Migration and Populism: The EU Needs a Progressive, Values-Based Approach

Alison Anderson | 3 July 2018

Europe Day 2016 – Strasbourg, European Parliament, CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0

Forget Brexit. Migration has jumped to the top of the queue as the major headache facing the European Union. At the recent heated two-day summit of EU leaders in Brussels, Angela Merkel warned that the very future of the EU could be dependent on finding answers to the ‘vital questions’ posed by migration.

Merkel knows that the world order is changing. Brexit is just another part of a global backlash against institutions like the EU, while the continuing rise of populism and anti-migration sentiment across the continent threatens the bloc’s core principles of liberal democracy and freedom of movement. In order to survive, the EU desperately needs some fresh thinking on migration and innovative strategies for the integration of new Europeans.

The issue comes down to divisions between southern and northern Europe over shared responsibility for immigration, open borders and asylum. On the one hand, countries like Italy feel they have carried the burden of large numbers of migrants arriving on their shores with little support from the northern Europeans. On the other, recent new members of the EU, such as Hungary, feel emboldened to further harden their stance on immigration, closing their borders to refugees heading North.

Italy’s controversial interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who says he is proud to be known as ‘a populist’, made headlines recently when he closed his country’s ports to foreign-flagged ships carrying rescued migrants from the Mediterranean Sea. To put that decision into context, almost 35,000 people have drowned in that sea in recent years, desperately trying to reach Europe for sanctuary. Meanwhile, in Hungary, President Orban has referred to the influx of immigrants as ‘Muslim invaders’, claiming that they threaten the sovereignty and cultural identity of the Hungarian people, and has refused to be part of any EU-wide refugee resettlement programme. The same can be said of Austria, who, under their new far-right coalition government led by Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz, have introduced a number of measures to discourage refugees hoping to make a new life in their country.

How can three nations be making such powerful waves in a 28 (soon to be 27) strong union?

Two factors are at play here. The first is that the migration question is not just a problem between but also within EU states, with Angela Merkel, for instance, facing huge divisions at home as her coalition government struggles to come to any firm agreement on a way ahead. Secondly, Austria has taken over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU this July, a crucial and critical window for the EU in establishing its evolving policy on migration. Kurz has already stated that he will use this time to shift the focus from resettlement of refugees to preventing any more from entering Europe.

Ironically, in terms of real numbers, migration to Europe is slowing down considerably. Despite this fact, public anxiety over the issue is still at a high level and ripe for exploitation for political ends. The combination of populists setting the tone for the debate plus Europe’s failure to come up with workable, progressive and humane strategies that can be applied equally across the Union, has created the perfect political storm.

Positive examples in Scotland

The EU is evolving, with the potential addition of new members, in time, from the western Balkans and the imminent exit of the UK. Many might, though, question what Britain could have brought to the table to combat populist reaction to refugees given the UK government’s draconian migration policies. Theresa May is beset with scandals over her ‘hostile environment’ policy, with the Joint Committee on Human Rights recently publishing a damning report on her government’s detention and deportation of many of the Windrush generation.

In Scotland, it’s quite a different story, with the Scottish government using their limited powers to lead on positive and tolerant attitudes to migrants settling in their country, with a firm belief in the benefits they can bring to Scottish culture and the economy. Currently, the parliament at Holyrood can devise policy on a number of devolved matters, but not on migration. At the same time, Scotland’s changing demographic makes migration a key issue in terms of its future economic prosperity; it is also an urgent issue given the UK’s imminent departure from the EU and the threat to freedom of movement.

At present, it looks unlikely that the UK government will devolve migration to Holyrood given their differing agendas on the matter, especially when the EU Withdrawal bill seeks to retain many existing devolved powers at Westminster post 29th March 2019. Should Brexit encourage the Scots to choose another path for themselves through independence, then the Scottish government would have full control of its migration policy, and, as a possible new member of the European Union, could be an important contributor to the ongoing debate.

One example of the Scottish government’s fresh take on migration is their ‘New Scots’ strategy, devised in conjunction with Cosla (the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) and the Scottish Refugee Council, which seeks to help asylum seekers and refugees settle into their new home country. This strategy has been endorsed by the United Nations Refugee Agency, who have recommended it as an example and model for use UK-wide and across the world in countries which host refugees. The strategy is based around successful integration and support, helping refugees to rebuild their lives, to gain equal access to housing, education and health and opportunities afforded to all Scottish citizens. One of the most important aspects of this strategy was that it was partly developed by refugees themselves. Their input and experiences were invaluable in devising a plan tailored to their specific needs and their hopes for the future.

This could help point the way to a progressive policy for an EU that has, in essence, lost its way on migration. Should the Scottish people choose self-determination in the coming months or years, then the EU could secure an important ally in protecting liberal values and human rights for both existing and new Europeans. Overall, it is imperative that the EU finds its core values again and builds an innovative migration strategy.

Alison AndersonAlison Anderson

Alison Anderson is a former BBC Radio Producer and Communications Manager, now working as a freelance writer on Scottish and global politics.