Migrants and European politics
The migrant flow into Europe may be abating but the fear of migrants is not. Almost every measure of public opinion in disparate European countries indicates significant levels of public anxiety over migration.
Some of the apprehension is understandable. Germany goes to the polls September 24 in a state of high tension over the terrorist threat, according to a survey by one of the country’s largest insurers, R+V. Nearly three-quarters of respondents cited terrorism as their main worry. In Italy, a newspaper poll showed that just under half of those surveyed believed migrants were a threat to personal safety and to public order. This chimes with the findings of a 2016 Pew survey of ten European countries. A median of 59% of respondents said the arrival of refugees increased the likelihood of terrorism.
It’s true that migrants and temporary residents have been involved in some terrorist attacks in Europe over the past couple of years. But Europe’s jihadist problem is essentially homegrown. The November 2015 Paris attacks, March 2016 Brussels bombings and May 2017 Manchester Arena suicide bomb blast were perpetrated by men born and bred in Europe. Those attacks are just the spectaculars. There have been others that involved locals – newly self-radicalised or long-term marginalised. With the Islamic State losing ground, Europe must now confront the very real danger of at least a couple of thousand of its citizens or legal residents returning home from Syria. They illustrate Europe’s problem of jihadist radicalisation.
This is where Muslim communities come in. They have a role to play in preventing the radicalisation of the young and vulnerable. As well as to prevent the marginalised from becoming bitter and vengeful. Europe has some way to go in the seamless integration of migrants.
Instead, far-right parties have been deftly appealing to anxiety about multiculturalism and nostalgia for a bygone era. The anxiety, which is rooted in an abiding fear of the migrant as a potential criminal and sexual predator, occasionally uses real instances of misbehaviour. But more often than not, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim and anti-African stereotypes have free rein in the popular press and popular imagination. “Gang of Maghreb worms,” one Italian far-right politician recently said of three or four migrants accused of assault. In the Netherlands, a prominent far-right politician used a simple and powerful meme – “De-Islamise” – ahead of the March election. As Germany’s federal election campaign kicked into high gear in August, a senior leader of the far-right AfD party argued “Islam does not belong to Germany.”
So far, however, European voters have failed to hand the far right the ultimate prize – command and control of the levers of government. Despite some narrow squeaks, the far right did not win the Austrian presidency, the Dutch parliamentary election or the French presidential poll. And whatever the far-right vote share in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s likely victory will surely underline a reassuring fact – compassion does not necessarily lose elections. Germany has taken in 1.2 million in the two years since Merkel announced a humane open-borders policy for Syria’s displaced people. But electoral blowback is not expected.
That said, the migrant issue needs to be discussed in more factual terms across Europe. And more attention should be paid to finding a long-term solution to the chaos in Libya, in particular. Quick fixes will not do. A sustainable security strategy for Libya is necessary not just for Europe but for the whole of the Mediterranean.