When we put up fences we make it easier for the extremists

Gianni Pittella talks about the future of the left-wing in Europe and the migrant crisis.

Santiago de la Presilla
7 October 2015

Santiago de la Presilla: The European Union seems to be making a shift to the right, whether it’s France’s Front National or the Sweden Democrats. Even last year’s European elections saw a rise of far-right parties, how do you stop this tendency?

Gianni Pittella: The only way to stop this tendency is to find the right answers to the needs of our citizens, we need to change economic policies. To stop austerity, in particular. Therefore opening a new phase that is focused on growth and job creation.

Secondly, it’s necessary to give concrete answers to the refugees issues, as well as immigration. The rise of the radical right-wing depends on the lack of answers given in this year by Europe in regards to this crisis.

I wouldn’t be the only one to consider Poland a conservative country. The SLD (Democratic Left Alliance) are still picking up the pieces from the latest presidential elections and PiS (Law and Justice) and PO (Civic Platform) are both considered right-wing parties. How do you relaunch socialism in a country that suffered from communism for such a long period of its history?

Starting from the needs of the citizens, first of all, the need for jobs and equity. In Poland inequality is a big problem. Deep imbalances between the rich and poor; this is the first issue that we have to face as socialists and progressives in order to regain the confidence of the people.

On immigration, why do you think that the V4 group is so keen on not taking any migrants from the current crisis? On the latest deal the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania opposed to the mandatory quotas. Poland opposed it at first but ultimately backtracked. Where do you think this east and west division comes from?

Apparently the positions were changed on the last minute because in the European Council there was no problem. The decision was taken by unanimity, I don’t have elements to confirm mentioned block by the V4. In any case, we need to avoid the division of Europe between north and south in the case of the Greek crisis, just as we have to avoid the vision between east and west provoked by the refugee crisis. It’s a great mistake to divide Europe in this moment of crisis.

Do you consider all migrants coming to Europe as refugees? There seems to be a war of words between countries and political parties. Do you think that a Syrian who goes to Turkey as a refugee and then leaves to Europe in search of a better life is a migrant or a refugee on your book?

The majority of these people are refugees, don’t forget that they are escaping from the war. The problem could be solved immediately by creating hotspots. This is one decision that has already been made. Whether it’s in Italy or Greece, we can create various hotspots which their main function would be to verify the conditions in order for asylum seekers to obtain certification, or to certificate that they indeed are economic migrants. One thing are refugees and another thing are economic migrants. We also have to ensure the compulsory distribution of refugees and ensure legal corridors so everybody can be put to work.

If we’re talking about quotas, how can you make sure a refugee that was assigned to live in Slovakia, for example, doesn’t move to Sweden?

I don’t think Schengen is the problem. Schengen ensures free mobility within Europe, I exclude the possibility to reduce or to abolish Schengen. It’s one of the pillars of the EU.

Then what do you say to the critics that highlight the fact that Europe’s security situation is very different from that of when the Schengen agreement was put into effect?

These people will come to Europe regardless of Schengen. Schengen or not, these people come because they’re fleeing war, they come despite the razor wire fences. It’s crazy to believe that if there’s no Schengen these people will remain in Africa.

I invite citizens to not listen to these populist and demagogic positions. These positions are not real, they’re just aimed at obtaining votes on the short term, but not to resolve the real problems.

You called for the suspension of Slovak PM Robrt Fico’s party (SMER) from the Party of European Socialists (PES) for his position on the refugee crisis. He said that 90% of all the people coming to Europe are in fact economic migrants, is that why?

Fico declared he could accept only Christians. This is unacceptable, and I say that as a Christian. I cannot accept that our community, our society is made or composed only by people who profess one religion. This is a position that’s incompatible with the values and the principles of European socialism.

So just because he disagrees with you on immigration, that’s enough for his party to be suspended?

This isn’t just one issue. This is one of the most important values: solidarity. The idea of a multicultural, multireligious society belongs in the party’s DNA.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. How do you change public opinion on Muslims? I also want to know why do you think Muslim minorities in France, Sweden and Germany, to just name a few, have had trouble adapting and/or subscribing to European values?

This is the problem, if some politicians in the media present Muslim immigrants and refugees as terrorists, it’s clear that people will be afraid. But this is simply not true, many terrorists are unfortunately born in Europe.

Then who is to blame for having homegrown terrorists?

This just shows that being a terrorist is not linked to being Muslim or Christian, the problem is that to build a multicultural community; just like Brussels as an example of one of the most successful multicultural cities, people cannot be excluded. In Brussels there are Arabs, Jews and Christians, I don’t think that Brussels is a city where there is a problem with terrorism.

Take the example of Turks, Bosnians and Albanian Muslims living in Europe, it’s not related to the religion. When we reject on the basis of religious difference, we just give further arguments to the radicals so they can call more young people to join their movement. Just so they can say that the “west is against us [Muslims]”.

When we put up fences we make it easier for the extremists.

Speaking of fences, what about the threats of using article 7 of the EU Treaty against Hungary? Are these empty threats or is it on the table?

We are discussing this possibility, but regardless of this juridical aspect, our stigmatization of Victor Orban’s government is clear. We expressed on many occasions our dissent about the initiatives taken by Hungary’s PM: the razor fences, the use of tear gas and rubber bullets. The lack of respect of human rights are an evidence of a lack of democracy. We ask the Hungarian people to change via the democratic process. One could write a book about all this!

Gianni Pittella is the president of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) since 2014 and a Member of the European Parliament since 1999. He is also a member of the Italian Democratic Party (PD).

Santiago de la Presilla is a Warsaw-based journalist, contributor for the Warsaw Business Journal and the defence blog War is Boring. He writes mostly about European politics, the Ukraine crisis and foreign policy.

Photo by Santiago de la Presilla

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