Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Anti-immigration populism is driving the agenda in Europe, too

In a recent poll, EU citizens indicated immigration was their top concern — worries that are strongest among countries with relatively little immigration.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s long-time ally in Bavaria is feeling political pressure from the right-wing, populist Alternative for Germany and pressing for tighter immigration rules that Merkel opposes.
REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Amid the uproar over the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” border policy, it is easy to overlook the fact that Europe, too, is struggling through another round of wrenching disputes over immigration.

It has been three years since nearly 2 million Africans, Middle Easterns and Asians overwhelmed the continent’s capabilities, setting European Union allies against each other and helping spur a powerful populist movement. The numbers have dropped dramatically every year since — one count earlier this month put the year’s total so far at less than 40,000. But in a poll released this month, EU citizens indicated immigration was their top concern. As Reuters points out, worries are strongest among countries with relatively little immigration.

A new populist government in Italy, where many would-be immigrants first set foot on European soil, is helping focusing attention on the issue. Earlier this month, it refused to allow ships that had plucked more than 600 people from rubber dinghies in rough Mediterranean waters to dock in Italy. (Spain accepted them on Sunday.)

The issue also cuts much wider. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition is only three months old, but already struggling with sharp differences over immigration. President Emmanuel Macron is tightening French laws. Britain has been embarrassed by revelations that tighter immigration policies were threatening the status of people who arrived legally from the Caribbean decades ago. In Slovenia, an anti-immigration party came in first in elections this month. And an upstart anti-immigration party is running neck-and-neck with traditional parties ahead of September elections in Sweden

Article continues after advertisement

The search for a comprehensive Europe-wide solution — which Merkel sought three years ago — is back on the table for an EU summit at the end of the month. It won’t be much easier this time. In particular, countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, which resisted last time, are even more entrenched in their populist, anti-immigrant politics. 

Matteo Salvini, the Italian interior minister, says no boats operated by nongovernmental organizations that pick up would-be immigrants will be allowed to dock in Italy. To do so makes Italy an accomplice in the business of human trafficking, he argues. Italy also wants to see Europe change a policy that requires the country where an asylum seeker first lands to process their paperwork, leaving many stuck there waiting for an answer. 

On that last point, at least, it appears to have the sympathy of Merkel. The German chancellor tried to force EU members to accept quotas of refugees three years ago. Merkel still speaks of a comprehensive European plan, but is now focusing on flexibility: allowing countries that don’t accept the newcomers to contribute in other ways. That approach doesn’t seem to be going over much better

Merkel has run into trouble at home, too. Her long-time ally in Bavaria is feeling political pressure from the right-wing, populist Alternative for Germany and pressing for tighter immigration rules that Merkel opposes. 

Germany has deported more than 20,000 failed asylum seekers each of the last two years, while another 65,000 left voluntarily. But another half a million who had been turned down for asylum still were in the country at the end of last year. 

President Trump dived into Europe’s immigration debate on Monday, warning that the U.S. shouldn’t follow in the EU’s footsteps, and specifically going after Germany. He claimed — falsely — that crime in Germany is “way up.” In fact, crime is way down. What’s true is that there is increased media focus on crime, and a rising sense of insecurity.

Merkel did poorly in elections last fall, in good measure because of unhappiness with her immigration policy, but managed to cobble together a government. For years Europe’s strongest leader, Merkel is weaker now, and although commentators say she is likely to find a way through her dispute with the Bavarians, it’s not a sure thing

The appeal of the anti-immigrant far right, in this case the National Front, is also on the mind of the French president. As a candidate, Macron praised Merkel’s liberal immigration policies, but he is now trying to tighten up immigration laws, too. A bill that tightens deadlines to seek asylum, lengthens the time illegal migrants can be detained and imposes a year prison term for entering the country illegally passed the lower house of parliament in April, though not without opposition from some of his own allies. It is awaiting action in France’s Senate. 

In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May has apologized for policies put in place when she was interior minister and trying to squeeze down on immigration. Britain invited citizens of a dozen Caribbean countries to fill labor shortages after World War II. Decades later, it began pressing some of their descendants for paperwork it had never required them to keep, threatening some with loss of benefits or deportation. The government has since backtracked. 

Article continues after advertisement

No European government appears ready to separate children from their parents. And though the U.S. has started taking that extreme measure, almost no one seems willing to support that policy in public. Otherwise, renewed efforts to pass immigration legislation — and give Trump money for a border wall — are running into familiar opposition. But in Europe, with some exceptions, anti-immigration populism is driving the agenda for now. Welcome back to the future.