After the crew of C-Ship – the boat hired by the far-right umbrella organisation Defend Europe to obstruct migrant rescues in the Mediterranean – were temporarily arrested in Cyprus for people smuggling last Thursday, the group’s prospects aren’t looking too sunny. The boat currently resides in Famagusta, Cyprus, some 1,000 miles from Sicily, where a dozen far-right activists were awaiting to board. But despite the absurdity of said activists resorting to donning disguises and fleeing altogether from the original pick-up point of the port of Catania, the actions of Defend Europe must be recognised as emblematic of a dangerous shift in the far-right’s tactics.
So far, British media coverage of Defend Europe has largely focused on Katie Hopkins’ involvement with the network and her increasingly desperate attempts to create profitable controversy from the aping of Nazism. But while Hopkins’ actions are clearly deplorable, the significance of the emergence of the Defend Europe network itself must not be lost.
The organisation is largely drawn from the pan-European anti-immigrant, anti-Islam ‘Identitarian Movement’. The group specialises in slick YouTube videos, where telegenic, well-spoken millennials bemoan the destruction of the European identity and implore the protection of the continent’s borders. The Identitarians, as they like to call themselves, have a recent history of increasingly ambitious stunts to promote their message. In August last year, they scaled Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, dropping a banner reading ‘Secure Borders – Secure Future’. In May, as a precursor to the birth of the Defend Europe mission, Identitarians alongside Canadian alt-right vlogger Lauren Southern were arrested after shooting flares at a Médecins Sans Frontières vessel as it left the port of Catania to conduct a migrant search-and-rescue mission.
Defend Europe, like their alt-right allies in the US, have realised the potential of good PR. The marches of angry and invariably aggressive middle-aged white men only attract a narrow following, as the countless failures of far-right street movements turned political parties have shown. By contrast, many of the most successful alt-right social media platforms are run by college-educated young women who put across their white nationalist message in a gentler tone – notably Brittany Pettibone and the aforementioned Southern, both of whom travelled to Catania, appearing in videos with Defend Europe’s leading figure Martin Sellner. Sellner – who as an Identitarian leader once threw fake blood across a Vienna theatre in protest at a performance by a refugee cast – has dramatically changed tack, claiming that Defend Europe is about “saving lives” and combating criminal NGOs complicit in human trafficking. Through savvy manipulation of their public image, the far-right are learning from previous mistakes and are attempting to appeal to previously unengaged demographics. Defend Europe, by appealing to the liberal value of humanitarianism, offer a sugar-coated brand of anti-immigrant vigilantism.
But this is not the only shift in the tactics of the far-right. Much of the anti-immigrant vigilantism that has been increasing in the West is being presented by its perpetrators as substitutive action for the failings of the state. Borne out of the confrontations at Berkeley in February following the cancellation of a talk by alt-right poster boy Milo Yiannopoulos, the US men’s chauvinist street-fighting group the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights (FOAK), who organise rallies in defence of ‘free speech’, frame their action in these terms. While retaining much of the imagery of older fascist groups, members assemble to protect far-right speakers when delivering lectures and stop the removal of Confederate flags from government buildings. The FOAK, alongside the Oath Keepers (a group of “heavily armed extremists” who take vows to defend the US constitution) have made liberal Berkeley, once host to the 1960s Free Speech Movement, their new battleground. Likewise, in defending borders and policing the seas, Defend Europe are attempting to extend the state in their own image, pushing the debate rightwards by presenting themselves as ‘filling in’ where governments are failing. In short, the far-right is expanding beyond a movement of street protests and party politics towards increasingly ambitious parastate, paramilitary activity.
The tactics of the far-right present an evolving challenge for the left. Networks like Defend Europe will need to both be physically confronted (as a flotilla of anti-fascists in Catania have been doing) and politically challenged. The adoption of an internationalist programme with a focus on migrants’ countries of origin is essential, and their rights must be upheld. Without such a response, we can expect the action being taken by Defend Europe to become commonplace.