Many years ago Franco Solinas, the scriptwriter for Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece The Battle of Algiers, was asked by an interviewer why the French colonel Mathieu – a pragmatic exponent of torture – was portrayed as ‘ too much of a gentleman in fatigues, excessively noble. He is elegant, cultured….’ Solinas replied that ‘ There is no intention to create nobility. Mathieu is elegant and cultured because Western civilization is neither inelegant nor stupid.’
I’ve often found myself thinking of Solinas’ s observation, while watching the way that European politicians have responded to the continent’s ‘migration crisis’ during the last weeks. Listening to these politicians one would easily be forgiven for thinking that European governments mulling over the crisis are motivated by nothing more than the noblest humanitarian principles.
Last week I watched the French prefect Fabienne Buccio and other officials justifying the demolition of the Calais ‘jungle’ as ‘the most humane option’. Buccio was photographed, looking earnest and concerned, as police demolished the shacks and tents that have gone up since the summer. On Channel 4 News I watched the French ambassador to the UK similarly describing the demolitions as a humane act intended to improve the living conditions of the migrants stranded there.
Similarly humanitarian arguments have been put forward again and again by European politicians to justify actions that often have a very different purpose. But while politicians talk of destroying smugglers’ ‘ business models’, saving lives and preventing dangerous journeys, the unstated objective of the European Union and most of its member states remains the same as it has always been: to prevent people from coming to Europe by an unacknowledged policy of deterrence and repression.
In recent weeks, this policy of repression has intensified up and down Europe’s borders, as men, women and even children have been teargassed and attacked by police, in migration ‘hot spots’ up and down the continent’s frontiers. Consider the list of requests for border protection equiptment from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to a meeting attended by Austria and a group of nine Balkan states on 24 February to discuss how to close the ‘Western Balkan’ route for undocumented migrants.
The list was leaked by the excellent EurActiv website, and its requests give an indication of Macedonia’s priorities – and those of the states to whom the requests were sent. In addition to engineering equipment to build a 300 kilometer security fence and a 400 person capacity camp, vehicles, and expenses to cover the ‘technical capability of an army’, its demands for ‘equipment for crowd control’ include
- Crowd control dispenser
- OS spray (pepper spray)
- “TASER” X26 – an electrical device
- Weapon with rubber bullets
- Special bomb (shock, with rubber balls)
- Acoustic device to break the mob
- Launcher (grenade with rubber balls)
According to EurActiv, the only objection from the states that received these requests was that this equipment might be used for ‘internal repression’ in the lead-up to Macedonia’s snap elections in June. ‘External’ repression, against migrants and refugees, it seems, is not a problem.
There is a grim logic to these developments. For years, Europe’s policy of deterrence has been based on the belief that the worst things get for migrants, the more likely they are to stop coming. The events of the last 12 months have made it glaringly obvious that this is not happening. In these circumstances, Europe must either reconsider this policy and consider more humane solutions – or escalate the level of deterrence still further.
Despite the brief shift towards the former by Germany and other states last summer, Europe as a whole has remained firmly committed to deterrence, and last night’s breakthrough deal with Turkey is no exception. Europe now proposes to send all refugees back to Turkey, and it has even sent NATO to the Aegean to make sure that this happens.
In effect, the EU has bribed Turkey – a country with a population of 75 million people – to take primary responsibility for absorbing the refugees that Europe – a continent with a population of 500 million – regards as a ‘crisis.’ Not only will Turkey accept all refugees ‘readmitted’ from Europe, but it will also take on responsibility for ‘readmitting’ them to their countries of origin.
To achieve this, the EU has empowered the gangster government of Recep Tayib Erdogan to take on the role once played by Colonel Gaddafi, and turn Turkey into a migrant holding ground and dumping ground for Europe’s unwanted refugees, even as Erdogan’s government is engaged in a reckless and headlong assault on Turkishcivil society and democracy. No wonder Erdogan’s crony Ahmet Davutoğlu can’t stop smiling – you can’t blame him really.
This sleazy deal should be shameful and disgraceful, but Europe’s leaders, it seems, no longer feel any shame when it comes to migration. They no longer appear willing even to uphold the principles on which the European Union was founded. The treatment of refugees in Idomeni, Calais, Dunkerque and so many other places suggests that they are no longer even concerned to uphold elementary principles of civilized behaviour.
But even as they depart from these standards in practice, European governments continue to proclaim their commitment to refugee protection in principle. So no one should be surprised to hear Donald Tusk, Cameron and others, boasting that they have ‘solved’ the migration crisis, even as Europe’s governments squirt migrants with tear gas and ask for tasers and rubber bullets.
Because no matter how thin and threadbare Europe’s civilized mask becomes, there will always be politicians who will never stop wearing it, and who, like Colonel Mathieu, remain ‘elegant and cultured’ even as they oversee the ongoing barbarity taking place at Europe’s borders .