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By Les Back
The European commission's enthusiasm for "diversity talk" is connected to an admirable yearning to see Europe as a place of refuge to those facing persecution.
The desire for a more integrated Europe is in part a response to the shadow that Nazism cast over the ideals of European civilisation. But the experience of those seeking asylum in Europe today is closer to this past than many in Brussels would find comfortable.
Recent years have seen a convergence by centrist governments in western Europe with regard to migration policies, including the Lisbon treaty, the returns directive and the proposal for a European blue card. Taken together these shifts have effectively hardened the attitude of European states on the issues of border control.
The blue card immigration policy is more selective, favouring those migrants who will be a resource for Europe. The initial version of the returns directive proposed in September 2005 aspired to a fairer treatment for so-called "illegal migrants". This included a European mandate for free legal support for migrants, more regulation with regard to the use of detention, as well provision for the education and treatment of minors in detention.
However, under the influence of European council presidencies of Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, the final version passed at the first reading was significantly less sympathetic to the plight of displaced and undocumented people. The amended directive gave member states sole responsibility to preside over all rulings regarding legal aid and detention, and the result has been a hardening of both attitude and policy.
Deportation – a technique rarely used by European states within the 20th century, with the exception of Nazi Germany – has become normalised as an essential instrument of European migration policy. In the UK, the "fast-tracking" of deportation within 72 hours of notification was only last month deemed in the high court to be "unlawful". Under the Dublin regulation, asylum seekers can be removed to their first entry point into Europe – providing it is an EU state – without any assessment of their asylum claim. Since 2004 almost 500 children have been removed from the UK under this EU rule.
When it comes to refugees seeking asylum European political conscience seems to have evaporated.
Mainstream centre and centre-right political parties – including David Cameron and Nick Clegg's Conservative Liberal-Democrat coalition – have toughened their position on immigration, adopting more draconian forms of control.
People are more mobile than at any other point in European history. It is also true that the borders are moving as border control techniques have extended beyond continental Europe, particularly on its southern borders.
The Spanish fence separating the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the Moroccan side of the strait of Gibraltar is a case in point. The fence has become a pressure point where the desire of sub-Saharan Africans to move towards Europe is met by physical efforts to keep them in their place.
The "treaty of friendship" between Silvio Berlusconi's Italian government and Libya is another good example of a mechanism to net and inhibit movement. Migrants caught by the Italian coastguards are transported to Libya without having their asylum claim considered.
The charity Human Rights Watch characterised Libya as having a "dismal record of abuse and mistreatment of migrants caught trying a to flee the country by boat, and cannot seriously be regarded as a partner in any scheme that claims to protect refugees". This is not only an outsourcing of immigration control but it puts at a distance any sign of the human costs of Europe's immigration policies.
The historian Perry Anderson describes the recent depictions of Europe's success and civility as being inhibited by an "illimitable narcissism", a kind of self-satisfied political vanity that congratulates itself on the European checkpoints devoid of their power, the comparative success of the euro and the mobility of people within the enlarged EU. This vision of what Europe is turns away from its complicity with human rights abuses experienced by the deported in places such as Libya and the faces behind the fence at Melilla.
The enthusiastic proponents of a resurgent Europe would do well to remember the words carved on the grave of philosopher Walter Benjamin – a failed asylum seeker fleeing the Nazis, who took his own life in 1940 after being refused entry at a Spanish checkpoint. Inscribed on his granite memorial in Portbou are the words:
"There is no document of civilisation that is not a document of barbarism."The unpalatable truth is that Europe wants to sift humankind and admit only those people who have useful skills and capacities while keeping the rest of the world in its place, at a distance.
Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is cosignatory to an open letter against xenophobia in Europe