In need of consensus: dealing with the migrant crisis

Migrants crowd onto a wooden boat

The attempts of European politicians to try and deal with the migrant crisis have been at best haphazard. The crisis is omnipresent, materialising in a series of national struggles, ranging from the English Channel to the Greek island of Kos and the Italian island of Lampedusa. No matter where the focal point has been however, the European Union member states have proven themselves incapable of dealing with the hundreds of thousands of migrants attempting to enter their collective borders.

Immigration into many of the western European countries is no new phenomenon; the promise of jobs, an expansive welfare state and universal healthcare has attracted migrants since the Second World War. Yet, the past 18 months have seen a surge in attempts by migrants to enter Europe, largely fuelled by the gradual collapse of both Syria and Libya and the continued brutality and expansion of Islamic State.

The series of simple messages on the negative impact of immigration has struck a chord with many disillusioned Europeans

In the early part of the 21st century, as European economies saw sustained economic growth and low unemployment, electorates worried little about right wing rhetoric declaring that migrants lowered wages, exploited the welfare state and took jobs from apparently more deserving citizens. Since the 2008 financial crash and Europe’s sluggish return to economic growth, however, public opinion has reenergised around the migrant debate. Right wing nationalist parties have been gaining ground in local and national elections in France, Britain, the Netherlands and even traditionally liberal Scandinavia, expanding the anti-immigration rhetoric. The series of simple messages on the negative impact of immigration has struck a chord with many disillusioned Europeans, with this narrative often blended with attacks on Islam, particularly after the Charlie Hebdo and Tunisia beach attacks.

The anti-Islamic narrative is also a largely a misnomer since many of the migrants are themselves fleeing persecution by Islamic extremists. Many of the supposedly simple truths of this rhetoric have been disproved, as migrants pay more in tax than they take from the welfare state, both because they come to the country to work and because they are predominately young and healthy (thus not increasing the strain on national health services too much). Being young and often having larger families, migrants also find themselves as one of the few reasons that western European countries such as Britain don’t have declining populations, an important economic tool.

A poll on the 20th of August put the Sweden Democrats – an anti-immigration party with neo-Nazi roots – as the largest political party

Despite these claims having been repudiated, the message has stuck and parties from UKIP in the UK to the National Front in France and Sweden Democrats in Sweden have continued to see their poll ratings surge. UKIP was only stopped from having a sizeable parliamentary contingent in the UK May General Election due to Britain’s first past the post system, whilst National Front leader Marine Le Pen is becoming an increasingly serious contender for the French Presidential election in 2017. Even in famously tolerant Sweden, a poll on the 20th of August put the Sweden Democrats – an anti-immigration party with neo-Nazi roots – as the largest political party, with the traditional establishment parties a few percentage points behind it. This is just one poll and so should be taken with a pinch of salt, but the overall trend across much of Europe is rightward and anti-immigrant.

This has put the establishment parties in a difficult position, with public opinion against open doors immigration, the left of centre parties in particular are struggling to balance both their members favourable attitude toward immigration and the floating voters, whose votes they need to win elections, increasing desire for increased border control. The right of centre parties aren’t faring much better, with many dividing on the issue and seeing both defections from within their own ranks; see Douglas Carswell leaving the Conservative Party in the UK to join UKIP and their traditional voter base split between them and their more right wing opposition.

Much bolder action is needed

As parties and governments struggle to even express their views on immigration at a national level, so an international/EU wide deal seems utopian. Yet such a consensus is what is needed to begin to get the crisis under control. This consensus began to emerge, albeit slowly, when, in May, Britain applied to the UN Security Council for EU states to be authorised to strike at people trafficker’s boats and ‘business model’ within Libyan territory itself. Such a move, alongside the establishment of a voluntary migrant quota system, are welcome in so much as they show that the EU’s member states can come to collective solutions, but much bolder action is needed.

One solution would be to establish a legally binding quota system, which distributes immigrant numbers to member states, based on income and population. This is politically risky however, and could feed Eurosceptic arguments, which blame an interfering Brussels for a plethora of national woes. In any case, that perhaps would be a necessary evil if it helps to stop the needless deaths of thousands.