Euro-populism is not the right answer to migration

The message is built on strident ethno-nationalism and xenophobic fears.
Sunday 04/02/2018
Czech President Milos Zeman waves to an audience in Prague. (AFP)
Czech President Milos Zeman waves to an audience in Prague. (AFP)

The re-election of Czech President Milos Zeman to a second term in office underlines a worrisome trend that has taken hold in central Europe. The run-off presidential election campaign was inflammatory, playing up the fear of Muslims and migrants. Its message was meant to build a base among older, rural voters: strident ethno-nationalism and xenophobic fears.

Some call it “Euro-populism,” a dogmatic tendency by politicians to claim they speak for the silent, sons-of-the-soil majorities and against betrayal by the “globalised elites.”

Euro-populism has become mainstream enough to be invited into coalitions, notably in Austria. In December, Austria became the only country in Western Europe with a far-right party firmly in government.

Austria’s far-right Freedom Party hardly sits alone in government in its hostility to immigrants and Islam, however. Its partner, the conservative Austrian People’s Party, shares the determination to slash assistance to refugees and generally make migrants feel less welcome.

Both parties warned against the emergence of Muslim “parallel societies” in Austria and both back the hard-line position taken by Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orban.

Last month, Orban and three other central European prime ministers met to reiterate their opposition to migration.

This Euro-populist trend seems to be spreading. In Italy, which has a general election next month, the Five Star Movement is riding high in opinion polls. If it wins, the eurozone’s third-largest economy would be the first to have a populist government.

The exploitation of migration fears is among the main reasons for the anti-establishment party’s rise, as well as the chance of a coalition government being formed by the centre-right Forza Italia, the nationalist Northern League and another right-wing, anti-immigration party, the Brothers of Italy.

The European Union’s Frontex border agency said more than 119,000 migrants arrived by sea to Italy last year. Just days ago, Spanish officials reported the rescue off the Libyan coast of more than 300 people, including babies. They were taken to an Italian port.

The economic burden to Italy and the increased visibility of the “refugee crisis,” along with exaggerated security fears, has left many Italians resentful of the system.

This goes some way towards explaining the thrust of Frontex’s new operation spanning the waters off Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Turkey and Albania. While the agency will rescue migrants at risk at sea, crammed into human traffickers’ rickety boats, its focus will be on detecting “foreign fighters and other terrorist threats at the external borders” of Europe.

The Frontex operation and France’s Sahel initiative are attempts to shift the focus from the desperation of migrants to the dangers they pose. It is poverty, conflict and the lack of opportunity that are driving young people out of the Maghreb, the Middle East and Africa and towards Europe. That is the crux of the issue. Everything else is expedient politics.