The outcome of this week’s European Parliament elections will likely not be determined by migration, despite the best efforts of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini to capitalize on it. Polling suggests that issues like corruption, unemployment, and inequality are at least equally important to many Europeans as migration.
Nevertheless, between the last European Parliament elections in 2014 and now, persistent anti-immigrant populism has brought about a remarkable transformation in the outlook of European political parties towards absorbing and integrating migrants and refugees. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who once responded to the 2015-16 migration crisis confidently with “Wir schaffen das” (“We’ll manage it”), has been weakened politically and is set to end her long career in the near to medium term. Now, French President Emmanuel Macron, the European Union’s most fervent supporter, champions a “Europe qui protège les Européens” (“A Europe that protects Europeans”), a phrase that betrays a sense of insecurity behind its muscular vision for the future of Europe.
Macron’s “Europe that protects”—a sentiment that is sure to be a top priority of the next European Commission—is meant to rebuild confidence in Europe and to reinforce the European Union’s ability to act in key strategic areas such as external security, economic growth, and digitalization. Yet the concept of protection—and the focus on external security—implies a vulnerable “we” that presumably must be protected from a hostile “them.” Europe’s message is no longer that there is a place for all that may seek out its shores, either in times of desperation or to contribute to its diversity and prosperity. Instead, the vision of a strong Europe turns inward and focuses on strengthening external borders by closing doors to migrants and refugees, Europe’s traditional cultural outsiders.
Indeed, Europe—which is peaceful, stable, and prosperous compared to its neighbors and has open internal borders—is a construction that deserves to be protected. But one must ask whether in an effort to protect Europe, one might not be betraying the European Union’s once vaunted motto: “United in diversity.” This motto, protected by liberal democracy, made the EU an envy of the world.
An insistence on protecting a fragile Europe by walling off the external world would betray this motto. A series of crises, the most significant being the one triggered by the 2008 global financial meltdown which threatened the undoing of the European common currency, exacerbated the perception of European fragility. Yet where efforts to reform the European fiscal and monetary architecture—whose widely acknowledged flaws led to the euro crisis, which also fueled the rise of European populism—have largely stalled, the drive to close Europe’s external borders to migrants has found ample support. By hardening Europe’s borders while not pursuing structural economic reform, the European mainstream has tried to co-opt the populists’ key issue—security—while avoiding the difficult political compromises required to stave off the next economic crisis. In so doing, they may have inadvertently aided the populists in accomplishing their goal of limiting immigration and pushing back on diversity.
The larger success of the far right is demonstrated by the rhetoric adopted by center-right parties. For example, and in a marked shift from the traditional French concept of laïcité, the French Les Républicains’ manifesto not only calls for protecting both the European and French borders to stop mass migration, but also for enshrining Europe’s “Judeo-Christian roots” in the treaties that bind the European Union. That this success occurs in important European countries like Germany, Italy, France, and the United Kingdom suggests that the case for diversity has not yet been successfully made beyond the continent’s capitals.
Europeans appear focused on a range of issues beyond migration—like corruption, unemployment, and inequality. Far-right populists, who have few practical responses to these issues and thus seek to focus on immigration, may face an uphill battle in this new environment. The 2019 European Parliament elections might not hinge on the far right’s favorite issue, but this will matter little, since much of the far right’s migration agenda has already been accomplished for them.