The Failures of Fortress Europe
Exiting the Channel Tunnel and arriving into mainland Europe, is a sight which no photo app is able to filter into a social media post worthy of love heart emoji. That must wait until the train rolls past miles of concrete walls, giant metal fences topped with coils of razor wire, gates and guards with guns. CCTV documents some of the realities only those employed to detain and those who are detained see. The carriage is silent, the passengers who are still awake either look then look away, choosing to be absorbed in something less ugly. Some choose to fix their gazes out the window, avoiding eye contact when they move their attention away from this public display of (border) control.
In the days before I left for Paris, the UK was delivered – bypassing a general election – its second Prime Minister in three years and talk of Scottish independence intensified as a result. The Prime Minister’s newly formed Cabinet, though deemed to be the youngest and most ethnically diverse in history, attracted criticism from across the political spectrum. Several top positions were filled by those from a Black and minority ethnic background, including two of the most powerful; the Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. This manoeuvre, draws attention to problems of a ‘representation’ which rewards a minority who preserve existing exploitative and oppressive structures, which further marginalise the marginalised. And, depending on what incomprehensible harms are pursued by this Government – and more broadly, representation which aligns itself with assimilation – could undo years of Black and people of colour solidarity.
As the train sped its way into more aesthetically pleasing surroundings and fellow travelers appeared to be more at ease with the European landscape which unfolded before them, campaign rhetoric and the frenzied debates which have since followed the European Union Referendum crossed my mind.
Was a vote to Remain a vote for Fortress Europe?
For over twenty years, the EU has been conducting the most extensive, well developed and far-reaching border enforcement programme in history, largely in an attempt to prevent ‘illegal’ immigration – a category that generally refers to undocumented ‘economic migrants’ and refugees from poor countries and the Third World. Since 1993, atleast 36,570 refugees have died as a result of polices enforced by fortress Europe. As ever, the lives of black and brown people are at the sharp end of the border controls that European progressives are keen to invisibilise.
I was in Paris to attend Nyansapo, an Afrofeminist festival hosted by Mwasi Collective – a group formed by Black women in 2014 as a collective response to racist, heteronormative and capitalist systems. When organising the first Nyansapo festival in 2017, Mwasi Collective received backlash from French anti-racism organisations and the far-right National Front, which culminated in the Mayor of Paris threatening to prosecute the organisers for discrimination. What discriminatory practice were they undertaking? Designing the festival so that some of the workshops held at it were to be attended solely by Black women.
This year, held over the course of a weekend, Nyansapo consisted of intensive (re)learning via workshops and discussions. To help address immediate needs of support and mutual aid, sisterhood and self-love was given equal importance to the workshops and the sharing of meals, encourage of honest yet difficult conversations and dance were central to the festival. Though a group of English speaking attendees were present, Nyansapo 2019 was conducted in French, with translation services provided for English speakers. Though this made me aware of my being ‘different’ amongst people who are very much ‘like’ me, I was appreciative of the decision (intentionally or not) to conduct the festival in French. It reminded me of my identity is presented and the ways in which, the people who would most benefit from this festival – Black women in France – would not because a small minority’s inability to experience discomfort was being enabled.
Struggling to choose from a range of workshops which sought to theoretically place topics ranging from the Gilets Jaune (Yellow Vests), the Afro-feminist position against prisons, and colourism, to practical workshops on podcasting, French Sign Language (and even a dance class for teens, I settled for Migration: Fortress Europe hosted by Spanish Collectives MAPA 12N, Ayllu and El Espacio Afrofeminista, Feminist struggle in Haiti hosted by Neges Mawon and Formal Education and Anti-Racism: Are Our Classes/Courses Anti-Racist? hosted by Abou and Many Chronicles.
Taking some time to process the collective Black woman experiences and learning I’d been absorbing, I walked through central Paris, where the divisions, inequalities and state sanctioned violence discussed at Nyansapo were made visible on the streets. At Place de la République, people gathered to remember Adama Traoré, a young Black man who three years earlier and like Sheku Bayoh here in Scotland, died in police custody. The loud but peaceful demonstration was disrupted by the arrival of the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS) – French riot police – charging through the crowds, chasing down, conducting stop and searches and in some cases detaining Yellow Vests protestors. As Europe crumbles under the weight of its colonial and ecological debt – state sanctioned actions – sometimes performed by private actors will become evermore extreme.
Upon returning to Scotland, I watched the multi-layered political situation continue to stagnate, the failing systems kept relevant only by lurching from one mini crisis to another.
For over five years, supporters of Scottish independence – particularly those who joined the SNP post 2014 – were told to be ready, long before the EU Referendum. They have waited and continued to organise outside of a SNP independence framework. They’ve waited whilst senior figures in the party they support attack them for wanting a Scottish Independence rooted in the radical left. As people become disillusioned, they often look elsewhere and find successes in the actions of political ideologies which are less progressive and more right leaning and Scotland is not immune to this.
Scotland may or may not have another chance to disrupt the status quo but these divisive times still offer an opportunity to confront the failings and harms of neo-liberal agendas and demonstrate a deep reconciliation. Unlearning and relearning together, won’t be easy, but with collective sincerity, we as a people are able. The key question is, are we willing?