The role of the parliamentary left in facing the EU’s racist policies

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© European Union 2017 – European Parliament. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


The current migration agenda dominating mainstream political discourse in the EU is racist and led by the extreme right. When the European Parliament’s present term started in 2014, it was only Members elected on openly fascist tickets, like Marine Le Pen, who expressed support for the externalization of borders known as the “Australian model”. Sending migrants to detention centres in third countries, in which they may never even have set foot, far away from public scrutiny or human rights guarantees, seemed like – and is – an extremist idea which would only be voiced by racists.

Today these ideas are heard from all heads of state, no matter their political colour. Deporting as many people as possible while closing off and militarizing borders is the openly declared goal of the EU. This enormous shift towards the right is led by conservatives, liberals and social democrats, the political families that have sustained the EU’s political mainstream for the last decades.

They have turned migration policy into one of the main pillars on which the EU sustains itself. The old neoliberal mantra of “there is no alternative” has spread from imposed austerity policies to encompass aggressive migratory policies, too. Most importantly, with this shift they have taken the decision not to challenge the far right politically in one of the areas it exploits the most. Therefore, they allow the racist narrative to spread. In Europe, it is now radical to defend basic human rights and instruments of international law such as the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Despite this difficult context, there has been a huge movement of solidarity and activism that has once again proved that people can organize and defend what is right despite living in states that lack solidarity and impose unfairness. There has been an unprecedented level of coordination, self-organization and work on a European level, and alliances have been created with activists on the other side of the Mediterranean. Much of this has been done by activists putting their own lives at risk to save others, for example in sea rescue or to stop deportations. These kinds of movements and alliances are of huge importance; they show the potential of the migration issue to raise awareness of the unfair nature of our nation-state system and to create change. The issue has long been discussed by European leftists, but needs to be taken more seriously as we resist EU racist policies. Unfortunately, a large share of the parties of the radical left in Europe have been unable to see this opportunity. Particularly in the case of those comfortably sitting in institutions, the parliamentary left has been unable to pay the No Borders movements the attention they deserve.

When people on the left ignore what happens outside institutions and decide to put the centre of resistance inside parliaments, it is very easy to end up going with the flow. In a time when mainstream discourse is falling into a racist black hole, this also means shifting to the right. The No Borders movements, activists and allies are proving to be the only ones capable of challenging and sometimes even blocking the EU’s racist policies. If, instead of being part of them, the left chooses to reach agreements with social democrats or other forces responsible for these policies in the first place, there is only one way to see this: as a whitewashing of the central role of all EU institutions in the construction of the racist model.

This is not to say that the left has no place in parliaments or running in elections. Our presence there is fundamental to establishing alliances between movements, to obtaining information on policies and holding those responsible accountable, and to making our position heard as clearly as possible. It is a given that we must also work on a more technical level, as any small change that will slightly improve someone’s life is positive. Nevertheless, we cannot get lost in the bureaucratic labyrinth and change our political discourse. The goal of the left cannot be a more humane Fortress Europe with a few human-rights safeguards. Our goal is to demolish the fortress.

Our countries are some of the richest on the planet, and if their administrations cannot provide a decent standard of living to everyone, including migrants, it is either because of a lack of political will or because of the draconian public spending policies imposed by the EU itself. It is not, as some might argue, tied up in the political differences between the three European institutions (Council, Commission and Parliament); these have practically identical political majorities. We cannot imagine that we can change policies by participating in this charade of internal power struggles. If we do so, we are merely whitewashing a system that has a clearly undemocratic and extremely opaque nature.

Therefore, each time a representative of the left speaks about the “refugee crisis” he or she buys into the false idea of massive arrivals that exceed all ability to cope, an idea which both the EU and the far right are trying to spread. Each time we present the Dublin Regulation as the solution, we are contributing to the idea of migrants as a burden that must be shared. The Dublin Regulation is built on premises that objectify non-Europeans and ignore their positive social and economic contributions to host societies. It also ignores their freedom of movement by forcing them to reside in a certain country – something completely hypocritical and racist in a political construction that prides itself on being an area of, theoretically, free movement.

The idea of people having to register in their first country of arrival (most often one impoverished by EU austerity and in which they do not want to remain) and then wait to be distributed somewhere else is a policy designed by the richest countries in the EU as a way to keep out as many people as possible. Stripping people of any agency to choose where they wish to seek asylum is a xenophobic idea that cannot be supported by the left. The reality is that people go where they can find protection or where they have friends or relatives – choices any human being can understand and relate to. Restricting these choices creates unnecessary suffering and enforces the idea that migrants are a burden. Neither Germany nor Sweden were ever on the verge of collapse because of an increased number of people arriving. On the contrary, both countries welcomed refugees; the “crisis” only began when they decided they would rather not invest in public spending.

Another extremely problematic concept that the left in Europe seems to have incorporated into its basic vocabulary is that of “integration”. This is a concept that essentializes identities, ignoring our own historical realities of diversity and the presence and contributions of non-European people in Europe. Societies and cultures are constructions that have been historically shaped through diversity, and the left cannot be the side rallying to preserve them as if they were pieces in a museum. The discourse of integration has been used to impose assimilation, force monolingualism on people, and discriminate against those who are perceived as different. The left should rather speak about inclusion in order to guarantee migrants the same rights as the rest of the population, in particular when it comes to labour rights, education and health care. We know all too well that liberals who pose as welcoming migrants are ready to use the opportunity to attack and worsen labour rights for all by enforcing different laws, rules and standards for migrant labour.

It is our responsibility to create an alternative narrative, a narrative based on equality of all people. This new narrative is incompatible with the EU as we know it, and completely incompatible with positioning ourselves in favour of any of the mechanisms of Fortress Europe or its vocabulary. We must stop playing into the power games of governments and EU institutions and learn from the social movements that show us that it is possible to obtain tangible changes in people’s lives through direct action and a radical discourse. This is why we work for a much closer alignment between these movements on the ground, who are successfully resisting Fortress Europe, and the parliamentary left.

The resources of the parliamentary left needs to be used wisely to strengthen our common interests of resisting a capitalist, militarized and racist EU. We need to start the dialogue on the role of global freedom of movement in our political vision, incorporating both the No Borders movements and workers’ movements. We all share the common goal of a world without exploitation, and we must be able to get together and recognize our enemies. These enemies are not foreign workers forced to accept lower salaries, but the economic powers who are responsible for exploitation all over the world; those who create the situations that force people to flee their countries, and those who profit from the fruitful business of closing the borders.

Today the radical left is the only space of resistance against the externalization of borders, against deportations, and against the militarization of our borders and seas. If we are unaware of the intrinsic value of these positions, they become nothing more than negotiating points, and we risk moving away from them forever.


Nazanin Sepehri and Jon Sebastian Rodriguez Forrest are activists and political advisors for the united left in the European Parliament. A version of this article was originally published by inEUmanity.