Immigration is the latest issue to expose the instability of the European Union (EU). Together with countries’ debt problems, it reveals how the world economic crisis is putting strain on the union.
Politicians are scapegoating immigrants to try and shore up their support. But this also reveals underlying tension in European politics.
In Britain we hear most about eastern Europeans from the countries that joined the EU in the past decade, such as Polish workers who have come here.
Many countries have undermined the supposed “free movement of labour” within the EU by imposing employment controls on workers from eastern European member states. But such restrictions came to an end at the start of this month—for all countries except Romania and Bulgaria.
Across much of the EU a bigger issue is the breaching of “Fortress Europe” by migrants from outside the union. This has emerged in a row between the Italian and French governments.
France, along with various richer northern EU states, worries that the EU’s impenetrable borders created by the 1985 Schengen agreement have become too porous for their interests.
After the Middle Eastern and North African uprisings, various deals between dictators and the EU or specific European governments have broken down. Far fewer people on the North African coast are now prepared to stop people who want to travel to Europe.
Lampedusa is a small Italian island about halfway between Sicily and Tunisia. More than 25,000 migrants, mostly from Tunisia, have reached it and other small Italian islands since the start of the year.
The Italian government says that if it is not allowed to drive out the immigrants, the “burden” of dealing with them should be spread to other EU countries.
A spokesperson for aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres said, “The Italian authorities have responded in an ad hoc and wholly inadequate manner despite knowing that the number of boats arriving always increases every summer and that the war in Libya would inevitably force many thousands more to flee.”
Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi wants to blame migrants for the country’s economic problems. He vowed in March to clear the island of migrants—and has shipped thousands to centres on the mainland.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy, meanwhile, has complained that Tunisians are leaving camps in Italy and coming to France. He demanded that France should be given some way to control the migrants.
EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom has said most EU countries will be allowed to temporarily impose border controls.
In addition, the EU will create a border patrol and “boost surveillance” of Europe’s frontiers. And it will attempt to re-establish deals with North African governments.
There is a split between Europe’s richer northern governments and the poorer southern ones.
But for the ruling classes, the problem is made infinitely harder to deal with because most countries are also split internally.
Immigration is being used as a red herring. Both Berlusconi and Sarkozy have already used the issue of immigration in an attempt to distract attention from their own problems.
In 2009 Berlusconi said, “The left’s idea is of a multi-ethnic Italy. That’s not our idea. Ours is to welcome only those who meet the conditions for political asylum.”
And last year Sarkozy deported hundreds of Roma from France, itself breaching the spirit of the Schengen agreement. Both face political crises at home.
Of course Britain’s Tory immigration minister Damien Green moans that Tunisian migrants may not stop in France but instead come to Britain to find work.
Some bosses want to encourage immigration to develop their economies, while others demand controls. Many ruling parties take contradictory lines.
That tension is exaggerated by the nature of the European Union.
The Europe-wide ongoing project to create a single market meant the establishment of the euro currency, internal free movement of labour and capital, and a single set of economic laws.
This is an ongoing attempt to make the EU able to compete with the world’s dominant economies—the US and China.
But opening internal borders came with the creation of “Fortress Europe”, making it much more difficult for anyone to enter from outside.
To create a single European economy required the EU to do two things that some individual countries had already done to develop as capitalist nations.
It set about creating a single market with one currency, the euro, controlled by a central bank.
It also attempted to “harmonise” trading laws across the EU area.
And it created a single trade area with the Schengen agreement.
The Schengen agreement creating “Fortress Europe” was initially
signed in 1985, and came into effect in 1995.
It includes all EU states, other than Britain and Ireland, and abolished some internal travel restrictions inside the EU.
“Fortress Europe” was about constructing a barbed wire fence of regulations at the borders of the EU.
This was backed up with gunboats, prisons and officially sanctioned scapegoating and harassment of black and Asian people.
Britain has not taken part in either of these projects because successive governments have not wanted to break connections with the US or markets that remain from the old empire.
So the news here has not concentrated so much on worries about setbacks to the project that some commentators now worry might lead to its collapse.
The majority of business in Europe thinks it is helpful to have a large market with one set of rules.
The growth of EU institutions also helps European business to compete more effectively against the other economies.
But the economic crisis has meant the near collapse of some of the EU’s weakest states and has called the aspirations of European rulers into question.
When the crisis first hit, the debts of the entire banking system were guaranteed by governments across the world. Now the debts of the weaker states in the eurozone are being guaranteed by stronger states.
To pay for it, governments across the EU have launched a wave of austerity measures—attacks on workers.
But the ruling class has a problem—There is a nervousness about how far they can go without provoking furious opposition.
And there are splits and tensions between and within the elites.
Because the EU is a confederation of nation states, the crisis, rather than bringing the EU together, is intensifying the competitive rivalries among its members.
This ongoing crisis means continued efforts by bosses to use immigration to divert attention and to divide us.
In that context, standing up against racist divisions and attempts to make workers pay for the recession becomes all the more urgent.
Stand up for migrants and against racism
One reason given by successive British governments for keeping the wider EU project at arm’s length is to maintain London’s role as a financial capital.
We are told that it is a great benefit to the country that money can move freely. But for some reason it is not considered a benefit for people to be able to move.
Workers have moved around the globe since the beginning of capitalism—whether forcibly stolen for the slave trade or as part of the mass migrations that created the modern US.
Despite the risks, many migrants are still prepared to travel. Some are fleeing from war in Libya—others are “economic migrants” who know that they can earn far more in the West.
The contempt with which they are treated contrasts with the experience of the world’s rich, who take for granted that they can travel wherever they wish, or of the middle classes who assume economic migration is a right.
The media doesn’t attack British doctors who travel to the US to get better pay or engineers who go to Dubai.
And it doesn’t mention the way the West’s banks strip profits from poorer countries across the world.
Workers sometimes believe that the only way to defend their conditions is to go along with ever harsher border controls.
But going along with the bosses’ demands weakens workers’ ability to reject what many on the left call the “bosses’ Europe”.
Contrary to the propaganda our leaders peddle, workers in Britain, France or Poland have far more in common with each other than with the bosses in their own country. And all share interests with workers in Tunisia, Egypt and Burkina Faso.
Workers who have been inspired by the uprisings in North Africa will not be hard to convince of this.
We are against “Fortress Europe” and for tearing down all the racist immigration laws—whether drawn up by the EU or national governments.