Once upon a time there was a fortress called “Brussels”…

Article published on June 30, 2003
community published
Article published on June 30, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Some people try to hold “Brussels” responsible for sealing its borders off from the third world to avoid facing up to the real problem and to save European societies from having to look at themselves in the mirror.

If there’s one thing that really gets up my nose, it’s when people talk nonsense. I understand that the immigration debate is one of the most complicated issues facing rich Western European societies, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t analyse the problem properly and with due regard. It’s complicated because it raises the issue of how we relate to ‘otherness’. We’ve succeeded in organising our lives through dialogue and democracy within the state, and we are developing a more flexible and original model to embed this modus vivendi at a European-wide level. But this model takes no account of the foreigner, the outsider if you like, the immigrant. This messes up our calculations, makes life more complicated and is a major headache. Either we reappraise the model and look for a solution which suits everyone or we exclude the “alien”. The first solution is of course highly complicated and would, for the majority, mean changing a model which works in the name of gratuitous altruism. The second idea is more sensible but its disadvantage is that it runs counter to the principles that underpin a democracy: solidarity, liberty…and, of course, being so hypocritical is a bit of a nuisance too isn’t it?

Schengen, or how people who used to be immigrants can now move freely within the EU

And yet the first option is possible, at least in part. The European Union is per se based on the national model of the State which allows all its people freedom of movement [within the EU]. A Spaniard or a Portuguese in France used to be immigrants but that is no longer the case. They don’t need to produce any visa or passport if they are stopped in the street and they don’t have to ask for anyone’s permission to be in Paris. They are no longer immigrants under the Schengen accords. The same will happen with the ten new Member States from Eastern Europe. At the moment a Pole in Spain is an immigrant, but in the very near future he/she won’t be. And further on down the line, the same will happen in the Balkans, who will undoubtedly be joining the EU. So when someone criticises Schengen, it’s worth remembering what it has achieved. The same people who spend all day saying that the EU is only a liberal economic union also say that the EU’s aim is to batten down the hatches to keep out third world immigrants and that Schengen is a new wall of shame.

First of all, this statement is not completely false but we do need to qualify it. In the recent EU summit in Thessaloniki, we saw that, thankfully, Tony Blair’s project to set up “transit centres” was rejected by his fellow leaders. “Transit centres” were to have been set up outside EU borders as places where EU asylum-seekers would have waited for their applications to be processed. The proposal, lambasted by most human rights people, was probably in contravention of the Geneva Convention and would have been a truly repressive solution, but Europe has not adopted it. Europe (thank goodness!) still believes in human rights for foreigners too.

Secondly, the decisions are not taken solely by “Brussels”. At the moment, and subject to further changes, most EU immigration issues come under the so-called “second pillar”, or JHA (Justice and Home Affairs) of the EU. So the States have particular powers in the decision-making process and the Commission has less power than in other areas. This explains why Blair can put forward a project, where in the “normal” operation of the European Community, the Commission has the sole right of initiative. In these latter areas the Member States are implicitly and gradually accepting that the Commission deals with particular areas. At the moment, for example, the JHA commissioner, the Portuguese Antonio Vittorino, can propose the establishment of a joint patrol for the EU’s external borders, but has his hands tied when it comes to integrating the immigrant or safeguarding his/her rights. And yet, he has succeeded in having two important directives adopted in recent months – one on keeping families together and the other on the status of long-term foreign residents. So don’t for a minute imagine that in Brussels there is a group of very unpleasant people who are only there to make sure the darkies don’t get into the EU, because, as everyone knows, the darkies smell. No, they are competent people who are pretty aware of the problems raised by immigration but can only do what they are allowed to do. Brussels cannot dictate that borders are opened with Arab countries or anything remotely similar. Nor can they decide to seal the borders off for good.

No more room at the European “inn”, or so we’re led to believe...

What Vittorino is trying to do is to keep focussed and emphasise the importance of safeguarding human rights, the role of immigration in the progress of the European economy and in the welfare systems, the need to ensure a minimum level of cultural and social integration for the immigrants and their offspring. And he’s doing this in a climate which favours the repressive solution – the post-September 11 climate full of fear of Islamic terrorism. What he would like to highlight is that Italy is governed by a three-party coalition – the Northern League, party of the rich north, racist not just towards foreigners but also to southern Italians, the post-fascist National Alliance party (need I say more?) and Forza Italia (which is not really a party at all), the private property of a man who regards western civilisation as “superior” to Muslim civilisation. I would like to point out that in Spain, in 2000, the electorate gave an absolute majority to a party which defended a tough line on immigration throughout its campaign against a party which sought greater flexibility and respect. I would like to point out that a year ago, on April 21, more of the French electorate voted for the fascist, homophobe and racist candidate than for the socialist prime minister and that, today, in the same country, the most popular politician is undoubtedly the Home Office minister, also an advocate of “firm” police tactics. And look at how even in England the British National Party are making inroads at every election – a fact that partially explains the Labour government’s stance. And in Holland, the country of tolerance, little more than a year ago a guy who said “Holland was full up” was the big posthumous winner at the elections. And then look at what happened in Denmark and Austria…

So, with this situation in various countries, in an area where “Brussels” has its hands tied, some would still have us believe that the Commission, this technocratic body, is the one battening down the hatches to keep the immigrants out. But for goodness sake let’s stop this nonsense. If anyone is battening down the hatches, it’s the voters. And that’s a much more serious problem, which has to do with education, a sense of tolerance and the solidarity of our rich societies.