Noam Chomsky on Europe’s Refugee Crisis and the Endless Greek Debt Drama


Professor Noam Chomsky talks about Europe’s refugee crisis and the Greek debt drama in an exclusive interview.

Europe is torn apart as there is no end to the arrival of ever greater number of refugees and migrants, while many European countries, especially in the south, continue facing severe economic problems such as unacceptable unemployment levels, high debt-to-GDP ratios, and increasing poverty and exclusion for their youths.

What does the world’s leading public intellectual, renowned MIT linguist, philosopher and social critic Noam Chomsky, author of over 100 books and thousands of articles, think about current developments in Europe?

Why do you think Europe’s refugee crisis is happening now?

The crisis has been building up for a long time. It is hitting Europe now because it has burst the bounds, from the Middle East and from Africa.

Two western sledgehammer blows had a dramatic effect. The first was the US-UK invasion of Iraq, which dealt a nearly lethal blow to a country that had already been devastated by a massive military attack twenty years earlier followed by virtually genocidal US-UK sanctions. Apart from the slaughter and destruction, the brutal occupation ignited a sectarian conflict that is now tearing the country and the entire region apart. The invasion displaced millions of people, many of whom fled and were absorbed in the neighboring countries, poor countries that are left to deal somehow with the detritus of our crimes. One outgrowth of the invasion is the ISIS/Daesh monstrosity, which is contributing to the horrifying Syrian catastrophe. Again, the neighboring countries have been absorbing the flow of refugees. Turkey alone has over 2 million Syrian refugees. At the same time it is contributing to the flow by its policies in Syria: supporting the extremist al-Nusra front and other radical Islamists and attacking the Kurds who are the main ground force opposing ISIS — which has also benefited from not-so-tacit Turkish support. But the flood can no longer be contained within the region.

The second sledgehammer blow destroyed Libya, now a chaos of warring groups, an ISIS base, a rich source of jihadis and weapons from West Africa to the Middle East, and a funnel for flow of refugees from Africa. That at once brings up longer term factors. For centuries, Europe has been torturing Africa or to put it more mildly, exploiting Africa for Europe’s own development, to adopt the recommendation of the top US planner George Kennan after World War II. The history, which should be familiar, is beyond grotesque. To take just a single case, consider Belgium, now groaning under a refugee crisis. Its wealth derived in no small measure from “exploiting” the Congo with brutality that exceeded even its European competitors. Congo finally won its freedom in 1960. It could have become a rich and advanced country once freed from Belgium s clutches, spurring Africa’s development as well. There were real prospects, under the leadership of Patrice Lumumba, one of the most promising figures in Africa. He was targeted for assassination by the CIA, but the Belgians got there first. His body was cut to pieces and dissolved in sulfuric acid. The US and its allies supported the murderous kleptomaniac Mobutu. By now Eastern Congo is the scene of the world’ s worst slaughters, assisted by US favorite Rwanda while warring militias feed the craving of western multinationals for minerals for cell phones and other high tech wonders. The picture generalizes to much of Africa, exacerbated by innumerable crimes. For Europe, all of this becomes a refugee crisis.

European Union officials are having an exceedingly difficult time coping with the refugee crisis as many EU member states are unwilling to do their part and accept anything more than just a handful of refugees. What does this say about EU governance and the values of many European societies?

EU governance works very efficiently to impose harsh austerity measures that devastate poorer countries and benefit northern banks. But it has broken down almost completely when addressing a human catastrophe that is in substantial part the result of western crimes. The burden has fallen on the few who were willing at least temporarily — to do more than lift a finger, like Sweden and Germany. Many others have just closed their borders. Europe is trying to induce Turkey to keep the miserable wrecks away from its borders, just as the US is doing, pressuring Mexico to prevent those trying to escape the ruins of US crimes in Central America from reaching US borders. This is even described as a humane policy which reduces “illegal immigration.”

What does all of this tell us about prevailing values? It is hard even to use the word values,” let alone to comment. That s particularly when writing in the United States, probably the safest country in the world, now consumed by a debate over whether to allow Syrians in at all because one might be a terrorist pretending to be a doctor, or at the extremes which unfortunately is in the US mainstream whether to allow any Muslims in at all, while a huge wall protects us from immigrants fleeing from the wreckage south of the border.

The Greek crisis continues unabated and the country’s international creditors are demanding constantly additional reforms of the kind that no democratic government anywhere else in Europe would be able to implement. In some cases, in fact, their demands for more reforms are not accompanied by specific measures, giving one the impression that what is going on is nothing more than a display of brutal sadism towards the Greek people. What are your views on this matter?

The conditions imposed on Greece in the interests of creditors have devastated the country. The proclaimed goal was to reduce the debt burden, which has increased under these measures. As the economy has been undermined, GDP has naturally declined, and the debt-to-GDP ratio has increased despite radical slashing of state expenditures. Greece has been provided with debt relief, theoretically. In reality, it has become a funnel through which European aid flows to the northern banks that made risky loans that failed and want to be bailed out by European taxpayers, a familiar feature of financial institutions in the neoliberal age. When the Greek government suggested asking the people of Greece to express their opinions on their fate, the reaction of European elites was utter horror at the impudence. How can Greeks dare to regard democracy as a value to be respected in the country of its origin. The ruling Eurocrats reacted with utter sadism, imposing even harsher demands to reduce Greece to ruins meanwhile, no doubt, appropriating what they can for themselves. The target of the sadism is not the Greek people specifically, but anyone who dares to imagine that people might have rights that begin to compare with those of financial institutions and investors. Quite generally, the measures of austerity during recession made no economic sense, as recognized even by the economists of the IMF (though not its political actors). It is difficult to regard them as anything other than class war, seeking to undo the social democratic gains that have been one of Europe’s major contributions to modern civilization.

Europe’s refugee crisis has forced several EU member states, including Austria, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands, to suspend the Schengen agreement. Do you think we are in the midst of witnessing the unravelling of the EU integration project, including perhaps the single currency?

I think we should distinguish between the single currency, for which circumstances were not appropriate, and the EU integration project, which, I think, has been a major advance. It is enough to recall that for hundreds of years Europe was one of the most savage regions on earth, devoted to mutual slaughter on a horrific scale. Overcoming of national hostilities and erosion of borders is a substantial achievement. It would be a great shame if the Schengen agreement collapses under a perceived threat that should not be difficult to manage in a humane way, and might indeed contribute to the economic and cultural health of European society.

This is a segment of an interview conducted by C.J. Polychroniou for