Is European Integration Unraveling?

Interview With Noam Chomsky

Interview by C.J. Polychroniou, Truthout, Monday, 25 January 2016.

Europe is in turmoil. The migration and refugee crisis is threatening to unravel the entire European integration project. Unwilling to absorb the waves of people fleeing their homes in the Middle East and North Africa, many European Union (EU) member states have began imposing border controls.

But it is not only people from Syria and Iraq, as mainstream media narratives would suggest, who are trying to reach Europe these days. Refugees come from Pakistan and Afghanistan and from nations in sub-Saharan Africa. The numbers are staggering, and they seem to be growing with the passing of every month. In the meantime, anti-immigration sentiment is spreading like wildfire throughout Europe, giving rise to extremist voices that threaten the very foundation of the EU and its vision of an “open, democratic” society.

In light of these challenges, EU officials are pulling out all the stops in their effort to deal with the migration and refugee crisis, offering both technical and economic assistance to member states in hopes that they will do their part in averting the unraveling of the European integration project. Whether they will succeed or fail remains to be seen. What is beyond a doubt however is that Europe’s migration and refugee crisis will intensify as more than 4 million more migrants and refugees are expected to reach Europe in the next two years.

Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s leading critical intellectuals, offered his insights to Truthout on Europe’s migration and refugee crisis and other current European developments – including the ongoing financial crisis in Greece – in an exclusive interview with C.J. Polychroniou.

C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, thanks for doing this interview on current developments in Europe. I would like to start by asking you this question: Why do you think Europe’s refugee crisis is happening now?

Noam Chomsky: The crisis has been building up for a long time. It is hitting Europe now because it has burst the bounds, from the Middle East and from Africa. Two Western sledgehammer blows had a dramatic effect. The first was the US-UK invasion of Iraq, which dealt a nearly lethal blow to a country that had already been devastated by a massive military attack 20 years earlier followed by virtually genocidal US-UK sanctions. Apart from the slaughter and destruction, the brutal occupation ignited a sectarian conflict that is now tearing the country and the entire region apart. The invasion displaced millions of people, many of whom fled and were absorbed in the neighboring countries, poor countries that are left to deal somehow with the detritus of our crimes.

“EU governance has broken down almost completely when addressing a human catastrophe that is in substantial part the result of Western crimes.”

One outgrowth of the invasion is the ISIS/Daesh monstrosity, which is contributing to the horrifying Syrian catastrophe. Again, the neighboring countries have been absorbing the flow of refugees. Turkey alone has over 2 million Syrian refugees. At the same time it is contributing to the flow by its policies in Syria: supporting the extremist al-Nusra Front and other radical Islamists and attacking the Kurds who are the main ground force opposing ISIS – which has also benefited from not-so-tacit Turkish support. But the flood can no longer be contained within the region.

The second sledgehammer blow destroyed Libya, now a chaos of warring groups, an ISIS base, a rich source of jihadis and weapons from West Africa to the Middle East, and a funnel for the flow of refugees from Africa. That at once brings up longer-term factors. For centuries, Europe has been torturing Africa – or, to put it more mildly – exploiting Africa for Europe’s own development, to adopt the recommendation of the top US planner George Kennan after World War II.

The history, which should be familiar, is beyond grotesque. To take just a single case, consider Belgium, now groaning under a refugee crisis. Its wealth derived in no small measure from “exploiting” the Congo with brutality that exceeded even its European competitors. Congo finally won its freedom in 1960. It could have become a rich and advanced country once freed from Belgium’s clutches, spurring Africa’s development as well. There were real prospects, under the leadership of Patrice Lumumba, one of the most promising figures in Africa. He was targeted for assassination by the CIA, but the Belgians got there first. His body was cut to pieces and dissolved in sulfuric acid. The US and its allies supported the murderous kleptomaniac Mobutu. By now Eastern Congo is the scene of the world’s worst slaughters, assisted by US favorite Rwanda while warring militias feed the craving of Western multinationals for minerals for cell phones and other high-tech wonders. The picture generalizes too much of Africa, exacerbated by innumerable crimes. For Europe, all of this becomes a refugee crisis.

Do the waves of immigrants (obviously many of them are immigrants, not simply refugees from war-torn regions) penetrating the heart of Europe represent some kind of a “natural disaster,” or is it purely the result of politics?

There is an element of natural disaster. The terrible drought in Syria that shattered the society was presumably the effect of global warming, which is not exactly natural. The Darfur crisis was in part the result of desertification that drove nomadic populations to settled areas. The awful Central African famines today may also be in part due to the assault on the environment during the “Anthropocene,” the new geological era when human activities, mainly industrialization, have been destroying the prospects for decent survival, and will do so, unless curbed.

European Union officials are having an exceedingly difficult time coping with the refugee crisis because many EU member states are unwilling to do their part and accept anything more than just a handful of refugees. What does this say about EU governance and the values of many European societies?

EU governance works very efficiently to impose harsh austerity measures that devastate poorer countries and benefit Northern banks. But it has broken down almost completely when addressing a human catastrophe that is in substantial part the result of Western crimes. The burden has fallen on the few who were willing, at least temporarily, to do more than lift a finger, like Sweden and Germany. Many others have just closed their borders. Europe is trying to induce Turkey to keep the miserable wrecks away from its borders, just as the US is doing, pressuring Mexico to prevent those trying to escape the ruins of US crimes in Central America from reaching US borders. This is even described as a humane policy that reduces “illegal immigration.”

What does all of this tell us about prevailing values? It is hard even to use the word “values,” let alone to comment. That’s particularly when writing in the United States, probably the safest country in the world, now consumed by a debate over whether to allow Syrians in at all because one might be a terrorist pretending to be a doctor, or at the extremes, which unfortunately is in the US mainstream, whether to allow any Muslims in at all, while a huge wall protects us from immigrants fleeing from the wreckage south of the border.

What about the argument that it is simply impossible for many European countries to accommodate so many immigrants and refugees?

Germany has done the most, absorbing about 1 million refugees in a very rich country of over 80 million people. Compare Lebanon, a poor country with severe internal problems. Its population is now about 25 percent Syrian, in addition to the descendants of those who were expelled from the former Palestine. Furthermore, unlike Lebanon, Germany badly needs immigrants to maintain its population with the declining fertility that has tended to result from education of women, worldwide. Kenneth Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, is surely right to observe that “This ‘wave of people’ is more like a trickle when considered against the pool that must absorb it … Considering the EU’s wealth and advanced economy, it is hard to argue that Europe lacks the means to absorb these newcomers,” particularly in countries that need immigrants for their economic health.

Many of the refugees trying to get to Europe never make the journey, with many dead washing up on Greece’s and Italy’s shores. In fact, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, more than 2,500 people have died this past summer [2015] alone trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, with the southwestern coast of Turkey having become the departure point for thousands of refugees who are lured into crumbling boats by Turkish migrant smugglers. Why isn’t Europe putting more pressure on the Turkish government of [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan to do something about this horrible situation?

The primary European efforts, as noted, have been to pressure Turkey to keep the misery and suffering far from us. Much like the United States and Mexico. Their fate, once we are safe from the contagion, is of much lesser concern.

Just recently, you accused Erdogan of double standards on terrorism when he singled you out for a petition signed by hundreds of academicians protesting Turkey’s actions against the Kurdish population, calling you, in fact, a terrorist. Can you say a few things about this matter since it evolved into an international incident?

It is fairly straightforward. A group of Turkish academics initiated a petition protesting the government’s severe and mounting repression of its Kurdish population. I was one of several foreigners invited to sign. Immediately after a murderous terrorist attack in Istanbul, Erdogan launched a tirade bitterly attacking the signers of the declaration, declaring Bush-style that you are either with us or with the terrorists. Since he singled me out for a stream of invective, I was asked by Turkish media and friends to respond. I did so, briefly, as follows: “Turkey blamed ISIS, which Erdogan has been aiding in many ways, while also supporting the al-Nusra front, which is hardly different. He then launched a tirade against those who condemn his crimes against Kurds – who happen to be the main ground force opposing ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. Is there any need for further comment?”

Turkish academics who signed the petition were detained and threatened; others were physically attacked. Meanwhile state repression continues to escalate. The dark days of the 1990s have hardly faded from memory. As before, Turkish academics and others have demonstrated remarkable courage and integrity in vigorously opposing crimes of state, in a manner rarely to be found elsewhere, risking and sometimes enduring severe punishment for their honorable stance. There is, fortunately, growing international support for them, though it still falls far short of what is merited.

In a correspondence we had, you referred to Erdogan as “the dictator of his dreams.” What do you mean by this?

For several years, Erdogan has been taking steps to consolidate his power, reversing the encouraging steps towards democracy and freedom in Turkey in earlier years. He shows every sign of seeking to become an extreme authoritarian ruler, approaching dictatorship, and a harsh and repressive one.

The Greek crisis continues unabated and the country’s international creditors are demanding constantly additional reforms of the kind that no democratic government anywhere else in Europe would be able to implement. In some cases, in fact, their demands for more reforms are not accompanied by specific measures, giving one the impression that what is going on is nothing more than a display of brutal sadism towards the Greek people. What are your views on this matter?

The conditions imposed on Greece in the interests of creditors have devastated the country. The proclaimed goal was to reduce the debt burden, which has increased under these measures. As the economy has been undermined, GDP has naturally declined, and the debt-to-GDP ratio has increased despite radical slashing of state expenditures. Greece has been provided with debt relief, theoretically. In reality, it has become a funnel through which European aid flows to the Northern banks that made risky loans that failed and want to be bailed out by European taxpayers, a familiar feature of financial institutions in the neoliberal age.

When the Greek government suggested asking the people of Greece to express their opinions on their fate, the reaction of European elites was utter horror at the impudence. How can Greeks dare to regard democracy as a value to be respected in the country of its origin? The ruling Eurocrats reacted with utter sadism, imposing even harsher demands to reduce Greece to ruins meanwhile, no doubt, appropriating what they can for themselves. The target of the sadism is not the Greek people specifically, but anyone who dares to imagine that people might have rights that begin to compare with those of financial institutions and investors. Quite generally, the measures of austerity during recession made no economic sense, as recognized even by the economists of the IMF (though not its political actors). It is difficult to regard them as anything other than class war, seeking to undo the social democratic gains that have been one of Europe’s major contributions to modern civilization.

And your views on the Syriza-led government, which has reneged on its pre-election promises and ended up signing a new bailout agreement, thereby becoming yet another Greek government enforcing austerity and anti-popular measures?

I do not feel close enough to the situation to comment on Syriza’s specific choices, and to evaluate alternative paths that it might have pursued. Their options would have been considerably enhanced had they received meaningful support from popular forces elsewhere in Europe, as I think could have been possible.

The former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, is about to launch a new party whose aim is to carry out, as he said, “a simple but radical idea: to democratize Europe.” I have two questions for you on this matter: First, why is social democracy becoming increasingly a thing of the past in many European societies, and, second, how far can one “democratize” capitalism?

Social democracy, not just its European variant but others as well, has been under severe attack through the neoliberal period of the past generation, which has been harmful to the general population almost everywhere while benefiting tiny elites. One illustration of the obscenity of these doctrines is revealed in the study just released by Oxfam finding that the richest 1% of the world’s population will soon hold more than half of the world’s wealth. Meanwhile in the United States, the richest of the world’s major societies and with incomparable advantages, millions of children live in households that try to survive on $2 a day. Even that pittance is under attack by so-called conservatives.

How far reforms can proceed under the existing varieties of state capitalism, one can debate. But that they can go far beyond what now exists is not at all in doubt. Nor is it in doubt that every effort should be made to press them to their limits. That should be a goal even for those committed to radical social revolution, which would only lead to worse horrors if it were not to arise from the dedication of the great mass of the population who come to realize that that the centers of power will block further steps forward.

Europe’s refugee crisis has forced several EU member states, including Austria, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, to suspend the Schengen Agreement. Do you think we are in the midst of witnessing the unraveling of the EU integration project, including perhaps the single currency?

I think we should distinguish between the single currency, for which circumstances were not appropriate, and the EU integration project, which, I think, has been a major advance. It is enough to recall that for hundreds of years Europe was devoted to mutual slaughter on a horrific scale. Overcoming of national hostilities and erosion of borders is a substantial achievement. It would be a great shame if the Schengen Agreement collapses under a perceived threat that should not be difficult to manage in a humane way, and might indeed contribute to the economic and cultural health of European society.