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After the latest migrant deaths in the Mediterranean – smash Fortress Europe

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Dave Sewell looks at how racist scapegoating and migrant deaths are bound up with the bosses’ European Union—and argues the alternative lies in workers’ solidarity
Issue 2451


Migrants in the sea off of the coast of Lampedusa in 2013
Migrants in the sea off of the coast of Lampedusa in 2013 (Pic: UNHCR Photo Unit/flick)

In Britain scapegoating migrants often goes hand in hand with bashing the European Union (EU). The racist Ukip party is even named after its demand for “independence” from Europe.

So it can seem that beating the bigots means defending European integration. 

Even some trade union leaders argue the EU represents international solidarity. But it’s hard to square this with horrific images of drowning refugees. 

The Spanish state has made its African territories’ borders with Morocco a deathtrap, with long breakwaters that force anyone trying to cross it to swim much further. 

Border guards shot and killed at least 11 swimmers last February.

Many refugees who survive the crossing from Libya into Italy are detained in a former US air base.

In Greece, anti-racists and anti-capitalists were protesting against “Fortress Europe” as its leaders held their emergency summit on the Mediterranean crisis last Thursday.

Leading activist Petros Constantinou told Socialist Worker, “There is a very direct relationship between the EU and the mass murder of refugees.”

He explained, “In 2008 the EU pushed directives that require governments to close borders, open detention centres and imprison refugees for 18 months. It practically cancelled the right to asylum in southern Europe.

“The Greek government voted for this. Then it built a wall along the Evros river between Greece and Turkey, stopping refugees from crossing on foot and forcing them into the boats. This is why so many have drowned.

“They built concentration camps. People fleeing wars are harassed by police, rounded up, and tortured.”

Another EU directive makes airlines financially liable if they carry “illegal” foreign nationals into member states. 

In theory this excludes refugees, but in practice the distinction is meaningless. This stops refugees reaching Europe comparatively cheaply and safely by plane.

These tougher external borders have been the flip side of the Schengen agreement, the process of abolishing border controls between many European countries.

Britain doesn’t take part in Schengen, and has its own “wall of shame” around the port of Calais in northern France.


The pressures for states to cluster together in regional blocs—and the obstacles to them doing this—are one of the defining issues of today’s politics. This reflects long term developments in capitalism.

Capitalism is built on contradictions. One of them is that competition is central to the system, but it tends to create monopolies as successful firms swallow up weaker ones.

The state has always been integral to capitalism, and is shaped by all its contradictions.

One if its many roles is to use its military or diplomatic might to help firms based in its territory out-compete their foreign rivals. 

In this way competition between firms can spill over into competition between states.

But since the 1970s huge “multinational” firms began to dominate Europe’s economy.

They still need states. But they seek markets bigger than most individual states can provide. 

And facing different currencies and regulations in each place they operate can be an obstacle to maximising profit.

Meanwhile, small states with vanishing empires feared losing out to the superpowers. 

These two pressures have driven Europe’s rulers towards integration—from unifying the coal and steel industries across six countries in 1952 through to today’s host of EU institutions.

The logic has only grown more compelling, but the process has never been smooth.

Bosses in different industries have different priorities, particularly in the short term, and compete to impose them on the state.

Part of the state’s role is to override these internal rivalries with a long term, national capitalist strategy. 

But the EU lacks the coherence to do this. As well as competing bosses it faces 27 state bureaucracies vying to put their economies on top.

Deeper political integration could help Germany’s rulers gain international influence. But those of Britain and France fear losing influence outside Europe in their old empires.

Only 1 percent of Britain’s top bosses supported leaving the EU in a recent poll, but almost half wanted to “reform” it into something looser.


City bankers need the pound to remain a major currency. Arms manufacturer BAE considers its “home markets” to be Britain, Australia, India, Saudi Arabia and the US. 

And small firms worry that more international competition would see them gobbled up.

But many manufacturing and distribution firms operate across Europe and would benefit from closer integration.

States overcome some of these problems by cultivating a sense of national identity. 

As well as imposing shared interests on competing firms, it helps trick workers into identifying with their own bosses instead of workers abroad.

This is central to the vicious double game the bosses play with migrants.

Socialist author Jane Hardy explained, “They have sought to balance the need for migrant workers to fuel expansionary periods of capitalism against picking up the bill for reproducing and maintaining these workers.”

Revolutionary Karl Marx described the bosses’ need for “a reserve army of labour”—people who can be hired and fired according to the season or the state of the economy. 

Bosses scare their employees into taking worse conditions by threatening to replace them with these unemployed workers.

Immigration also lets them dodge “the costs of renewing the labour force”. 

The state hasn’t paid for migrants’ education or early years care, and often excludes them from benefits and public services.

But at the same time our rulers hound migrants with racism and discriminatory rules. This helps bully them into accepting lower wages and pushes pay down across the board. 

Workers can only fight this by organising together, so they try to divide settled workers against migrants to stop this.

This ideological baggage can frustrate the process of European integration.

EU leaders often express frustration when eurosceptic politicians attack workers from Europe. 

Many see a compelling case for expanding the EU eastwards, and are horrified by the scapegoating of migrants from these countries. 


But they have helped foster the racism it draws upon.

The lies they use about the effects of immigration from outside Europe don’t stop at its border, whether that’s bogus claims about wages or attacks on multiculturalism.

Bringing ideas that dehumanise one group into the mainstream creates a space for other types of racism to follow. 

Years of Islamophobia and scares about asylum seekers laid the ground for Nigel Farage’s attack on Romanians. And racist ideas underpin the whole European project.

The name Mediterranean—meaning the middle of the world—reflects the way that sea links its shores together. 

Greece, Spain and Italy have as much shared culture and history with North Africa and the Middle East as they do with northern Europe. But the EU has turned it into a dividing line.

Petros said, “There’s an Islamophobic argument that being in Europe is being part of the civilised world against the non developed world. 

“Even under the left government, foreign minister Nikos Kotzias called on the EU to support Greece so the ‘jihadis’ don’t get into Europe.

“Now the debate is about getting other European countries to share the ‘burden’ of refugees. These are both reactionary arguments. Refugees aren’t a problem. We want to welcome them.”

This shapes how socialists relate to the EU. Petros argued, “When governments play the racism and scapegoating card, they feed the far right.

“But they back up their words with racist measures that come from the EU. You can’t look to the EU institutions to oppose them because they have all the same problems.

“The blackmail to make Greece continue with austerity comes hand in hand with racism pushing to keep refugees out. 

“It comes with European imperialist military interventions. The solution is the same. We have no reason to compromise with the EU.”

In Britain, calls to leave the EU come from the right. But international solidarity means standing with the workers the EU helps exploit and the refugees it locks out—not the bosses it enriches. 

That’s the argument that neither Ukip’s bigots nor Europe’s rulers can stand.

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