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Protests against immigration add to EU woes

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

AS EUROPE struggles to keep Greece from default and to hold its common currency together, violent protests against immigration in Slovakia and election results in Denmark at the weekend have strengthened the forces of disunion unleashed by an impassioned debate over how to deal with a flood of migrants from conflict zones.

The protests in Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava, organised by an extremist outfit called Stop the Islamisation of Europe, ended with more than 100 arrests on Saturday.

They played out just two days after the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party, once dismissed as an assembly of marginal cranks, won more than 20% of the vote in parliamentary elections in Denmark.

The events in Slovakia and Denmark, both members of the European Union (EU), added to a sense of disarray in the 28-nation bloc as it simultaneously grapples with two severe crises: a wave of desperate migrants fleeing war and poverty, and the prospect that Greece may default on loan payments due at the end of the month and even leave the group of 19 countries that use the euro.

The anti-immigrant protests in Bratislava took place as regional leaders and security analysts gathered in the city for a conference focused on yet another concern for Europe: the security threat posed by a resurgent Russia. In its response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year, however, Europe has managed to maintain a degree of unity, and on Monday it was to ratify a six-month extension of sanctions, diplomats in Brussels say.

The question of Greece and the migrant issue have spread only discord. Negotiations to unblock funding for Greece, most recently last Thursday at a meeting of eurozone finance ministers in Luxembourg, have descended into acrimonious deadlock, and bitter divisions have also opened up in the EU over how to deal with an influx of migrants.

More than 1,800 people have died this year while trying to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean on rickety boats provided by traffickers.

The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, announced a series of proposals last month to deal with the crisis, including mandatory quotas to spread at least 40,000 migrants around Europe. It hailed the plan as proof that Europe could respond with unity and solidarity to a problem that has put huge strain on nations such as Italy, Greece and Malta, which have taken most of the migrants fleeing conflict from North Africa.

But the plan, which is backed by Germany, immediately ran into fierce opposition from a number of countries, particularly in eastern and central Europe, whose own citizens have flooded into wealthier nations in western Europe to find work but where public opinion is strongly against taking in Arab and African migrants.

More than 50,000 migrants have arrived in Italy alone this year, according to Frontex, the EU agency that helps protect the bloc’s borders. Most of them are stuck in legal limbo, awaiting word on whether they will be granted asylum or given other lawful status so they can settle and work.

Denmark has the right to opt out of EU policy on immigration, as does Britain, but populist Danish politicians, nonetheless, seized on Brussels’ quota proposal before last week’s elections as an example of unacceptable meddling by the EU in the sovereign affairs of member countries.

Unlike the Danish People’s Party, which has tried to curb more extremist voices, Slovakian anti-immigration groups that gathered in Bratislava openly paraded their racism.

Speaking at the rally, Marian Kotleba, governor of a central Slovak region, wished protesters a "happy white day" and described the protest as an attempt to "save Slovakia" from the European quota programme.

"Even one immigrant is one too many," said Mr Kotleba, a founder of the People’s Party — Our Slovakia.

A Saudi family was attacked near the main railway station, and protesters destroyed at least six police cars, according to news reports.

Organisers said about 6,000 people took part in the protest, which disrupted a cycle race around Bratislava’s medieval castle. But local news reports estimated the crowd at 3,000 to 5,000 — still a large number by the standards of Slovakia, where street protests usually attract far fewer people. When a speaker asked protesters whether they would mind if he burned the EU’s blue 12-star flag, the crowd shouted "No." A flag was later set on fire.

While the protest was dominated by extremist groups, including a neo-Nazi one, mainstream politicians have also condemned the quota proposals.

At the security conference on Friday, Slovakia Prime Minister Robert Fico said his country and its neighbours Hungary and Poland "refuse the principle" of mandatory quotas. He denounced the European Commission for what he called a "risky strategy" of trying to force countries to share in accepting migrants.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has clashed repeatedly with Brussels over issues such as the death penalty and what critics call his authoritarian ways, says every country has a duty to defend its own borders from unwanted outsiders, suggesting that Italy and Greece has failed to do so and should not now expect help from others. "To defend borders is a national responsibility," he says. "As a state, you have to protect your own borders. I don’t believe in a European solution."

The meeting will be followed on Thursday by another gathering to discuss the migrant crisis.

The migrant quota plan, which would force Slovakia to take about 700 migrants who landed in Italy and Greece, never had much chance of winning widespread approval, prompting criticism that the program from the start was largely a public relations exercise by the European Commission to create an illusion of action.

In a post on his Facebook page, Slovakia’s president, Andrej Kiska, voiced sympathy for countries facing the greatest influx. "I repeat that there are no easy solutions to this problem," he said. "But we can’t leave everything on the states that are hit the hardest. If we don’t start to cooperate, the European problem can become a global one. If we are not able to explain why we need to help people in need, we leave the space for the extremists. And we can’t let that happen."

Source: NYTimes 

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