Howard sets pace for Europe's mainstream racists

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Editorial

Howard sets pace for Europe's mainstream racists

When asked on his arrival in Frankfurt last week whether he would be defending Australia's approach to asylum seekers during his European trip, Prime Minister John Howard said: “I haven't come over here to say 'Look how clever we are and how good we are at this'. Certainly not. But if somebody asks me, I'll explain without yielding a centimetre.”

During question time at a Deutsche Bank function in Berlin on July 3, two of the four questions asked of Howard addressed Australia's asylum seeker policy. One was from Silke Weinlich, doing her masters on Australia's refugee policy at Berlin University. She asked Howard how mandatory detention and the “Pacific solution” were consistent with the “Western values” he had talked about in his speech. “We don't like the policy of mandatory detention”, Howard explained, “but we have no alternative”.

Speaking to the Melbourne Age after the Deutsche Bank function, Weinlich explained that while the German media focused on Australia's refugee policy and tended to be critical, there was little or no criticism of Australia's policy from mainstream political leaders in Europe and lamented that their policies toward refugees were heading in the same direction.

When asked in a July 1 interview with a German paper if “fortress Australia” could become a model for “fortress Europe”, Howard merely rejected the term as a description of Australia's policies. Nevertheless, Australia's approach is being used by a number of European governments as a model for their own immigration “reforms”.

Handelsblatt, Germany's leading financial daily, ran an extensive article about Howard which said: “In today's Europe, flooded by asylum seekers, even former critics showed interest in the system of forcible detention.”

While they don't publicly crow about it, Howard and immigration minister Philip Ruddock are proud of the example they have set for other First World countries in dealing with Third World refugees; yet there is a widespread view in Australia that the Howard government's refugee policy is out of step with the rest of the world, particularly Europe.

During the parliamentary debate in June over the excision of coastal islands from Australia's migration zone, Greens Senator Bob Brown reflected this view when he argued that Australia's policy should be “in line with best practice overseas in countries like Belgium and Germany which do not deal with asylum seekers as if they are criminals…”.

In fact, the Howard government refugee policy is fully in step with the policy direction of European Union (EU) countries, which are moving to close their borders to Third World people fleeing poverty and persecution.

The European Council meeting in Seville on June 21-22 agreed to establish greater coordination among European Union countries in policing their borders.

Denmark has introduced what is described as the harshest immigration laws in Europe. New arrivals will have to wait seven years instead of three for permanent resident permits, and full welfare benefits are denied for that period. Non-Danes no longer have the legal right to be reunited with their spouse, and no immigrant under the age of 24 is allowed to bring a wife or husband into the country.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was asked during a joint press conference with Howard on July 2 if there was anything Germany could learn from the Australian experience. He replied that Germany had just passed a new law that allows a “limitation of the flow of immigration”, referring to a new quota system similar to Australia's which will regulate the flow of people based on skills, age and language.

Tony Blair's Labour government in Britain has implemented a number of anti-refugee measures in recent years, including the requirement for asylum seekers who fail the first stage of their application to return to the country they left from in order to appeal that decision. Before the Seville meeting, Blair was sounding out support for the idea of using warships in the Mediterranean to send refugee boats back. Sound familiar?

Mainstream EU politicians are whipping up a sense of hysteria about openly racist far-right parties, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front in France and Joerg Haider's Freedom Party in Austria. Yet it is the “respectable” parties which actively promote covertly racist, anti-refugee attitudes in order to undermine public sympathy for the poor nations of the world, which imperialist Europe continues to mercilessly exploit.

From Green Left Weekly, July 10, 2002.
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