How will EU debate impact migrant solidarity?

A talk given by Anindya Bhattacharyya at the recent London2Calais summit about how the migrant solidarity movement can respond to the debates around migrants in the context of the referendum on Britain’s EU membership.

Protesters march against deportations

Photo: Steve Eason, Peckham Community Pride, Feb 2016

I want to talk in general terms about the political situation in Britain, and the way that debates around migrants are playing out, especially in the context of today’s news: people might have heard that David Cameron that 23 June will be the European Union referendum. That’s going to be a very divisive issue on the left and on the right. I don’t want to argue about that so much as some of the consequences of that referendum for the wider campaign for migrant solidarity that we’re all involved in. I also want to end with a few pointers to where the movement can go from here, and how we can operate over the next few months in what’s going to be a very difficult political climate.

I’ll start with a picture of how the EU referendum will play out politically. It comes at a time of crisis and splits on both the left and the right. I should put my cards on the table and say where I stand on the referendum. It’s something that I’ve been toying with for a year or so, but last year, seeing the way that the great powers of Europe clubbed together to enforce ‘fortress Europe’ on fleeing refugees in a murderous fashion, meant that I could not vote to put any illusions in the EU as an institution. As an institution it plays a role in the world imperialist system that means I cannot support it. However, I don’t think that that’s the main issue that we need to be arguing about here, because I think there’s something deeper underlying it: the question of migration, which in many respects has kicked off the political crisis around the EU that we see today.

Let’s start by looking at the right of politics and the Conservative Party. It’s in crisis: it’s very split on this issue and historically always has been. What we’ve seen is essentially David Cameron making more and more moves to appease the hard racist right of his own party, specifically as well to try to stop Conservative voters from defecting to Ukip. This has led to him campaigning to stay in the EU, but on a very racist basis. His basic pitch will be: “Vote for me, because I’ve negotiated these things with the EU which mean we can bash the migrants. I’m going to tough on migrants and borders.” On the hard right, you’ll get people saying “You’re not bashing them enough: we need to have even tighter controls, close everything down, deny them all benefits.” That kind of thing. This is going to cause problems inside the Conservative Party. We’ve already seen that a very senior Conservative columnist, Tim Montgomerie, has resigned from the party in disgust at what’s happening. We should not for one moment think that Cameron is arguing these positions from a position of strength: he’s arguing from a position of weakness as part of crisis management in his own party on the right.

On the left, however, there are also major splits and disagreements. I’m personally quite sceptical of the Labour Party even though Jeremy Corbyn is now in charge, but I was very heartened to see Corbyn say that he would stand against any attempt to attack migrant benefits by Cameron. However, the moment he said that, there was an instant wave of reaction from the right of the Labour Party, saying this was electoral suicide, wasn’t realistic, etc. So Corbyn will have a tough sell with that policy inside the Labour Party. You will see a whole series of people who up till now have essentially been quite liberal on the question of immigration (not because they are in favour of human rights for all, but because they’re in favour of making things easier for capital), specifically the Blairite right of the Labour Party, starting to say, “No, there should be controls on immigration. It’s electoral suicide to argue otherwise.” In other words, their position of principle that they are in favour of immigration, the moment it reaches the first test it’ll crumble.

There are problems with some of the left wing arguments to leave the European Union, even though I support that position. There are a number of trade unionists and trade union leaders, and particularly on the left of the labour movement, who are basically saying that one of the problems with the EU is that foreign workers are coming here, and this is driving down the wages of British workers. Now I have to say that this is an absolutely toxic argument. It’s the argument that the National Front used in the 1970s. It’s a “British Jobs For British Workers” argument and the left should have nothing to do with it whatsoever. Whatever our objections to the EU are, it is not that workers are coming here. In fact my objection to the EU is not that there is to an extent free movement inside it, but the ‘fortress’ that they’ve put around it, the police with gunboats, etc.

We will see, over the months leading up to June, all sides of this debate or pseudo-debate, competing and almost tripping over each other to see who can bash the migrants the hardest. Obviously on one side you’ll get people like Ukip supporters. But the other day, I saw a massive newspaper story in the Evening Standard: a warning that the Calais camp would move to Folkestone. And this was coming from the pro-EU campaign. The pro-EU campaigners were saying that if we don’t vote to stay in Europe, Calais will come to Folkestone and all these migrants will come over here. This will give you an impression as to how both sides are going to be using these racist anti-migrant arguments. I think that in that situation it’s going to become very important for us on the left, and for the solidarity movements around migrants that has sprung up in a very inspiring fashion, to plant our flag and state clearly that we are against all immigration controls for people coming into and out of Britain, and all immigration controls for people coming in and out of Europe. Very few people will be saying that, and I think it’s a responsibility of the radical left to be saying that as loudly as possible in the next few months.

I want to say something about the bigger picture. A Marxist academic and friend of mine Mark Bergfeld put it very well when he said this is not a crisis of refugees, but a crisis of borders. What we’re seeing is that the border system, and the border policing system across Europe, is coming under pressure, partly because of the waves of migrants fleeing wars in the Middle East; but also partly because those migrants are not merely passive victims: they are trying to organise themselves and are actively trying to tear down those barriers. Therefore we talk about not sympathy but solidarity, and solidarity with them as active subjects, helping them tear down those borders.

One of the issues we need to start thinking very closely about is Islamophobia. Obviously there has been a long-running campaign against Muslims in this country: the Prevent legislation that people are fighting on campus, in particular NUS Black Students, is an example of that. But there is a specific factor in that because so many migrants currently fleeing wars in the Middle East are Muslim, that anti-Muslim rhetoric and anti-refugee rhetoric are starting to merge. You saw this very clearly in the way that the attacks in Cologne around the New Year were reported. You also saw it in a right wing Polish magazine, wSieci. The cover had a picture of a white woman with her clothes being torn off by brown hands, and “The Islamic Rape of Europe” as the slogan. You can see how all these things are coming together.

Recently I tried to get to an anti-fascist demo in Dover, but we were stopped by fascists and police in Maidstone. I was tweeting about the experience, and got loads of Nazis attacking me in return. All of them on Twitter were banging on about Muslims, refugees, rape. That was their constant drum beat. That is going to be a particularly toxic line to be aware of. We need to resist islamophobia within our movement as well as outside.

I want to end on a positive note. I’ve been watching this issue, and campaigning against racism and anti-migrant racism for a very long time. In recent months, seeing organisations like London2Calais emerge, as if out of nowhere, the huge demonstrations in solidarity last year, and a series of demonstrations coming up like 12th March at Yarl’s Wood, and others in London on the 27th February and 19th March. There’s clearly a mood out there — a minority mood at the moment but a strong one — of people who are fed up at the constant wave of filth in the Daily Mail and from politicians, and want to take a stand against it. Things like London2Calais, things like the Yarl’s Wood campaign, things like the anti-UKBA raid, are all part of this. It’s our responsibility to reach out to all those people who are fed up with this rubbish and consolidate that into a movement that can actually defend migrant rights.

I’ll end with one example from ten years ago. People remember George Bush for what he did to Iraq, but one of the things that killed him domestically was in 2006 he tried to launch an attack on immigrants in the US. The Latino community in particular came out in their millions to resist him. That broke the Republican Party politically: it meant that their backers left, they split, and they’ve never completely managed to recover since. So when you can get masses onto the streets, when you get large numbers of people standing up and saying, “We are going to stand side by side with migrants,” that puts manners on the politicians and press, and it starts to turn around the situation where we’re constantly on the defensive and starts to move into a situation where we can push our anti-racism and our universal values in a meaningful way, and to a much wider sphere.

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