Europe and populism: It’s time for European politicians to grow up about immigration

16 September 2018 – VoxEurop

Once again, right-wing populism is making waves in a European election. This time, the Sweden Democrats upset Swedish politics by expanding their share of the vote by about 5 percent, to the detriment of the centre-left and centre-right. Immigration was this election’s central theme, as it has been in numerous voting cycles across the continent. It is yet another episode of the festival of artful dodging that has become Europe’s immigration debate, say two Cambridge researchers.

The Sweden Democrats acted as if Europe is stubbornly refusing to even entertain the idea of limiting immigration, and centrist parties barely refuted this claim, despite reality showing otherwise. A tell-tale example of such beating-around-the-bush came a few weeks ago, when Italy’s new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, put a halt to illegal immigration to southern Italy. One of the first boats to be turned away by the Italian Navy was the Aquarius: a vessel carrying 629 immigrants rescued off the coast of Libya.

In Spain, the brand new centre-left president Pedro Sánchez saw a golden opportunity to increase his popularity, and offered the port of Valencia in the east of Spain to take in the stressed-out immigrants. No other country in the EU offered its help. Upon arrival in Spain, the Aquarius immigrants were granted certain privileges that other immigrants to Spain were normally not allowed, raising questions about whether Sánchez’s move would be sustainable and fair in the long term.  

Salvini took Sanchez’ act of solidarity to mean that he could turn away migrants without suffering the consequences of being held responsible for the fate of human beings huddled together on unseaworthy motorboats or NGO vessels. He started systematically turning migrant ships away, and Sanchez became wary of Spain picking up what Italy put down and becoming the go-to destination for migrants leaving from Libya. He then quickly reverted to Spain’s long-held policy of strict immigration policies, and the NGO’s in the Mediterranean found themselves with very few political allies, often having to spend days before any EU country allowed them to dock in their ports.

French president Emmanuel Macron was happy to join the fight between his neighbours, and accused Italy’s government of “cynicism and irresponsibility”.

Undeterred, Salvini took the opportunity to bring up a long-lasting feud between his country and France: the border controls on the French-Italian border, imposed by France to stop illegal immigrants from entering. The political spat exacerbated and seemed to be headed for escalation, until Macron visited Italy and kind of apologised for his faux pas. Even more remarkably, Macron then joined the Italian government in its criticism of NGO boats, saying they served as “taxis” for human traffickers.

Shortly after, Salvini met Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán in Italy at a conference, and the two proceeded to attack European immigration policy, conveniently neglecting to mention that the EU had just adopted an immigration proposal by Orbán (who is known to rail against European elites for not taking him or his fellow immigration skeptics seriously) a few months ago.

Perhaps seeking to regain some face from his spat with Salvini a few months before, Macron reacted with a fierce statement against Europe’s populists, envisioning a figurative battle for the European soul between what he calls “progressives” and “populists”, casting himself as the leader of the former. Once again, immigration proved the main battleground, and once again the discussion stayed far away from policy.

Meanwhile, illegal immigration into Europe has decreased by about 90% since its peak in 2015, after the EU and its member states, ruled by populist parties or not, started taking a conservative stance towards immigration policy. Despite its reputation for eternal fruitless discussion, Europe has recently taken a surprising number of measures to regulate immigration flows.

There is the 2016 deal with Turkey that effectively closed the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Balkan migration routes, the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (€4.3 billion) that intends to prevent migration flows by increasing investment in African countries, the European coast guard Frontex’s massively increased budget and focus on “returning” migrants to their country of origin, and most recently the migration deal from last June in which EU countries (including Italy and Hungary!) agreed to send rescued migrants to “control centres” outside of EU territory before processing any asylum applications.

The point is: immigration dominates every European election, but all sides are afraid to talk policy. It’s time for Europe to start dealing with immigration like grown-ups. It’s of vital importance to point out where populist parties disregard human rights and long-held liberal principles, especially where the Geneva Conventions are concerned. But it is also important to not shy away from one’s own policies even if they are strict on immigration.

We are living in a surreal situation where anti-immigration parties are running on promises that are already being implemented by centrist parties, who prefer not to defend them openly for fear of losing their base. If Angela Merkel is right and immigration truly is a “make or break” issue for the future of the EU, it’s time to stop treating actual policy as the elephant in the room.

Factual or translation error? Tell us.