Refugee crisis on the Greek-Turkish border: Europe’s liberal warriors put democracy to the sword

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The parties at the centre of Germany’s political landscape have often exhorted citizens to distance themselves from the right-wing AfD party. And yet, Europe’s response to what is happening on its outer border in Greece shows that the ruling centre has itself assimilated some fundamental nationalist ideas. An essay by Stefan Buchen

Recognising Europe’s political intentions is quite easy this time around. Unambiguous actions have made these aims more than clear. Greek police officers have formed a phalanx at the border crossing and are shooting tear gas at refugees whom Erdogan has let through from the Turkish side. Anyone who secretly makes it over the fence or across the Evros River is hunted, captured and brought back over the border to the Turkish side. Boat refugees who reach Greek islands are beaten up by European civilians. The EU border control agency Frontex is sending reinforcements to Greece.

And Europe is demonstrating its political will no less clearly in words. “We cannot take you in here,” says Friedrich Merz from the CDU, a candidate who aspires to lead the “middle-of-the-road” camp in Germany and succeed Angela Merkel as Chancellor. As justification, Merz suffices himself with saying that a “loss of control” must not be allowed to happen again. This is an abbreviated variant of radicalism that ignores the question “Are we really allowed to act like this?”

Unlike Merz, the European Union politician Manfred Weber from the CSU has deigned to explain things in more detail. In an interview with Deutschlandfunk radio, he cites a legal justification for the complete sealing off of the outer borders. When asked if this is in fact permitted, the answer is yes.

The hysterical fear of a “collective assault”

Weber refers here to a decision handed down by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in February. The court found it admissible to reject two asylum seekers, a Malian and an Ivorian, at the border between Morocco and the Spanish exclave of Melilla, without allowing them to state their case.

Many children are among the refugees on the border of Greece and Turkey (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)

Name your price, Erdogan: the EU Commission’s only plan to defuse the refugee drama and the conflict with Turkey is to offer more financial aid for the refugees. As the news agency AFP learned from EU circles on Thursday, the agency plans to provide a further half a billion euros for the 3.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. According to the report, the money is to come in addition to the six billion euros promised to Ankara in a refugee agreement concluded in 2016

Such instant dismissals are prohibited under international law. All EU member states signed the convention that sets down this ban. The ECHR justified the legality of denying the two Africans the chance to submit asylum applications by saying that they tried to climb over the border fence, thus disturbing public safety and order.

CSU politician Weber is now applying the same argument to the situation on the Turkish-Greek border. A “collective assault” on the European border is taking place there, he claims. Therefore, the police have the right to shoot tear-gas at those approaching the border. Manfred Weber compares the situation on the border with demonstrations in Germany that have escalated into violence. Here too, the police have the right to resort to force.

A collective assault? That makes it sound like an invading army. But that is not how the more than 10,000 refugees who have approached the Greek border are behaving. First, they were turned back. Then there were isolated violent clashes between refugees and police. But the vast majority of those seeking asylum have abstained from any violence. And what about the families with children who are toughing it out on the border? In the doctrine of constitutional law according to Manfred Weber, all of them must be assumed to be participating in a collective assault.

“These are not individuals who are saying they would like to apply for asylum in Greece,” asserts the prominent member of the CSU during the radio interview. It would be hard to conceive of any more categorical way to deny the right of the individual to request asylum. This is the more detailed variant of radicalism. It is predicated on classic victim-blaming: because the migrants have launched “a collective assault”, it is permissible to push them back by force.

Nationalism and extremism have arrived at the centre

The policy of radical isolation is being supported by the spokespeople of Europe’s ruling parties, who like to call themselves the “centre”. They are thus signalling to the nationalist fringe that they have adopted its demands as their own. The ideals of the AfD, Front National, Vlaams Belang and FPÖ have been incorporated into the policies of the CDU and SPD, of Sebastian Kurz and Emmanuel Macron.

These politicians and parties see themselves here as representing the interests of the state. The only question is: which state? Can this still be called democracy? That would appear doubtful, because some of these warriors of the centre have begun to turn nationalist ideology into constitutional law.

Democracy means that basic rights such as the right to life, health and self-determination are not limited to the narrow confines of a nation’s own people. When democracy denies these rights to people outside its national borders, it has abandoned its ideals.

Infographic showing the position of refugeess on the Turkish-Greek border and on the Aegean island of Lesbos (source: DW)

No end to the refugees’ misery: Turkey opened its borders to the EU last Saturday. According to Greek authorities, thousands of refugees were prevented from crossing the border. The situation on the border is linked to the overcrowded refugee camps in Greece itself, especially on the Aegean islands such as Lesbos. Greece is not prepared to accept any more people. Meanwhile, the UN children’s aid organisation Unicef has called for the protection of minors on the run. Of the 13,000 people gathered at the Greek-Turkish border, an estimated 40 percent are families with children, said Afshan Khan, Unicef Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia

Whoever prospers thanks to the globalised and barrier-free economy while trying to keep all misery and despair in the outside world at bay behind fiercely guarded fences and walls is only playing at democracy, in a kindergarten that is as spoiled as it is unworldly. Such people have either forgotten the true meaning of democracy or never learnt it in the first place.

Who is using whom?

A popular rhetorical device in the current debate is to say that the refugees are merely being “used” by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his own ends. Radicals have always been identifiable by how they say things that are true in and of themselves, while methodically stripping them of their broader context.

Tens of thousands of refugees have been languishing for years now in overcrowded camps on the Greek Aegean islands. Children there have been diagnosed with a strange form of psychosomatic apathy. Minors are committing suicide. Is Europe not also “using” these people? Most definitely, because they serve as a living deterrent against further migration to the European Union. The message sent out to the world is: you, too, will end up in this wretched camp!

Europe is reducing itself to a set of small-minded individuals trying to defend their own fortress. The war against unarmed and helpless migrants seems to be a war that can be won. Une guerre à la mesure de l’Europe, one would say in French. Some may see this as erstwhile imperial greatness coming home to roost. It is above all, however, the flip side of those ideas that Europe did not invent but was largely responsible for refining and popularising throughout the world: human rights, personal freedom, international solidarity.

War in northern Syria as Europe looks away

The situation in Idlib is undoubtedly part of the wider context of the crisis on Europe’s outer borders. Eye-witnesses say that some people there are meanwhile convinced that this is the end of the world. Europe wants to have as little as possible to do with the political events unfolding in northern Syria. Anyone who doesn’t believe it need only note the lack of response to the calls by the German Foreign Minister for an armistice.

And yet the historical connections between the Idlib region and Europe are extremely close. Predating Dante Alighieri by three hundred years, the region’s most famous son, the poet Abu ‘Ala’ al-Ma’arri described a visit to hell. Who knows whether, were he to return there now, he might not meet up with Friedrich Merz, Sebastian Kurz and other representatives of the radical European centre?

BY: Stefan Buchen

© 2020

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

The author works as a television journalist for the ARD political magazine “Panorama”.

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