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Five years ago I had the dubious honour of interviewing a representative from the Flemish far-right party Vlaams Belang.
After listening to this woman spout some paranoid nonsense about the police being “afraid” to enter parts of Brussels “where Muslims rule”, I asked if she had anything against me. As an Irish national, I am a foreigner in Belgium, I explained. That wasn’t a problem, she replied, because “you are probably the same religion as us”.
The disaster off the coast of Lampedusa reminded me of that bizarre and unsettling conversation.
In the mid-nineteenth century, my ancestors fled hunger and destitution in “coffin ships”, frequently dying onboard. Mass emigration is haunting Ireland once again today. Yet unlike the Africans who perished before they could reach the Italian shore, we can usually travel in safety.
Adjusting to a new life abroad is never easy. But, at least, demagogues will take kindly to us because we share the same race – or, as they prefer to call it, religion.
Sometimes, though, I am not sure if the gap between extremist parties like Vlaams Belang or Golden Dawn and more “mainstream” politicians is all that great.
Nick Griffin, a British National Party thug now sitting in the European Parliament, once provoked a furore by arguing that boats carrying migrants should be fired upon. If Griffin had been a little more nuanced, then his proposal would have differed little to official EU policy.
The immediate response of Cecilia Malmström, the EU’s home affairs commissioner, to the Lampedusa disaster was to tout a new border surveillance system called Eurosur. According to Malmström, the system will help the authorities rescue boats that get into difficulty after it becomes operational in December.
Contrary to what Malmström has indicated, Eurosur is not a humanitarian initiative. Rather, its primary focus is
addressing what the European Commission calls “illegal immigration” – a repulsive term as travelling from one country to another in search of a better life is not a crime.
Eurosur is partly the fruit of a €15 million scientific research project launched in 2010. Though mainly funded by the EU, the project had a heavy participation from top weapons-makers like Britain’s BAE, the Franco-German firm EADS and Spain’s Indra.
This is one of several EU-financed schemes relating to maritime surveillance. Another one, OPARUS, examined how drones can help to detect Africans or Asians trying to enter Europe. BAE, EADS and the French companies Thales and Dassault are all taking part in it. So, too, is Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), a maker of drones used to bomb civilians in Gaza.
I’ve challenged Malmström a couple of times about why she wants to train warplanes on some of the world’s poorest people. She has tried to fob me off by claiming the fact that drones can have violent applications is a mere coincidence.
There can be little doubt that the EU is taking an increasingly militarised approach to questions of migration and asylum.
Frontex, the EU’s border management agency, will have a significant role in overseeing Eurosur. The agency is headed by Ilkka Laitenen, a Finnish brigadier-general.
Laitenen sits on the advisory board of Security and Defence Agenda, a “think tank” reliant on funding from the arms industry. He and his staff are also in regular contact with the European Defence Agency, a body established to drum up business for this continent’s weapons-makers.
Frontex, too, has been shopping around for drones deemed suitable for tracking migrants. It is known to have invited Israeli and American drone manufacturers to display their deadly wares to its staff. The US Department of Commerce has advised the country’s arms producers to keep a close eye on Frontex as it may provide “export opportunities”.
Cecilia Malmström has rightly been critical of the Greek authorities for approving a tiny number of asylum applications and systematically refusing asylum to refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that Malmström supervises the work of Frontex, an agency that has helped Greece to abuse the right to asylum. In January 2011, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that Greece’s detention centres for asylum-seekers were in such a dilapidated state that keeping people in them was tantamount to torture. Frontex has provided buses for transporting asylum-seekers to those centres.
It stands accused, therefore, of being a subcontractor for torture.
I couldn’t fail to notice that one of the main boasts of Britain’s Conservative Party at its latest annual conference was that it had brought immigration down. The boast should be seen against the backdrop of the wider ideological war being waged against the poor – both in Europe and further afield. Like any war, its main beneficiaries are those making the tools with which it is fought.
David Cronin is the author of the new book Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War published by Pluto Press.
A version of this article was first published by EUobserver.