European migration policy and the rise of populism
European solidarity put to the test by burgeoning xenophobia
Despite a significant drop in the number of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe (113,482 in 2018 compared to more than 1,015,000 in 2015, according to the UN Refugee Agency -UNHCR), migration is still a thorny issue among the European Union’s Member states. Several of these have seen heightening tensions and xenophobic measures taken against refugees and migrants over the past few months, dealing a blow to increasingly shaky European solidarity and placing any future common immigration and asylum policy in doubt. The pressure is rising, especially against a backdrop of looming European elections.
Heightening tensions and xenophobic reactions in Europe
The spike in refugee and migrant arrivals in 2015 overwhelmed many Member states’ ability to take in new arrivals, and threatened a split within the European Union. Member states were unable to reach an agreement and implement effective, long-term measures to suitably welcome and host the people arriving on the continent. For example, a relocation plan was adopted to transfer some 160,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece to other European countries. However, only a third of this number was actually relocated.
And while the European Union is struggling to reform its common asylum system, anti-refugee and anti-migrant tensions are being stoked around the continent. In Italy, since he was appointed Minister of the Interior in June, the leader of the extreme right-wing “Liga” party Matteo Salvini has been ramping up his rhetoric against migrants and hardening Italian asylum policy. From the moment he took office, he announced the closure of Italian ports to humanitarian ships rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean. He then had the Italian Parliament pass a Decree-law on the 28th of November 2018 which (among other things) abolishes the humanitarian protection status.
Salvini’s xenophobic rhetoric and policies have been reflected in other countries. Croatia, for instance, is accused of collectively expelling migrants and asylum seekers and employing police brutality. Hungary passed legislation in June 2018 to sanction NGOs working to aid migrants and asylum seekers, while Denmark announced in December that they wished to send rejected asylum seekers and criminal refugees to an isolated island from 2021 onwards.
Some of these policies may even risk violating the European Union’s core rights and values. This danger was highlighted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in their report published last February on the violation of migrants’ and refugees’ fundamental rights. These risks were even acknowledged by the European Commission, who initiated infringement procedures against Bulgaria and Hungary for violating European asylum rules. In an unprecedented vote in September 2018, the European Parliament decided to deploy the first steps of a rarely-used sanction process, following a judgement that Hungary’s public policy threatened the fundamental rights of asylum seekers and refugees.
In addition to these changes in legislation and policy, we have also seen a rise in anti-migrant activity and demonstrations. Violent protests were staged in Germany in August 2018 by the Pegida movement and the AfD, a rising extreme right-wing party, leading to verbal and physical attacks on foreigners. More recently, an openly xenophobic man rammed his car into a crowd of Syrians and Afghans on New Year’s Day, injuring several. In Belgium, several thousand people protested last December in a “March against Marrakesh” against the Global Compact for Migration signed in Marrakesh that month. This was accompanied by rhetoric and slogans like “Our people first” and “We’ve had enough, close the borders”.
What does the future look like for European solidarity in terms of asylum and immigration?
Xenophobia is growing and the European elections in May are fast approaching, so the inability of our Member states to reach an agreement on asylum and immigration policy or reform the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) is casting a dark shadow over the Union’s common policy.
In May 2016, the European Commission launched a major reform of the CEAS. Negotiations have, however, been difficult and progress slow. This is especially true for the planned revision of the Dublin Regulation, which still divides European states. One of the main aspects of this reform is the creation of a “distribution mechanism” for asylum seekers throughout the Union in an effort to relieve the strain on the countries along the southern border. The Višegrad Group (Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland), however, have categorically refused any such redistribution and are lining up against Europe’s Mediterranean states (Italy, Greece, Malta, Spain and Cyprus), who are calling for a mechanism which could help share responsibility for migrants.
Prior to the European Council meeting in December 2018, the Commission had already called on Member states and the European Parliament to consolidate their existing progress and adopt five of the seven reform proposals before the European elections. As this abandons the two texts which had caused the greatest tensions between European leaders (the Asylum procedure Regulation and the Dublin Regulation), this declaration was seen as a failure rather than a positive starting point for further, fruitful negotiations.
For certain MEPs, this move by the European Commission heralded “the unravelling of the European asylum package” and, according to Jean Lambert (a member of the Greens/European Free Alliance Group), “the EU Commission is not doing any justice to the notion of European solidarity by caving into the whims of Viktor Orban and other right-wing governments”. If the texts behind the CEAS are not adopted by May 2019, negotiations could see major changes with the newly elected European Parliament.
It’s clear that the upcoming European elections will determine the future of European solidarity on matters of asylum and immigration. All eyes are on the continent’s extreme right-wing parties, given speculations that they might gain many of the Parliament’s seats Nathalie Loiseau, the French Minister for European Affairs, believes that their impact would be “limited”, due to their lack of coherence and cohesion in many areas. However, according to the recent report published by the European Council on Foreign Relations (a think tank), they should not be so easily dismissed. According to them, extreme-right and Eurosceptic parties could win up to 30% of the Parliament’s seats.
Shaken by growing xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiment within the Union, European solidarity is looking increasingly fragile. These divisions and the mounting pre-election tension will only make it harder for Europe to come up with a united, sustainable response within the coming months.