This toxic view of migrants is a threat to Europe’s unity
Election after election in the European Union confirms what we have known for some time — that Europe is becoming an extremely unfriendly place for migrants. Some countries are taking a particularly nasty approach to refugees and asylum seekers in desperate need of a haven, even if only a temporary one.
In less than a year, Austria, Hungary, Italy and Slovenia have all elected or re-elected to power staunchly anti-migration parties. In Germany the relative success of the ultra-nationalist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party added a brightly flashing warning sign indicating that Europe has declared itself a place where migrants are not welcome, whatever their circumstances, or regardless of the self-interest of those many European countries whose economies need a constant supply of migrant workers.
Here lies the big conundrum of migration. Humans will not stop migrating, be it for economic reasons, or especially when they face threats posed by oppressive regimes, wars or natural disasters. The aging population of Europe needs migrants to keep its economy moving and maintain the generosity of its welfare society. Yet the current view in Europe of migrants is negative, with little attention paid to the complexity of the issue. If affluent nations could only put aside their prejudices and biases, and create a more rational discourse about the impact that newcomers have on their societies and economies, they would be certain to conclude that sustaining their prosperity requires certain levels of immigration. Moreover, if they wish to properly regulate and manage migration they will also have to invest substantially in the less developed parts of the world.
The recent formation of an ultra-nationalist populist coalition government in Italy, which comprises the anti-establishment Five Star movement and right-wing League, both populist parties that thrive on defying the establishment and the role of Europe in their migration or fiscal policies, has generated further fear for the survival of the European Union as we know it. It has prompted George Soros, one of the wealthiest investors, businessmen and philanthropists of our generation, to launch a public campaign warning of the dangerous nexus between the EU’s current migration policy, or lack of one, and the future of the bloc itself.
If affluent nations wish to properly regulate and manage migration they will also have to invest substantially in the less developed parts of the world.
Soros, a Hungarian Jew who survived the Holocaust and made his fortune in Europe and the US, is not afraid of, or any stranger to, political controversy. As someone who witnessed and survived the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s, and was part of Europe’s miraculous recovery, he is one of the most enthusiastic of Europhiles, and argues against countries pursuing “self-serving, discordant migration policies, often to the detriment of their neighbors.” He fears that the policies of the new government in Italy could lead to a backlash against Brussels, which would achieve the opposite of what it intended, and strengthen the view that membership of the EU is a recipe for Brussels meddling in the sovereign affairs of a member state. This might end in growing support for parties that promote anti-European and anti-migrant policies, two notions that seem in the current political atmosphere to go hand in hand.
Soros, who has become a target for many nationalists in Europe, and especially the prime minister of his country of birth Viktor Orbán, is right to on the one hand highlight the importance of immigrants for Europe, and on the other hand to show sympathy for countries such as Greece and Italy, which due to their geography have borne the brunt of the migration crisis. This at a time when other more northern countries closed their borders almost hermetically and accompanied this with vile xenophobic rhetoric. Instead of punishing the Italian people, most of whom are instinctively pro-European, for making this regrettable choice at the ballot box, the more constructive approach would be to change the overall European policy on migration.
The current policy places a much heavier burden on countries from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East that are closest to the main migratory routes. EU policy places the responsibility of dealing with the asylum application on the country where the refugee first lands. It takes only a quick glance at the map to recognize the burden this places on countries such as Italy and Greece. It is essential to amend this anomaly. Moreover, Europe’s first-destination countries require financial and technical help from the rest of the EU to cope with the influx.
The third pillar of dealing with the migration challenge is the creation of economic conditions in Sub-Saharan Africa that are favorable to job creation and entrepreneurs. Something like a Marshall Plan for Africa, as Soros suggests, might be difficult, since it would require an estimated €30 billion per year for the foreseeable future. However, for Europe to move away from its toxic migration discourse, which is no fault of the migrants themselves, it is an investment worth making. Any such plan would require all the major economies, led by Germany and France, to play their part. They should accept that an integrated migration policy must include welcoming migrants to compensate for the low birth rate in Europe, and assisting those countries most affected by large numbers of migrants.
But last, and crucially, if Europe does not take action to improve economic and political conditions where most of its migrants originate, the phenomenon of excessive and intractable mass migration to Europe will continue to negatively dominate EU politics — at the risk of compromising the EU’s values, leading to even further divisions and crises, and even its disintegration.
Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg