed ineligible for refugee status but that can’t be deported back to their country of origin.  In Denmark, the Danish Government joined forces with the Danish People’s Party to adopt a plan to move up to 100 migrants that have been denied asylum but that can’t be deported, to the uninhabited, remote island of Lindholm.  It had previously been used to research infectious animal diseases.  A pro-government lawmaker acknowledged that the plan may well breach international law but added that his party doesn’t mind ‘challenging (international) conventions.  Meanwhile, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Austria and Italy join Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, in refusing to adopt the UN Global Compact on Refugees agreed in Marrakech.  Orbán had already made clear his view on refugees, and Muslim refugees specifically.  In an earlier interview for the German journal, Bild, he was forthright – ‘We don’t see these people as Muslim refugees.  We see them as Muslim invaders’.   December – the month of Human Rights week and the International Day of Migration; offering stark insight into a tortured European soul.

Writing on the wall?

The Social Change Initiative (SCI) invited Hope Not Hate (UK) to share its insight into the plethora of parties, groups and on-line platforms that comprise the extended clan of the Extreme Right, the populist Far Right, the Alt-Right, the Alt-Lite and obsessives that find a home in reactionary conspiracy theories.  The meeting of activists and practitioners on migration issues was organised to seek to untangle the cat’s cradle of thinking that creates space for hate and phobias of all descriptions.  Berlin was an appropriate venue at the heart of Europe.

Three weeks before the Berlin gathering, Warsaw had been the site of nationalist fervour, with a sea of white and red flags marking Polish National Day – an event colonised by the Far Right.  The outgoing Mayor of Warsaw moved to ban the demonstration on the grounds of ‘aggressive nationalism’ but was overruled by the courts and current government.  President Andrzej Duda announced that he would lead an official march along the route already marked out by forces such as the National Radical Camp (ONR) and the All Polish Youth.  Far Right symbols featured on some of the flags carried by the 200,000 – 250,000 marchers.  Right-wing solidarity from across Europe was also in evidence in this confluence of right-wing electoral politics and Far Right street protest.  The Polish event was a stark example of where the previous ‘cordon sanitaire’ between what is acceptable and what is deemed too edgy becomes frayed and stretched.

(Polish National Day demonstration – November 2018)

The rise in a ‘populist’ vote across Europe over the period 1998-2018 has encouraged centre-right parties to shuffle further right-wards attempting to stem a possible haemorrhage of votes to parties even further to the right.  This minuet of repositioning equally served to maroon social democratic parties in an uncertainty over totemic issues such as migration.  Although ‘populism’ itself (positing the ‘pure’ people against corrupt elites) is ideologically unhinged, our current decade has been marked by advances in right-wing populism across Europe.  The 2008 economic crash fuelled ‘a populism on steroids’ with people feeling ‘left behind’ and ignored by a politics that seemed increasingly remote from the vicissitudes of making ends meet.

The extremes are invariably the hunting ground of the self-perceived white, male ‘victim’, clawing back a supremist identity that is modelled in a rejection of feminism, gays, Muslims/Jews and multiculturalism.  ‘Political correctness’ is seen as the bête noir and acceptance of ‘the other’ is decried as sell-out.  In the heady days of Trumpian triumphalism, Alt-Right insider, James Delingpole wrote a polemical piece for ‘The Spectator’ (30/7/2016) – ‘The alt-right are, if you like, the vigilantes of conservatism.  The regular authorities didn’t do their job to protect the conservative community from the marauding gangs of social justice warriers (think Mao’s Red Guard – only with hipster beards or feminist blue hair) strutting around the neighbourhood enforcing their oppressive rules.  So the alt-right stepped in instead.  And are now preparing to claim the spoils’.

Marking out territory, the unapologetic supremist posturing of the Alt-Right is given space and oxygen by Alt-Lite mouthpieces, such as Breitbart News, erstwhile roost of Steve Bannon.

Recent electoral trends may be seen as writing on the wall in Europe, but the good news is that it is still a minority tendency but not one to be treated with any degree of complacency.

What is to be done?

In the face of the ‘Salvini decree’, 40,000 marched to express their opposition to the Northern League policies in Rome and priests offered to open the doors of their churches to offer sanctuary to those evicted from Italian ‘Welcome Centres’.  A number of municipal authorities also stepped forward to express their opposition to the new regulations. Similar demonstrations of solidarity are taking place across Europe; but more needs to be done.

There are very genuine and understandable anxieties that the Far Right has played on with regard to immigration and refugee protection.  The fact that sub-Saharan Africa hosts many more refugees than Europe goes unnoted.  This cannot blind us to the fact that many Europeans fear the pressure on scarce (in relative terms) public resources; dimunition of cultural identity; and are worried about inadequate integration policies.  These fears have been honed by political rhetoric and media headlines that speak in terms of ‘swarms’, ‘crises’ and ‘floods’ of refugees.  And then there is the terror threat.  Progressives need to engage with these fears and not simply poo-poo them as racist or unfounded.  Public perception is still nine-tenths of reality for many.  People deserve to be listened to and engaged with.

SCI has commissioned public attitude research in France, Germany, Italy, Greece and Ireland which talks to people about their aspirations, hopes and fears, with specific reference to migration.  What is clear is that there are millions of people that have still to make up their mind about issues and policies.  They are sympathetic, but. . .  All is still to play for.

Progressives also need to make it easy for people to become involved by offering a range of options for participation – making micro-donations, retweeting, signing a petition, volunteering, meeting someone who is a refugee or a migrant.  Demystifying and humanising can effectively confront fear, hate and demonization.  Post-organisational networking is also called for to enable dip-in/dip-out activism and to encourage alliances with ‘unusual allies’ for many (faith-based organising and other sectors).  However, the real prize is to re-frame a European common-sense that accepts the reality that Europe itself has been fashioned by people on the move and that values of solidarity create much more comfortable communities than the policing of walls.

In the meantime, Hope Not Hate is keeping a weather eye on the Far Right on the basis that advance warning is always useful when charting adversaries.  2019 is the 80th anniversary of the global tragedy that was World War II.  It is also the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  There is learning in both for democracy and solidarity.  Steve Bannon spoke about the May 2019 European Elections as ‘a battle over the soul of Europe’:  bring it on.