Migration remained Europe’s big political issue in 2018

A look at the issue of migration and the rise of anti-migrant sentiment through the prism of three European elections in 2018.
Tuesday 18/12/2018
Refugees and migrants wait to be rescued by members of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms, after leaving Libya trying to reach European soil aboard an overcrowded rubber boat, north of Libyan coast, Sunday, May 6, 2018. (AP)
Refugees and migrants wait to be rescued by members of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms, after leaving Libya trying to reach European soil aboard an overcrowded rubber boat, north of Libyan coast, Sunday, May 6, 2018. (AP)

LONDON – Migration remained the hot button issue in Europe in 2018 although the number of migrants and refugees coming into the continent has been greatly reduced. Despite this, the issue of migration – and particularly illegal migration – dominated European politics, with elections in Italy, Hungary and Sweden being overtaken by the topic amidst the continued rise of populist and far-right politics across the continent.

According to the latest European Commission figures, there were around 134,000 migrant arrivals to Europe in 2018 down from 180,000 arrivals last year. To put that into context, the highest number of arrivals – 1,015,000 – was recorded in 2015, although in many ways Europe is still dealing with the fallout of the 2015 influx.

On International Migrants Day (December 18th), the European Commission issued a statement that clearly demonstrated the dire straits the continent finds itself in, expressing openness to the concept of migration while also expressing clear reservations on illegal migration.

“On International Migrants Day, the European Union reaffirms its enduring commitment to protect migrants’ human rights, to prevent perilous irregular journeys and ensure opportunities for legal and safe pathways instead,” the statement read.

“In order to do this, we are working with all our partners around the world – countries of origin, transit and destination and international organisations. Migration requires global, cooperative alliances: No country can address migration on its own – neither in Europe nor elsewhere in the world.”

Despite this call to unity, migration has been the most divisive issue in Europe, fuelling a rise in populist politics – both left-wing and right-wing – and increasing a general level of distrust and anger.

Migration dominated the Italian general elections in March which saw virtually all parties from across the political spectrum pledge to tackle the issue, deport failed asylum seekers and take a much more stringent position on the issue in the future.

Italy is one of the so-called “frontline” EU states for illegal migration, with around 180,000 “irregular migrants” arriving in the country by sea in 2016 and 119,000 in 2017. The 2018 figures are estimated to be much lower, with just 20,120 arriving by mid-September thanks to greater Italian cooperation with the Libyan coastguard.

However Italy’s new coalition government, led by a technocrat but backed by both the far right Northern League and the populist anti-establishment Five Star Movement, has also pursued a broadly anti-immigrant policy that certainly has had an effect.

In June, Rome took the decision to Italy’s ports to the rescue vessel Aquarius and 600 migrants on board, sparking a tense stand-off within the EU over how to tackle illegal migration. The boat was eventually allowed to dock in Spain, although it was not an end to the crisis surrounding rescue boats in the Mediterranean. The same boat was refused entry in Marseille, France, in September, with the issue over how asylum seekers are divided amongst EU countries still not resolved.

The EU’s Dublin Regulation, which requires the country where an asylum seeker first enters Europe to process their application, remains a major issue, with many so-called frontline countries – like Italy, Spain, Hungary and Greece – arguing that this puts an unfair burden on them. A June deal on illegal migration circumvented a complete EU breakdown on the issue, but the Dublin Regulation is still due to be reformed.

One month after the Italian elections, the Hungarian elections confirmed that anti-migrant populism was not going anywhere in Europe. Incumbent Prime Minister Viktor Orban easily retained his position, with his right-wing national conservative Fidesz party – in alliance with the Christian Democratic People’s Party – preserving a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

Fidesz campaigned primarily on the issue of immigration and its victory was seen by many analysts as a victory for right-wing populism in Europe. “Migration is indeed a winning card for Orban, it prevails against all other issues. Lack of proper opposition cooperation provides another two-thirds majority for Fidesz,” tweeted analyst Andras Biro-Nagy of the Policy Solutions think tank following the Fidesz election victory.

Under Orban, Hungary had erected a series of border fences in 2017 to keep illegal migrants out, virtually shutting down what had been one of the more popular routes into the EU’s borderless Schengen zone – via Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. In 2018, the Orban government followed that up with a package of draconian laws in June which even sought to impose potential prison terms on those, including lawyers and civil society organisations, found guilty of trying to help illegal immigrants claim asylum or apply for residence.

The Swedish elections in September also saw the rise of populist anti-migrant discourse, with the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) winning an unprecedented 18% share of the vote in a country that had historically been amongst one of the most welcoming to migrants in Europe. SD leader Jimmie Åkesson used open anti-migrant and even anti-Muslim discourse during the election campaign, gaining political traction in the process.

“Most of the immigrants haven’t had a chance to become part of Swedish society and of course many of them have been Muslims and many segregate in suburbs around the big cities and build parallel societies,” he told a BBC reporter during the campaign.

“Sweden has been a role model for the world when it comes to openness and humanity. These values are now being challenged by failed integration and by the growing number of Swedes who support the Sweden Democrats,” Swedish-Assyrian MP Robert Hannah told the Arab Weekly in the wake of the election results.

More than three months after the elections, Sweden has still not been able to form a government, demonstrating the divisive new politics that has arisen in the Scandinavian country.

What is clear from the political trends in Europe in 2018 is that the issue of migration continues to hold an outsized grip on politics, regardless of decreasing numbers of people coming to the continent. Numbers are sharply down from their 2015 peak thanks to the 2016 EU deal with Turkey, new border fences erected by Balkan countries and a 2017 bilateral agreement between Italy and Libya. Despite this, anti-migrant sentiment looks set to continue to rise with no end in sight.

“I believe as I have often said the question of whether we could solve the emigration issue together is of crucial importance to the future of the EU,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a speech during the tense EU migration summit in Brussels. “I would say that the EU is in a process of transformation… But it is not yet decided if we can meet the challenges fast enough.”