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The Tragedies in the Mediterranean: Challenging Hypocrisy and Examining Brexit’s Impact

Jim Newell from Another Europe's National Committee reflects on the latest in a series of deadly tragedies caused by our refusal to recognise our shared humanity and responsibility.

The news on Thursday morning of the latest in a long series of tragedies in the Mediterranean – the drowning of at least 78 refugees off the coast of Greece with hundreds more missing – raises three crucial issues for those of us campaigning against Brexit.

In the first place, with all the sanctimonious condemnation of so-called ‘people smugglers’ that inevitably follows these tragedies, and with the availability of low-cost air travel, you might have wondered why the refugee would attempt to come to Europe using the former option (with all the expense and danger involved), rather than the (much more straightforward) latter option. The reason is that European countries, including the UK, force airline staff to act as border guards. That is, if an airline brings someone to the UK without the correct paperwork, then it is obliged to return the person at its own expense. That is why airline staff check your passport before they let you on a flight. However, you can only claim asylum if you can first get to the country you want to claim asylum in. The authorities know full-well that it is impossible for refugees to obtain the necessary visas that would enable them to board flights and so come to the UK to claim asylum legally. Consequently, it is they who are responsible for the endless tragedies in the English Channel, the Mediterranean and elsewhere – not the so-called ‘people smugglers’ they disingenuously condemn.

In the second place, our campaign against Brexit is at least partly based on our opposition to the racism, xenophobia and intolerance that underlay the Brexit project to begin with and which has been its increasingly evident consequence. Racism and xenophobia are often said to be the consequences of the rise of UKIP and other right-wing populist parties in Europe in recent years. While it is true that these parties help nourish these sentiments by capitalising on people’s economic insecurities, the fact is that these sentiments predated the parties’ rise, that they are the product of the European empires (publicly legitimised, as they were, on the basis of myths of racial superiority) and the passport system.

Passports originated in an era when travel was dangerous. If you had to make a journey, then you applied to the local potentate for a passport which would indicate that you were under his protection and which you could therefore use to warn off potential assailants. That is why, on the inside front cover, your UK passport contains the words, “Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires in the name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”

Later, when travel became more widespread, the authorities realised the value of passports to control population movements. In the nineteenth century, some countries recognised passport-free travel – now recognised in the EU by the Schengen arrangements – as a constitutional right of citizens. But then, with the League of Nations’ 1920 Conference on Passports and Customs Formalities and Through Tickets, carrying a passport became a universal requirement to cross an international border. Countries such as the UK pride themselves on legislation that makes it unlawful to discriminate on grounds of gender, age and other things the individual cannot control. While it is not impossible to change your passport – and if you are super-rich you can sometimes buy the citizenship of a country – the country that appears on your passport normally depends on where you were born or who your parents were, and these things you cannot control. Ultimately, it is only because the world is organized into sovereign states that international migration becomes an issue that needs to be governed

This then raises the third issue, which is a question about the kind of Europe, and the European policies, we as Re-joiners, want to see.

As far as migration is concerned, at the moment, the management of refugees arriving in Europe takes place according to something known as the ‘Dublin principle’ which is an EU law establishing the member state responsible for considering an asylum application based primarily on the first point of entry; and it obliges the state concerned to take back those who have lodged applications in a different member state. States such as Greece and Italy with external EU borders have long argued against the Dublin principle. They have done so on two grounds. One is that they lack the resources to offer asylum seekers effective support and protection on their own. The second is that the EU already has a common external frontier and a common visa policy (thanks to the Schengen agreement incorporated into EU law in 1997, which has abolished almost all internal border controls). Therefore, the management of refugees and asylum seekers should, they say, become a common, European, concern, implying a willingness on the part of member states generally to offer support and protection – not only those states representing the first port of entry.

Against this background, one often hears complaints about the supposed unwillingness of Europe to address this problem effectively, but this is profoundly mistaken. It is not ‘Europe’ that is unwilling to address the problem but its member states that are unwilling. This is because in essence, policy making in the Council of the European Union can only really take place by consensus. So the lack of a shared, European approach to the management of asylum is not because Europe has too much power and is unwilling to use it, but because it has too little power – because integration, in other words, has not gone far enough.

As anti-Brexiteers, therefore, we are very much in favour of further European integration, of an open-borders policy, and of the transformation of citizenship rights into universal rights. Denial to migrants of the rights we enjoy as citizens of liberal democracies contradicts the claims of these states to be founded on such rights in the first place. Only by extending to others the rights we enjoy, can we be certain that we ourselves will continue to enjoy them.

“Who needs food, medicine or jobs if you’ve got a blue passport?”

“Public policy should never be made by those who do not have to live with the consequences”

16th June 2023