The recent ‘accelerated entry’ talks for Turkey during the ongoing refugee crisis is a thorough-going disaster for the UK Remain campaign. Any argument that the EU represents a progressive, compassionate approach to migration caused by humanitarian tragedies was dealt a severe blow by yesterday’s news that Erdogan’s government has signed a deal with it under which migrants and refugees who arrive on Greek shores can instantly be sent back to its neighbour. In exchange, Turkish citizens will not need a visa to travel to Europe from July onward. Even acting Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy refused to immediately appear in Congress to explain the controversial deal, following a recent trend started the previous day by Defense Minister Pedro Morenés, who also failed to show up to a Defence Committee meeting in Congress.
As a result of the deal, cynically and unethically ‘trading’ migrants, Marie Pierre Poirier, UNICEF’s Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe, announced that ‘returning refugee and migrant children to an uncertain future in Turkey could be deeply distressful and damaging for them’; with children accounting for over 40 percent of the 43,000 people in Greece attempting to travel northwards through the Balkans. Médecins Sans Frontières claimed that the Turkey-EU deal was ‘no solution’ to the refugee crisis, while Kevin Watkins in the Independent noted that the deal will likely boost people trafficking amongst groups like the Turkish mafia, Libyan jihadi groups and European crime networks, despite David Cameron’s remarkable claim that the Royal Navy’s efforts in the Aegean to return refugees would ‘break the business model of the criminal smugglers’. It reveals a lot about the mindset of Britain’s Tory cabinet that its best solution to a humanitarian crisis involves military war ships. As Harry Leslie Smith tweeted, ‘Europe failed its humanity to Jews in 1930s[.] Now it failed refugees from wars in [Middle East]’.
When 28 EU states unanimously vote for a policy of migrant trading, how can the left or right factions of the various UK Remain groups claim that a vote to stay in the EU is a vote for a just resolution to the refugee crisis? The ethical and economic logic of their collective decision is nothing short of barbaric. What hasn’t been noted in the mainstream British media is the fact that the European Convention on Human Rights requires that refugees refused asylum in Europe can be only be ‘returned’ to a safe country guaranteeing their basic right to healthcare, education and work. But Turkey is far from a safe ‘third country’, with Syrian refugees in particular likely being forced back into war zones, as a number of respected UN officials like Filippo Grandi and Vincent Cochetel have noted. It’s for this and many other reasons that Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite described the Turkey-EU package as ‘very much on the edge of international law’.
These episodes, along with yesterday’s resignation of Iain Duncan Smith targeting George Osborne’s legitimacy, should point the left UK Leave/Lexit campaign in a clear direction: formulate a coherent migration policy, or risk the racist far-right hijacking any momentum built up during and after the June referendum. IDS’s departure marks the continuation of a long-simmering challenge to David Cameron’s leadership (and to ‘Cameronism’, whatever that actually is) which Lexit, the left more generally, should make the most of. In the (unlikely) event of a vote to leave the EU, the UK left needs to organise a demonstration of at least 50,000 people outside Downing Street calling for open borders and for Britain to play a substantial role in solving the migration crisis. Indeed, if Cameron steps down, leading to a possible crisis within the Conservative party, the left (in particular, Corbynite Labour) would have unique strategic possibilities – alongside emerging trade opportunities for Britain which will immediately arise with, for instance, the BRIC states. None of this will be possible in the event of a Remain vote. Moreover, the Remain campaign’s message that Britain can sponsor a progressive migration policy without also being part of Fortress Europe is simply incoherent. Much of the dominant EU right are even raising concerns about how Muslim refugees are supposedly threatening Christianity; calls which will only become louder amongst the tenor set by the Turkey-EU package.
One of the most effective ways the left Leave/Lexit campaign(s) can succeed, then, is by articulating robust and progressive migration proposals. Instead of promoting the migrant trading exercises of Turkey, Lexit should push for a global resettlement program, orchestrated via the major European states, generating safe transit. Lexit also needs to push for a more radical, more internationalist campaign than Yanis Varoufakis’s DiEM (launched in Berlin in February), recently – if lethargically – approved by Julian Assange and Noam Chomsky, who made the astonishing claim that ‘The formation of the European Union was a highly encouraging step forward in world affairs, with great promise’.
As Frédéric Lordon has recently made clear, those who claim that the urge for Lexit comes from some hidebound Trotskyite sectarianism are doing a serious disservice to the contemporary European left. These arguments are similar in tone to those warning in the early 2000s that if Britain were to stay out of the Euro it would be to its severe disadvantage; a prediction which turned out to be hellaciously imprecise, amongst the important backdrop of Germany’s perennial insistence on the ECB’s independence (not likely to waver any time soon) and severe clampdown on democratic discussion regarding budgetary and monetary policies. The most outstanding European successes, from CERN to Ariane, thrived without the euro.
These are also things which much of the British student left (such as the liberal Bloomsbury UCL amalgam of progressive Student Union representatives and their Marxist reading groups) do not seem to appreciate, calling instead for a miraculous ‘reform’ of the EU, without ever discussing how this might be achieved in practice. Manipulatively stirring a ‘fear of the unknown’ surrounding an EU exit is equally disingenuous about the possibilities of a future Britain no longer tied to, for instance, TTIP, which would make implementing mildly socialist policies like nationalisation illegal. History, of course, is no pendulum, but the evidence increasingly suggests that Britain’s staying in the EU will have a deleterious effect not only on the EU itself (by pulling it in a more neoliberal direction, as Britain has long done), but more urgently on the tens of thousands of migrants seeking safe and stable asylum.