How Fooled We Were: A Reflection on the European Union in ‘Dark Times’

‘The Europe’ we know has gone. In fact, it never existed. Maybe it existed for those who were living on the edge of Europe, trying to reach Europe mentally, economically, and politically, or trying to reach it physically on smuggling boats. It was a sanctuary of human rights and democracy that we could look up to, imitate and, in return, be approved of. It was a land of freedom where an asylum-seeker could buy a loaf of bread without being shot.

How fooled we were! How majestically we were fooled.

Decades ago, in her seminal book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt gave warnings about Europe. Through the concept called ‘the boomerang effect’, Arendt explained the process through which European imperialism in Africa and Asia created the idea of supreme race, hierarchical colonial relations, and brutal ways of dealing with ‘the different’, ‘the lower’. It engendered a new politics and transferred these new political ideas and methods to the Continent. The rest of the story is well-known: racial classifications, ethnic division, war, and the Holocaust. In other words, colonialism hit Europe back, just like a boomerang. Arendt alsowarned us in relation to another issue: what ‘we’ are, who ‘we’ are to become is reflected upon how ‘we’ deal with those who are not ‘us’. Similarly, what the European Union is about to become can be seen in its dealings with refugees and Turkey.

The EU’s attempts to stop individuals from obtaining protection begun at the beginning of the 1990s with the legally questionable ‘safe third country’ and ‘host third country’ clauses as well as the Dublin Conventions. It accelerated with the atmosphere of urgency following the terrorist attacks in the USA and Europe. Border controls were integrated into the fight against terrorism. The EU made visa facilitation offers to North African states through the European Neighbourhood Policy to convince them to become ‘Europe’s dumping area’ for irregular migrants, many of whom could be legitimate asylum seekers according to international law; instead, they were detained under inhumane conditions and subsequently repatriated, even if their lives were at risk. The EU also offered regional protection programmes in North and Sub-Saharan Africa that would ‘improve the management of refugee flows’ so that asylum seekers would not attempt to go to the EU. ‘Asylum-seeker’, ‘refugee’, and ‘illegal migrant’ have all been mixed and mashed in the same basket as ‘the different’, ‘the poor’, and ‘those liars who want to exploit our social services’: those who should be stopped outside the EU borders.

The EU has not been ashamed of any political bribe to achieve this end. It offered its neighbours ‘visa facilitation’ regimes if they accepted to work with the EU in preventing individuals from seeking protection, safety, and a new life in Europe. To this end, it worked with the authoritarian regimes of Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Qaddafi until they were toppled by their own people. Now it has made a similar pay-out offer to Turkey, a country that is daily sliding further and further into authoritarianism. Turkey ranks at 138 in the global Press Freedom Index, 98 in the Democracy Index, 3.53 of 10 in the Index of Civil Rights and Freedoms, and 130 in the Gender Equality Index. In November 2015, the EU agreed to pay 3 billion Euros to Turkey to keep refugees within this borders and enable European countries to send them back to Turkey, all while promising ‘to think about’ visa facilitation for Turkish nationals.

The days when ‘we’, who looked up to Europe as an ideal and called it ‘normative power’, a different type of power whose strength was derived from its dedication to human rights, democracy, and freedoms, have long gone. What is left for the EU? What kind of power is it, if it is certainly not ‘normative’? In fact, the EU has never been proven to be a ‘normative power’ for refugees who are drowning in the Mediterranean. It was, and is, a mirage of democracy and human rights for its ‘EU citizens’, not for those who are fleeing for protection to its borders. The question is, how long will the EU be able to keep this mirage alive for its own citizens? When will the boomerang that Arendt argued decades ago hit back at ‘the home’ again? The signs are already alarming in the new curfew state in France or Victor Orban’s Hungary.

Both EU citizens and non-EU citizens are faced with choices that will greatly impact their common future. What type of common future this will be is a pressing question in the EU’s ‘dark times’.

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