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A message from the front line

Does Europe offer a model for a solution to xenophobia, or is it a major part of the problem; or is it just in a much more confused place altogether?
Laura Balbo
7 May 2011

Traditional ‘Europeans’ are worried. It’s not only fear of strangers: it’s the redefinition of ‘our’ space and uncertainty about ‘our’ future. Future developments, largely unexpected, let us stress that once again, will force us to redefine choices and policies that previously had been (differently in different countries) seen as ‘ours’ by definition. But now it seems that ‘immigration policies’ will have to be designed and ‘immigrants’ dealt with in a very different context.

Attention at present is primarily focused on France and Italy and the policy responses and ‘messages sent out’ by governments under the pressure of people flow, prompted by the violent confrontations with dramatic human costs in North Africa and the Middle East. What we are facing now is a process of change that ought to bring us, traditional ‘Europeans’, to reconsider how the Mediterranean space is defined, and how we are related to and confront political contexts and peoples that we had seen as far apart, different, actually as others.

How these events (ongoing conflict in Libya in particular) have been handled by the Italian Government is a widely discussed theme in our political sphere, public discourse and in the media. It all began with growing numbers from the other side of the sea reaching the island of Lampedusa. Within a very few days, the anticipation of further arrivals, difficulties in facing that, graphic images in the media had come to be regarded as a highly visibile challenge. A core concern for those in power was how to handle this in terms of domestic politics (elections were close, the Lega Nord was extremely vocal in its opposition to all forms of asylum). The EU was regarded as a major source of support, and the Italian Government had recourse to the EU at the very beginning. It immediately announced that money would be made available.

However, lack of adequate planning at the European level triggered a round of international debate. Back in Italy, the main problem was how to tackle the immediate challenge while anticipating further developments. Various arrangements were put in place, trying to face the immediate needs of those, in extremely distressed circumstances, who continued to arrive.

But accommodating these people raised a further issue - of increasing numbers of newcomers, not only from the Mediterranean area, but from other African regions. Immigrants from all over the world had reached Egypt in particular. A much more profound process of global mobility was thus for once made visible. This was immediately seen as having a ‘European relevance’, and dangerous implications.

Of course there were voices in some sectors of public opinion and in some political groupings, who made it clear that giving support to these people in their political struggle and solidarity in their present (and future) difficulties were crucial choices, reflecting fundamental values.

But political leaders and the media insisted that there were far too many of them and that they had to be sent back to their countries, or moved out of Italy (most of them towards France: Tunisians in particular were making it clear that this was their preferred destination). So the obvious next step involved granting ‘temporary acceptance’ documents which would allow all to move freely within the Schengen area. Hence, out of Italy: this was the goal.

The French Government immediately opposed this solution.

Increasing numbers of ‘immigrants’ have tried to reach the Italian/French border nevertheless. The first reaction was to refuse all those travelling from Italy entry into France. International television channels showed how many people had to pass through days (and nights) without being given any adequate assistance or any information. In the days that followed, controls were established at the border by French authorities. Those who did not have what was considered a sufficient amount of money were not allowed to move on into France.

At the end of April, Sarkozy and Berlusconi met in Rome: their agreements and ‘solutions’ were announced.

It is very clear that both feel the pressure from their ‘populist’ right-wing political rivals, Marine Le Pen in Front National in France and the Lega Nord in Italy, together with large sectors of public opinion in both countries. But beyond that. Economic and social problems are to be expected in the coming months (and years). Resistance to processes of change is to be expected. The sharpening of conflicting interests, and of course, forms of discrimination and growing xenophobia are one response.

A scenario-in progress is what we have to face that had somehow not been anticipated in a ‘traditional’ European perspective, despite Europe’s intimate knowledge of how this dynamic can develop.

So, we must work at redefining our near-term and longer-term future.

Hopefully, also, we might finally learn how to live in diversity, while taking into account ongoing social and political pressures (and considering how unprepared Europe appears to be to face them). Two aspects in particular demand our urgent fresh attention, the rising populism in many EU countries, and the relevance for Europe of present events in North Africa and the Middle East.

Just a brief comment looking at the past. In the post-war period, the project of adequate migration policies and institutions was seen as an important and feasible social and political objective in the Nordic countries, and in different ways and with different procedures in France, the UK, and Germany as well. ‘Newcomers’ were needed. Conditions of discrimination and inequality were present, but a variety of approaches and models to deal with this were developed in contexts which all had in common assumptions that a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, mutli-religious future settlement could be reached.

Putting it briefly: those circumstances made living in diversity a possible European framework, a common goal which would, of course, require a shared project and continuous engagement. But suddenly, we find ourselves in very different circumstances. Now we face, all over Europe, growing ‘institutional xenophobia’ and a pervasive ‘politics of fear’.

In many EU countries populist parties and a supportive public opinion have become a central political and social dimension (with somewhat different aspects and perspectives as to their future roles and positions). But common traits, which have been analyzed in a number of studies, are there for all to see: not only growing problems in the economy and in the labour market in particular; but increasing disaffection with the institutional machinery, national as well as European; and then there is the role of the media in stoking this fear. In all these different cases, the question of migration, and all the policies related to living in diversity have taken centre-ground, not lessening the fear and its attendant xenophobia, but adding to its thralldom.

A highly visible new generation of political leaders, markedly different as to their backgrounds and their policy proposals, as well as their highly personal ways of presenting themselves (in Italy, Berlusconi and Bossi must both be seen as interesting examples) have built strong support from large sectors of the population who have felt that they have no voice.

What is the alternative to their fear and xenophobia? Does ‘traditional’ Europe have an answer?

I would like to wish you well next week for Europe Day and your investigation of the ‘Uses of Xenophobia’, and also congratulation on the tenth birthday of openDemocracy. This is indeed a timely discussion.

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