Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1304, (21 - 27 July 2016)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1304, (21 - 27 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Europe in despair

The European project is imploding, writes Manal Lotfi from London

Al-Ahram Weekly

Events are moving forward at a dramatic pace and while at first glance they may seem like a series of isolated tragedies they are not. French-Tunisian Mohamed Bouhlel, who photographed himself smiling amid children and their families in Nice hours before he ran over hundreds of people in an explosives-laden truck; a Turkish soldier attempts to hide under an armoured vehicle while another Turk kicks him and a second whips him with a belt following the failed coup attempt in Turkey; a Polish waiter who works at a Soho restaurant sits shaking after Brits vote to leave the EU, an Afghan refugee attacking passengers on a train in southern Germany with an axe — all of these are related, facets of interconnected crises that feed one another.

The terrorist attack in Nice bolstered right-wing populist forces not only in France but across Europe. It offered ammunition to Europe’s nationalist right which is seeking to stop the influx of migrants at any cost, even the destruction of the European project itself. In this context the UK after Brexit looks like the first country to abandon the sinking ship, even as many Britons count the cost of leaving Europe — possible isolation, economic recession, and an emboldening of the right in Britain. The new Prime Minister Theresa May has, after all, included in her cabinet the most right-wing elements of the conservative party.

But if there is rage and despair in Europe there is also much miscalculation. It does not concern a single geographic area, culture, religion, or specific social, political and economic shifts. It includes a growing sense of hopelessness among ethnic and national groups from France to the UK to Turkey. The despair is felt about democracy, about pluralism, about open borders. And it holds the door wide to totalitarianism, right-wing extremism and religious militancy. What we are witnessing is a supreme disregard for society and its role in change.

The coup attempt in Turkey can be read in many ways, not least as an expression of despair at democracy. Historically the Turkish state has been the driver of major reforms imposed on society from above. This has been a constant, from the Ottoman state with its legal reforms in the 19th century, the Kemalist state with its secular, civil reforms and the Erdogan state with its socioeconomic reforms.

In this model a reformist, enlightened state pulls society behind it, which yields to its will and is not seriously called on to participate in drafting the projects that drive social transformation. The coup attempt does not overturn this pattern. If anything it was a conflict between two wings of the state over what sort of project to impose on society: the secular, military project of the army or the conservative, neoliberal economic project of the government.

The images that came out of Turkey over 48 dramatic hours showed the absence of Turkish civil society. Instead our screens were filled with army commanders and soldiers facing police, Presidential Guards and Erdogan’s supporters, the vast majority of them men. Women, unions, Kurds, civic organisations, all were absent, a sharp contrast to images of the Taksim demonstrations in Istanbul in 2013. The fact that 15,000-20,000 people took to the streets of Istanbul, a city of 14 million, in response to Erdogan’s appeal holds a clear message. Neither the Kemalist project nor the Erdogan project — both imposed from above — is acceptable to the majority of Turks.

Basak Bayram, a Turkish activist who took part in the Taksim demonstrations, told Al-Ahram Weekly: “In 2013, tens of thousands of Turks came out in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and dozens of other cities chanting ‘Together against fascism, resign, Erdogan.’ Police used water cannon and tear gas, and more than 1,000 people were injured. Seven people lost their sight after tear gas was thrown in their faces. But people still did not hesitate to go out.”

“But the coup attempt surprised everyone, Erdogan’s opponents as much as his supporters. Civil movements, unions, opposition parties, Kurds, women, youth and the Turkish left did not mobilise in defence of either Erdogan or the military. It is democracy that has lost.”

The images from Turkey not only illustrate an intrastate conflict over two radically different projects, they also reveal a disregard for society. Army actions send a tacit message that there is no hope of changing the current project in Turkey through parliament, elections, the judiciary, civic action or the press. The only solution is military intervention.

There were major miscalculations by the coup’s military leaders. A successful coup requires a level of grassroots support, a coherent ideological discourse and an international context that makes it possible. All these were lacking.

In the end, as Erdogan’s arrest of more than 6,000 judges and police and military officials has demonstrated, it is the Turkish street that will pay the price of the coup attempt in more oppression and harassment.

The West faces a predicament in dealing with Erdogan. The West needs him for well-known strategic reasons — to stop hundreds of thousands of refugees from washing up on European shores, to fight ISIS, to find a political solution in Syria, to contribute to international security arrangements through NATO. But Erdogan has become an embarrassment. The European right feeds on Turkophobia. While European capitals are reluctant to preclude the possibility of Ankara joining the EU “one day”, far-right nationalist parties are strengthening their base with their rejection of the idea of bringing 75 million Muslims — Turkey’s population — into the EU.

The marginalisation felt by society in Turkey as factions of the state battle it out among themselves is the same marginalisation felt by large swathes of Europeans, including minorities and second- and third-generation immigrants, who feel they no longer have a voice. Austerity policies in the wake of the financial crises of 2008 have changed the mood in Europe creating false enemies, immigrants first and foremost. But the real cause of many of Europe’s problems is the economy of the one per cent, the people who control politics and the media, to whom all the gains of economic growth accrue. The economy of the one per cent has pushed the populace in two directions — towards either religious extremism and violence or right-wing nationalist parties.

In Nice Mohamed Bouhlel’s anger led him to stage a massacre. There is growing anxiety in Europe that young Muslim men in particular are being targeted for recruitment by ISIS. European prisons have become an ideal spot to groom new recruits for the group.

The emergence of religious radicalism has prompted the rise of the right in Europe. Far right parties have increased their political representation in recent years in several European nations, from Scandinavia in the north to Greece and Italy in the south. In France the National Front under Marine Le Pen won a third of the popular vote in the last municipal elections. In elections in three German provinces in March the anti-immigrant nationalist German Alternative won 20 per cent of votes. In Denmark major parties lost seats to the populist People’s Party which, in the 2015 general elections, won 21 per cent of votes and emerged as the second largest party in the country. In Switzerland the Swiss People’s Party made its best showing to date, winning 30 per cent of the vote in the 2015 parliamentary elections. In Poland the right-wing Law and Justice Party formed a government after winning 39 per cent of the vote in October’s parliamentary elections. In Britain, the UK Independence Party won 12 per cent of the vote in the May 2015 general election, dragging the major parties to the right. The party stands to gain the most from Brexit.

The rise of the right is a danger to the entire European project. After the biggest wave of mass migration since World War II due to turmoil in the Middle East and Africa right-wing populism has been revived and become a key player on the political scene.

The UK voted to leave the EU in response to its problems. In the wake of the massacre in Nice and the attempted coup in Turkey some in Britain argued the country left just in time, though others seem to be waking up to the grim, after-party reality. The models of post-Brexit relations with the EU will all entail obligations for the UK. Membership of the common European market, for example, will require Britain to contribute to the EU budget and accept freedom of movement, meaning immigrants from Eastern Europe. If the UK decides that barring immigration is more important than the common market it will almost certainly experience a recession. Faced with this dilemma some have said the UK is in a lose-lose situation. It has lost its membership, seat and vote in an economic, political, and military union that it helped to shape over the last 40 years in order to bar hundreds of thousands of immigrants.

Discontent with the European project, in the UK and many other states, goes beyond immigration to the identity of Europe itself. The European project and the status of the individual in it have undergone major shifts. The democratic, emancipatory, enlightened European project has gradually given way to a neoliberalism that sees the individual as a commodity.

Global capitalism has reengineered Europe as a neoliberal outpost. The welfare state and social justice have been eroded amid unprecedented class disparities that promise to have severe consequences.

Whenever an economic crisis looms the most common solution is austerity: cutting social spending, privatising state assets, opening markets to international capital and doing away with labour protection laws.

Faced with all this Europeans have a choice: yield to the neoliberal project that only envisions Europe as an open economic market that must be ready to compete with other economic markets regardless of the human cost, or turn to the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam nationalist far right which wants to close the doors and declare the death of an open, diverse, pluralistic Europe.

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