INTERVIEWS

The EU’s ‘miserable’ handling of the refugee crisis

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The European Union's handling of the ongoing refugee crisis has been “miserable,” says Seyla Benhabib, Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University who also slams the “narrow-minded selfishness” of several Central European countries, while describing the camp in northern Calais as a “human disgrace.”

Speaking to Kathimerini on the occasion of a visit to Athens for an event organized by the Harvard Business School Club of Greece and the Solidarity Now network this week, the Turkish-American academic also talked about Turkey's authoritarian turn and the rise of Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump.

How well has the EU managed, in its attempts to tackle the refugee crisis, to respect the claims of diverse democratic communities, including their distinctive cultural, legal and constitutional self-understandings, while strengthening their commitments to emerging norms of cosmopolitical justice?

The EU’s handling of the refugee crisis has been miserable. Not only have some member-states exhibited a remarkably narrow-minded selfishness and egotism – take Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Austria, which joined them somewhat later – but, together with some major EU states such as the UK and France, they have all probably violated “non-refoulement” clauses of the Geneva Conventions by failing to admit refugees into their territories before testing the legitimacy of their cases for asylum. What is the camp at Calais but a human disgrace, showing the lack of principle of confusion in the hearts and minds of current EU politicians?

[Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban’s game has been visible for some years: to come as close as he can to a presidential one-party system within the constraints of the EU while continuing to receive EU subsidies and benefits. What I don’t understand is how democrats such as [British Prime Minister] David Cameron and [French President] Francois Hollande look at the misery of asylum seekers on their territory and fail to respect human rights agreements incorporated into the European Convention of Human Rights and the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms.

The only countries that have tried to live up to those conventions and hold up some form of cosmopolitan obligations owed to all human beings simply because they are human, are Germany, Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Sweden – and certainly Norway, which is not an EU member.

The absurdities of the Dublin agreement, which makes countries of first entry in the Mediterranean such as Greece, Italy and Spain the sole ones responsible for processing asylum applications, is patently clear. It is a form of pretending to comply with international refugee conventions while burdening economically more disadvantaged countries to do the EU’s work.

By agreeing to take in refugees from Syria, Germany has already abdicated the Dublin convention. But, in that case, why do they continue to burden Greece rather than airlifting the refugees and testing their asylum applications on German territory instead of letting them be subject to police, dogs and tear gas in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia?

Europe is reliving a bad World War II movie.

What is your view on the one-in, one-out deal agreed between the EU and Turkey?

The whole situation with Turkey is bizarre and not easily analyzed: First, at the present time, Turkey is the world's largest recipient of refugees – close to 3.2 million. And this started before the Syrian refugee crisis: There are close to 1 million Iranians, Iraqis as well as Afghans in Turkey who have been arriving throughout the 1990s.

Adding to the complexities of the situation is the fact that Turkey is not a signatory to the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, because Turkey restricts the definition of the refugee only to one who escaped from European territories prior to 1951 for fear of “well-grounded persecution.” This means that, in terms of international law, Turkey is under no obligation to accept refugees from other parts of the world. Yet Turkey has one of the most generous refugee policies in the world currently. Why?

In the case of the Syrian refugees, it is partly neo-Ottoman largesse, partly realpolitik of the Erdogan government to try and influence political events in Syria, and partly sheer anarchy enabled by smuggling routes throughout the Aegean as well as by more benign family, religious and commercial contacts across a very long and somewhat porous border with Syria.

Given this situation and the widespread sense in Turkey that the EU is anti-Muslim and xenophobic in their treatment of Syrian, Iraqi and other refugees, the Turkish government is in part scoring a point by highlighting its own generosity.

Second, logistically and financially, Turkey, like Greece, is under pressure in terms of settling, employing and integrating these refugees. In the case of Greece, it is expected that at some point the majority of the refugees will be able to travel to their European host countries. Turkey does not have this guarantee, so it is facing an influx of another 200,000 refugees at a time when the economy is beginning to show signs of weakness.

So I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask for burden-sharing with the EU as well as increased financial and logistical help from the UNHCR and the international community for Greece as well as as for Turkey.

However, this should not be tit for tat. That is a political game that the German government in particular and Turkey are playing with each other. Rather, one should find a way of consulting and enabling refugees themselves who already have family in the rest of Europe or who can demonstrate some decent professional as well as educational reason for wanting to move to the EU, to do so. What number will this be? Who knows?

The main moral issue here is not to play ping-pong with human beings whose lives and fortunes have been destroyed, but to find compassionate and humane solutions for them to have a new future.

How do you explain the rise of Donald Trump in US presidential politics? Does it not threaten the core of American exceptionalism – the idea of a country founded not on common race, religion etc, but on certain universal principles?

The American people are angry; the so-called “middle class” – and don’t forget in the USA an autoworker who made $80,000 a year or an administrative assistant who made $60,000 is also considered middle class – is disappearing under the weight of unpaid mortgages, the rising cost of education, rising healthcare costs in those states where insurance companies can use “Obamacare” to their advantage, declining substructure in transportation and municipal facilities – there is a downward socioeconomic spiral taking place in the USA and growing income inequality in the population.

Like all right-wing demagogues in human history, Trump is appealing to “ressentiment” – anger and disgust at the weak and admiration for the rich and the powerful.

As a student of European philosophy and history, I see no mystery in the Trump phenomenon. Remember Mussolini, remember Franco – the only difference is that he does not have an organized party and a paramilitary.

But the same election season that has produced Trump has also produced the first publicly social democratic candidate in the country – Bernie Sanders. Many white working-class people are not being seduced by Trump but are voting for Bernie. So the country is polarized but it has not given up its constitutional principles.

Even Trump has his contradictions: He does not like Mexicans but he loves Polish and Ukrainian workers; he brags that his son-in-law is Jewish and his third wife is from Slovenia. There can be no “pure” races in the United States – not possible. We are a multicultural, multiethnic society.

Having said that, let me also admit that Trump’s anxieties are like Orban’s (except that Orban does not like Jews either): the declining fate of the white Christian races of European origin!

Does Trump's electoral appeal, and that of other xenophobes in Europe, point to a rejection of all forms of globalization – not just economic, but also of any conception of global rights/justice? Was the West only a fair-weather proponent of globalization?

I don’t think so at all – we are currently experiencing the rise of a form of “authoritarian state capitalism” in countries such as Russia, Singapore and Turkey, and the USA, under the Trump formula, is tempted by it as well. The lingering effects of the crisis of 2008, the inability of the international community to rein in the banks and the financial sector – under which you in Greece have suffered sufficiently – the inability to control offshore capital investments via taxes – all these factors are making people desperate and are leading them to turn away from electoral multiparty democracies to authoritarian solutions.

We must also not forget the rise of Islamist fundamentalist movements and their cultural challenge to the West, which they see as weak, corrupt, self-centered and incapable of sacrifice. The violence and fear that they are causing in Western societies are also destabilizing the population.

We can only realize the program of cosmopolitan human rights if we can disassociate them from the triumph of neo-liberalism and financial capital that care nothing about political and communities but only look at the bottom lines of profit. Markets are not polities and they do not pursue the same goals. In fact, contemporary global legal developments are enabling some companies to sue national parliaments for putting their peoples’ interests above that of the corporations. This is a phenomenon that cripples democracy and self-governance.

As you above all know in Greece, the austerity principles of the EU enable the EU to get cheap credit in financial markets and keep the rating of its bonds high, but it is devastating for human beings and for democratic polities.

We need a cosmopolitan politics of human rights, including the human right to a decent global living standard, to do battle against neo-liberal financial capital markets.

But even if such a struggle seems remote, much of my recent work shows that the spread of a global human rights regime has had tremendous consequences for mobilizing women, ethnic, linguistic and other minorities, for the rights of the disabled and of refugees and undocumented migrants the world over.

Three years ago, you wrote in the New York Times, “Turkey’s record on journalistic and artistic freedoms is abysmal; rights of assembly and protest are also increasingly restricted.” How much worse is it today?

Unfortunately the situation is much, much worse. Turkey is fast moving toward an authoritarian presidential system. The goal is not only to have a president – [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has been elected – but also to transform the constitution in such a way as to give the office of the president “emergency powers,” as in the Weimar Republic: the right to declare a “state of emergency” and to rule by “decree” rather than by general legislation.

Why did Turkey get there? This is a question that I am still asking myself, because the AK Party accomplished a great deal in the 12 years it was in power: It opened civil society to a more pluralistic, multicultural and liberal understanding of Turkey’s past, it criticized the dogmatic laicite that ruled the country, it enabled small business enterprises and successful peasants in Anatolia to join a national and global economy, it introduced universal healthcare and, above all, it got the army out of politics in the country.

I think that two developments signaled to Erdogan that his reign was coming to an end: first the coup against him and his son conducted by the Gulen movement that failed to achieve its goal in the fall of 2013, and second, the rise of the Kurdish party, HDP, with its multiculturalist and democratic agenda, like SYRIZA or Podemos. These developments indicated to him that there were real challenges ahead to his reign and that it would end sooner or later.

But as Machiavelli says, a wounded and vulnerable Prince will be more violent than a strong and confident one.