Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Don’t dismiss popular concerns about migration if you care about open borders

Published by Newsweek

In Switzerland, the right-wing populist SVP, who’s opposed to mass migration, just scored a big election win, securing a record 29.4% of the vote, up from 26.6% in 2011. The party, which has been depicting immigrants in a very negative way in aggressive campaigns, is an established party of government, but this hasn’t stopped migration. Around a quarter of Switzerland’s 8 million inhabitants don’t have citizenship.

This election result should therefore be seen as a strong endorsement for stricter immigration policies. In February 2014, a narrow majority of Swiss already voted in a referendum to limit immigration through quotas. Given that this would violate Switzerland’s deal with the European Union (EU), which includes freedom of movement for EU citizens in exchange for market access for Swiss firms, this triggered negotiations. The EU hasn’t been eager to engage into this, even suggesting the Swiss should vote again. This should be an important lesson of the election result: don’t brush aside citizens’ concerns about migration.

Primarily however, the Swiss result is the fall-out of a changing mood all over Europe regarding immigration. In various European countries, one can witness public opinion swinging between compassion for refugees and concern about how they’ll be integrated.

In neighbouring Austria, the right-wing populist “Freedom Party” secured a record result as well in regional elections in Vienna, coming second but striking a blow to the governing social democrats in their traditional stronghold. After a steady rise in national opinion polls in the last six months, the party would now become Austria’s biggest, if there were elections.

The same thing is happening in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders’ “Party for Freedom” is also firmly leading opinion polls, while in France, “National Front” leader Marine Le Pen is currently set to obtain most of the votes in the first round of France’s presidential election in 2017, although she’s likely to be beaten in the second round.  In June, these right-wing populist parties furthermore managed to form a political group in the European Parliament, together with Italy's “Northern League” and some other allies. This entitles them to EU-funding.

Also in Scandinavia, voters are increasingly turning to parties critical to mass migration. In elections in Denmark and Finland earlier this year, the “Danish People's Party” and the “Finns Party” each came second, convincing around one fifth of the electorate and even entering government in Finland’s case. It should be noted that these parties are quite moderate really, both being allies of the British Conservatives in the European Parliament. They’re quite different from the “Sweden Democrats”, which carry a history of neo-nazism but have toned down their rhetoric in recent years. They are currently enjoying a major increase in popularity, with some opinion polls estimating they could become the biggest party while doubling their voting share to up to 25% only one year after the 2014 election. This should be seen in the context of Sweden accepting more asylum seekers per capita than any other country in the EU, at least last year. Still, over the last fifteen years, 

Switzerland, Norway and Luxembourg have been welcoming even more immigrants per capita, so proponents of migration should be careful when considering to criticize Swiss voters.
In Central-and Eastern Europe, apart from Hungary or Bulgaria, migration only really has become a hot political topic this year. This is mainly due to an EU decision last month, inspired by Germany, to introduce refugee quotas in an effort to relieve the pressure on countries on the frontline of the migration crisis. At the EU-meeting where it was decided that countries would have to take in a certain number of refugees, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania were outvoted while Finland abstained, something which caused a lot of anger.  Jiří Pospíšil, a former Czech Justice Minister and MEP with the pro-EU TOP09 party described it as “a great defeat for Europe” which would facilitate the rise of anti-EU sentiment.

There is passport-free travel in much of Europe, so one can wonder what the point is of trying to spread out people. In any case, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was behind trying to spread the burden in this way, hoping to be seen to be doing something. Shewould do well not to ignore criticism. Migration is a sensitive issue all over the world and as much as the economic benefits are clear in a globalized economy, it’s also clear that cultural integration hasn’t always been very successful, to put it mildly.

Germany is home to Europe’s biggest economy, so many migrants, including refugees, prefer to go there.  After Merkel was perceived to encourage refugees to come to Germany, declaring there was “no upper limit” for asylum seekers while encouraging Germans to be flexible in dealing with the influx, a policy u-turn followed mid-September, when Germany instated temporary controls at the Austrian border. Before that, Merkel was accused of by the CSU, the Bavarian sister party of her own Christian Democrat CDU, of having made an “unparalleled historical mistake”. The debate still continues. A proposal from one of Germany’s police union chiefs to build a fence along the border with Austria is unlikely to be taken up, but at this point it is by no means guaranteed that the passport-free Schengen arrangement, a key achievement of European cooperation, will survive in case the refugee crisis escalates further.

Those who really care about the right to migrate and the right to seek refugee should therefore take popular unrest about this very serious. Are there alternatives to the current improvisation in policy? Australia’s approach to guard its sea border by diverting boats with refugees to a third country may not be perfect but it has ended drownings at sea, at least on record. An out-of-the-box alternative is to create a functioning city outside of richer countries for refugees to go to, where they can develop their lives. This may sound ambitious, but it recognizes that the refugee problem is likely to persist and that there is insufficient popular support to welcome everyone. In any case, it will only be possible to maintain support for a world with relatively open borders if alternative solutions are being considered.