Europe is slowly but surely ‘inching towards the Far Right’ | Neil Falzon

Human rights activist NEIL FALZON, of the NGO Aditus, warns that – by appeasing Far Right governments – the European Union risks lowering its own standards of human rights protection  

Human rights activist Neil Falzon, of the NGO Aditus
Human rights activist Neil Falzon, of the NGO Aditus

Ever since 2020, the European Union has been discussing a new Asylum and Migration Pac’; and while there have been several reported ‘breakthroughs’, over the years… we still seem to be no closer to a final agreement. The latest round of these talks (Med-9), were held in Malta last month. So what sort of outcome were you hoping for; and what is your reaction to the actual outcome (such that it was)?   

OK: let me start by just giving some context, because it's important to understand the backdrop against which these discussions are taking place.  

First of all, the EU has had common rules on asylum since around 2002/2003. There have been a number of reforms since then: because there's always the idea that they want to improve the legislative package, to make it more efficient, more effective, etc…  

Nonetheless, at the moment we DO have common asylum rules: which are far from perfect, mind you… but they're there; and they’re quite solid, and quite robust.  

The problem with the current system, however, is that there are some member states (including Hungary, Poland, Italy, and others) which - because of an increasing right-wing sentiment in the country - have basically decided to stop obeying those rules. They're sort of ‘opting out’, of the legal system that currently exists.  

And unfortunately, what has happened is that the other member states - with this idea of trying to create as much unity as possible - have decided to revisit the existing rules, again; to make them more ‘palatable’ to as many member states as possible.  

Essentially, this means ‘lowering standards’ to get more member states on board… 

The member states you mention – especially Italy – seem to have considerable influence over the direction of the EU’s migration policy. Last month, Italian prime Minister Giorgia Meloni insisted that she would only agree to any ‘new migration pact’, if it contained a ‘condemnation of rescue NGOs, operating in the Mediterranean’. Just a few days ago, Council of Europe President Charles Michel echoed that sentiment, by openly questioning the work of these NGOs. Do you feel, then, that the European Union itself is gravitating towards the Far Right? 

Our feeling is definitely that: yes, member states are increasingly moving towards the right, in terms of their approach to human rights. The sentiment you mentioned, about targeting NGOs, had also been expressed by Byron Camilleri, our own Home Affairs Minister, some time ago.  

It's very worrying, to us, that member states - instead of pulling their own socks up, and fulfilling their legal obligations – are simply picking on those entities who ARE ultimately saving lives.  

Because I think we must emphasize, and keep repeating, that the NGOs out at sea are saving lives. Let’s face it: the Mediterranean has become Europe's largest cemetery. The amount of people dying each year, is simply staggering… 

But this movement to the right, that we’re seeing across Europe, is worrying for other reasons. One of the problems right now - and this is something that people really should understand - is that this right-wing sentiment is not just targeted against ‘black people’, or ‘immigrants’ in general.  

If, again, you look at Hungary, Poland, and even Italy: we're now starting to see attacks on other minorities. The LGBT population, for example: Poland had its very famous ‘LGBT-Free Cities’, and ‘LGBT-Free Zones’… and now Meloni has decided to pick on lesbian mothers; and remove their motherhood, in terms of legal status.  

So when we speak about the rise of the right wing, our concern is not that it's only going to affect refugees and migrants… but other extremely vulnerable groups, too. Because once a government feels that it can take back someone's rights… there's no stopping it.  

And that is our big fear. We're already starting to see it spread, to other parts of Europe… 

The implications of what you’re saying are that – assuming that any final agreement is even reached, all – the ‘New Asylum and Migration Pact’ itself will be at least partly ‘dictated by the Far Right’. So what sort of agreement are you actually expecting? 

Now: we – and by ‘we’, I’m referring to a huge coalition of human rights NGOs, all over Europe - have been battling this new reform for a number of years, precisely because we are worried at the direction it is taking. 

What we've been seeing, is that the new package - which the Commission wants to have adopted before next year’s EP elections; because once the elections are over, so are the discussions – is only going to keep setting human rights standards extremely, extremely low.  

For example: there's a lot of emphasis on ‘mandatory use of detention’, across all the border states. So countries like Greece, Malta, and eastern borders will have to use even more detention, to control the EU’s borders: including detention of families, children, and other vulnerable groups. 

Meanwhile, there's very little in terms of changing the rule that ‘the first country you've entered, will be the country handling the asylum process’… 

The infamous ‘Dublin 2 Treaty’, you mean? (which Malta has been protesting about for decades)? 

Yes. And to us, that's very important. Because there's very little, in the new rules, which changes the problems that we all know to exist, in Dublin II. So people are basically going to remain stuck, in very difficult circumstances.  

The new rules also make it extremely difficult for refugees to actually get an asylum procedure, even in those ‘countries of first-entry’. They include restrictions on eligibility; and they place obstacles on how you can actually get to the stage of the interview … all of which will make it very, very difficult for people to actually get a proper asylum procedure: as is their right, according to international law.  

Again, this is all in the interest of having more member states, signing up to the new rules… which inevitably means that, around the negotiating table – which is now increasingly made up of Far Right governments - the standards are only going to just keep plummeting.  

So what we have been focusing on, as NGOs, is campaigning with the European Parliament: because our hope lies with the EP, now that it has been made a co-legislator. Now, the European Parliament has at least the potential to push those standards back up again… and hopefully, even higher. 

Above all, we’re hoping that the European Parliament will not give in to the pressure of governments; and that it really insists, that at least the fundamentals and basics of human rights will remain in place. Because we're speaking about people fleeing from persecution and war. Those people need to have a proper process, and they need to be treated fairly… 

Well: we’re also talking about FAILED asylum seekers, here: i.e., people have no legal right to asylum; and who can be legally deported. Yet we all know that countries like Libya and Tunisia have a history of systematic human rights abuses, especially when it comes to returned migrants. Now: my understanding is that - under the existing rules - deportation to ‘unsafe countries’ is a crime called ‘refoulement’, regardless of the deportee’s status. Am I to understand, then, that the EU is changing direction on that front, too? 

There hasn't been a ‘change in direction’, as such… but there has certainly been a change in what governments are willing to do, to reach their political aims.  

If you look at, for example, the recent European ‘arrangements’ with Tunisia - where the EU is trying to pump billions of euros into that country, to potentially to act as a kind of ‘border manager’, on its own behalf – well, it's failing miserably.  

Why? One reason is that Tunisia has made it clear that that it's not willing to accept this new role. It's not even accepting the funds, in fact.  

But another is that, if you look at what Tunisia has been doing to refugees on its own territory – including ‘dumping people in the desert’; widespread reports of torture, and beatings; and the incredible levels of violence, targeting refugees and other minorities… it is manifestly clear that these are not governments we can trust, on a human rights level. 

And the fact that it's now not just one or two European governments, engaging with such countries… but the EU as a whole, on an institutional level… that is extremely worrying, to us.  

Even because, quite frankly, we’re also beginning to see indications that this ‘movement towards the right’ is being felt locally, too. A case in point being – OK, this might this might sound a bit ‘off-topic’; but we're also really worried about that recent episode of ‘Popolin’, on TVM, where a public personality spoke about her perceived relationship between disability and religion...  

I don’t think it’s ‘off-topic’, at all. The Phyllisienne Brincat case is also ultimately about human rights (specifically, Freedom of Expression). And there’s also such a thing as the ‘Religious Right’, apart from the political one. So go ahead… 

For us, the fact that someone like that was invited by the national broadcaster to speak - knowing full-well what her views are – is a sign that we, too, have lowered our standards, in terms of what's considered ‘acceptable’, or not. And we consider that to be another slow step towards the right: because it's all about the same thing, ultimately. 

Anyone who does not conform to the views of the established majority, is somehow going to be ‘targeted’, ‘picked on’, ‘made illegal’, and – in a nutshell – ‘not welcome’… 

At the same time, however, some might argue (I happen to be one of them) that – regardless how ‘odious’ Brincat’s views about disability may be – she still has a right to express them, according to at least two fundamental human rights (Freedom of Expression, and Freedom of Religion). Wouldn’t you agree? 

Oh, absolutely. You are entitled to believe whatever you want; you're entitled to think whatever you want, about anyone in the world. Nobody is there to control your thoughts, or what you choose to believe in. And as a human rights NGO, we would stick to that fervently. 

But to us, the problem is not that this person has those beliefs, or even that she expresses them. The problem is that she was invited to do so, by the Public Broadcaster… 

… which, ironically, afterwards ‘dissociated itself’, from the comments it had been the one to invite, in the first place… 

[Laughing] Exactly! Joking apart, however: to us, it’s a serious matter. Because it’s not just about ‘what people think’, or ‘what people say’. It’s also about what sort of standards we should be setting, for national discussion… 

However, Brincat is not the only one who has said ‘hurtful’ things, in the name of religion. Other TV personalities like Gordon John Manche have described homosexuality as an ‘aberration’ (which can be cured through ‘gay-conversion therapy’, etc.). Do you feel there is a difference in the way we respond to the ‘religious’ right, versus the ‘political’ one? That we tend to justify the former, on the grounds that even such extreme beliefs, are ultimately covered by ‘Freedom of Religion’? 

Well… part of the problem is definitely that religion, in itself, has historically always tended to clash with human rights. Because religion positions itself in such a way, as to use its own ‘moral authority’ to judge people, and certain sectors of society… and, for instance, to describe their way of life as ‘inferior’, ‘immoral’, ‘inappropriate’, etc.  

But that is precisely why we also have legislation which protects people from Free Expression, and from religious persecution. That is why we have laws about hate speech, and hate crimes, and other forms of invasion of privacy. So you are free to believe whatever you want, yes… but only as long as you don't harm anyone else, who is living beside you.  

Because ultimately - and this is the whole idea of having ‘human rights’, to begin with - we're living together in a community. And human rights try to make that community live together, and function together, harmoniously.  

So yes, you can believe what you want. Just don't harm others with your views, that’s all... 

Coming back to the migration issue: human rights NGOs such as Aditus, are often criticised for being ‘unrealistic’ in their demands. For instance: it is all well and good to talk about having ‘efficient, expedient’ asylum application processes… but then, you get a situation like Lampedusa’s, last month: when literally thousands of asylum seekers arrive, within days. How do you propose dealing with an emergency like that, from a human rights perspective?   

One thing I think we should keep in mind - and people tend to forget this – is that when the war in Ukraine broke out, two years ago... Europe was also facing a ‘human rights emergency’.  There were hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the country, from one day to the next: which is exactly what you also see when wars break out in other parts of the world… in Somalia, for instance; or in Syria… 

But as we can all see: the approach was entirely different, in the case of Ukraine. Suddenly, we had a very quick and efficient procedures in place, for persons fleeing that war to get protection. They received their documents within days or weeks; and they were encouraged to get a job as soon as possible, to become self-reliant.  

The EU also eased all of its Visa requirements, so that people could come in freely. More importantly, we allow those persons to move around freely within European Union, and for their families to be united....  

So our question to the EU is: if you were capable of showing the political will, to do something like that in one war context - and it worked, too: because I think everyone agrees that Europe’s response to the Ukraine war, while maybe not ‘perfect’, was certainly ‘successful’ - why can't we take lessons learned from all of that, and apply them to the other ‘war context’?  

What's going on in Greece, Italy, Malta – and especially Lampedusa - is entirely analogous, to the Ukrainian refugee crisis. So why can’t we replicate that response, in this area too?  

But at least, the Ukrainian experience shows us that it IS perfectly possible – and therefore, not ‘unrealistic’ at all - to handle even the largest refugee emergencies, with efficiency and fairness…  and without violating anybody’s human rights.  

So why are we not doing that, with refugees crossing the Mediterranean? That’s the question we’ve been asking the EU, for some time now. And it remains pending, to this day…