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The fusing of the pandemic, refugee and economic crises

Only working-class solidarity, compassion and organising for the common good will see us through them, writes KEVIN OVENDEN

HUMANITY faces a future of “socialism or barbarism,” wrote the Czech Marxist thinker Karl Kautsky in the period before the first world war.

That “war to end all wars” brought what was then the unimaginable suffering of the slaughter in the trenches. The great leaps in technology and engineering of advancing capitalism were turned to instruments of death.

It was followed by the global spread of a highly dangerous strain of influenza, incubated in the overcrowded, unsanitary military camps. It infected 27 per cent of the world’s population.

It cut down tens of millions of people, especially those whose health was already weakened from four years of war.

The mobilising power of modern states that had been directed to organised mass murder was not brought in anything like the same way to limiting the spread and impact of the pandemic.

If events in the last few weeks seem familiar, it is because we have seen this reel of history before: imperial competition and wars; global pandemics; enforced movement of people turned into refugees, and capitalism’s competitive economic drive burying people for the sake of profit.

It is happening in and on the borders of Europe, a continent that no longer has the right to call itself civilised.

In the last two weeks we’ve seen the most barbaric scenes on the Greece-Turkey frontier and in the Aegean Sea as military forces have been mobilised to turn away those seeking refuge from the devastating wars in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

They are the victims of years of multiple imperialist interventions. Afghans who were not even born when George Bush and Tony Blair launched the war on terror on their country now face European armed forces as they try to cross from Turkey to countries that rallied to the Nato bombing in 2001.

By the bitterest of historical ironies they braved tear gas and live rounds just as the US state in effect admitted its defeat in Afghanistan by signing a deal finally to withdraw from the country.

It is far from the end of such wars. Indeed, the refugees from Afghanistan and Syria are trapped in a new phase of conflict that arcs around the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his popularity falling at home and his expansionist foreign policy in tatters, is seeking to use the refugees in Turkey as leverage.

His offensive in the Syrian province of Idlib two weeks ago, veiled in claims to be protecting civilians, brought escalating clashes with Russian and Syrian forces.

Erdogan temporarily abrogated the shameful 2016 deal with the EU under which he undertook to stop refugees crossing the Aegean, and declared that the Turkish side of the border was open for exit.

It was a transparently cynical move designed to win Nato and EU support for his Idlib offensive. At the same time he tightened the southern border to stop more Syrian refugees arriving.

He did not manage to blackmail his way to wider Nato military support. He did succeed in playing his role in creating a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

Erdogan was forced back into seeking some agreement with Vladimir Putin over Idlib, and yet another ceasefire was agreed this week, but no-one expects it to be anything other than temporary, and he reinstated controls at his eastern border.

Meanwhile, his actions and those of the Greek government, fully aligned with the EU, are producing an immensely dangerous situation.

Right-wing Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis mobilised army and riot police units to the border and the islands to halt the refugee flow. He announced that Greece would suspend accepting any asylum request for a month and that camps keeping refugees on the islands would be turned into prisons.

Courts in northern Greece abandoned all pretence at due process to jail those who made it across the border for four years, with no suspension.

Lawyers in Athens raised the alarm that these measures amounted to withdrawal from the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, agreed following the horror of the second world war and Holocaust.

In 24 hours the New Democracy government enacted a form of Grexit. A Greek exit not from the austerity straitjacket of the euro currency, nor from the inhuman, anti-refugee EU-Turkey deal of 2016 but from the framework of international law that virtually every state has signed up to for nearly 70 years.

That was accompanied by rhetoric and calls for public action that are now energising racist and fascist forces not just in Greece and the Balkans, but across Europe.

Mitsotakis described the refugee movement as “an invasion” and further ramped up the chauvinism against Turkey. Both countries are locked into escalating conflict over maritime claims of sovereignty over the Aegean.

That is connected to the historic competition between both states to be the favoured junior imperialist to the US and the primary Nato member in the region.

The struggle for dominance extends to Cyprus and the very material question of control over recently discovered hydrocarbon fields off the island — a scramble for gas that also involves Israel and Egypt, as well as various oil giants, particularly French and Italian.

That zone of conflict now spreads to Libya, fractured into fiefdoms run by different warlords since the Nato war of 2011. Greece and Turkey back rival gangs in open conflict, as do France and Italy.

As this paper revealed last month, the EU is continuing to franchise out the murderous business of stopping refugee flows from Libya to the armed militia and mafia-run “coastguard.” That is despite voluminous reports of atrocities and public denial from Brussels.

It is probably only a matter of time before one or other armed gang threatens, like Erdogan, to open the spigot of the migration flow unless they get military and more financial support.

The refugees in Turkey, Libya and elsewhere are caught in a geostrategic vice of state-rivalry, military conflict and capitalist competition for oil, gas and other commodities.

Indeed, they have been turned into a kind of commodity, just as black Africans were treated as moveable goods in the Transatlantic Slave Trade that was so instrumental to capitalism in its infancy.

This is possible only because of the Fortress Europe policy designed to lock refugees and migrants out even though the continent’s population is ageing and in some countries — above all Italy — is declining.

The EU, its Frontex border force and member states have sent special units to Greece to seal the border and, against international law, to force the refugees back at gunpoint.

Shamefully, they include the centre-left/Podemos coalition in Spain sending the Guardia Civil, fresh from cracking heads of Catalan independence supporters.

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen and other Brussels bigwigs travelled to Greece to praise the country for acting as an “aspida” (a shield) for Europe — the same people who inflicted fiscal waterboarding on the Greek people at the height of the Eurozone crisis.

The language was positively fascistic. And new openings for fascism in Greece and Europe are the consequence. States and governments have created a magnet to attract every piece of fascist detritus to northern Greece claiming to be defending the white continent from a Muslim, brown “invasion.”

While in many cases it is little more than photo opportunities it is a serious threat. Mitsotakis has added to it by calling for popular assistance to stop the refugees.

The state legitimises armed force against desperate people. Golden Dawn and other nazis volunteer an “activist,” violent and supposedly “popular” buttressing of state efforts. This is a wide avenue along which fascism has historically paraded to office.

But there is also a big polarisation to the left. German fascist “tourists” on Lesbos ran up against the anti-racist side of society on the island. They left bloodied.

There have been semi-spontaneous attacks on refugees and aid workers. At the same time the riot police have been forced off the islands by locals opposed to constructing prison camps and demanding that the migrants be allowed to continue their journeys.

Last week saw very big demonstrations in Greece and Germany demanding the opening of the borders to the refugees and their organised resettlement into the cities of Greece and Europe.

This all runs up against the EU and its neoliberal and security arrangements.

Into this terrible situation news emerged this week that Lesbos has its first Covid-19 case: a supermarket worker. So already a likely spread. Were it to reach the refugee camps already consumed by other infections the consequences would be nightmarish.

It is dawning on more people in Britain that ordinary people are going to have to enforce necessary emergency measures and popular control over a government whose response to the pandemic is proving complacent at best.

That means discussing and acting upon politics and working-class demands, not suppressing them or narrowing everything to technical questions or individual measures, vital as they are.

When nearly a million refugees passed through Greece in 2016 they were fed and given the means to keep clean by millions of austerity-hit people. Not by the EU or the Greek state.

These crises — the pandemic, the refugees, the economic shock — are now fusing. They will bring out the best and worst of our society and system.

There is a good side. It is based on working-class solidarity, compassion and immense capacity to organise for the common good, not private greed.

We need to build and act upon it. From our own localities, to the country as a whole and extending internationally — including to those on our borders, each one of whom shows more civilisation in the face of barbarity than our governments combined.


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