Europe’s politicians are being sniped by identity politics from the far right

Politicians are afraid of being ousted if they take a line which angers their citizens on the migration issue and are implementing measures touted by far-right parties with the aim of taking the wind out of their sails

The issue of migration has dragged on for a number of years but is now coming to a head. It came close to toppling Merkel’s government earlier this week
The issue of migration has dragged on for a number of years but is now coming to a head. It came close to toppling Merkel’s government earlier this week

Last week’s European Summit was one of the most important in recent memory. It was originally meant to focus on the progress (or lack thereof) of Brexit negotiations, discuss the next EU budget, and discuss eurozone reforms within the context of the Franco-German proposals released just a short while before. But the migration issue came to the fore due in no small part to the considerable domestic pressure on German Chancellor Angela Merkel from within her own coalition government, and from Italy’s new hard-line stance, pushed by its firebrand Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini.

Summits are meant to be an occasion where leaders rubberstamp the progress made, under their direction, by subordinates at lower levels. When national leaders need to do the heavy lifting themselves in order to break the inertia, it is a sign that the situation is too complicated or costly to achieve without a direct political intervention. The issue of migration has dragged on for a number of years but is now coming to a head. It came close to toppling Merkel’s government earlier this week (and may yet do so), and has helped to push Italy, Austria, and Hungary far to the right of the political spectrum due to identity politics – a phenomenon which has grown exponentially in the West over the past decade.

According to Merriam-Webster, identity politics can be defined as “politics in which groups of people having a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity tend to promote their own specific interests or concerns without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger political group.”

It is similar to nationalism, in that it divides people into “us versus them” categories, but it takes it to the micro level – people, now more than ever, have put their chosen identity at the centre of their political viewpoint. How identity politics came to the centre of political discourse is something that will be debated by historians for years to come, but in my view, we can trace its rise to at least three things: The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 (and its 2011 Sovereign Debt Crisis cousin in Europe), increased migratory flows from developing countries due to conflict and poverty, and the rise of far-right political figures in response after 2012/13.

The 2008 Financial Crisis was the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression in the 1930s. Its impact was profound on the United States and had considerable repercussions for Europe, with hundreds of billions of euros being pumped into the financial sector to prop up bank balance sheets to stave off a total collapse, and had some degree of success. The 2011 Sovereign Debt crisis in the EU brought several members of the eurozone to their knees, particularly Greece, but also Spain, Ireland and Portugal. Unemployment and debt rose to new highs, as governments frantically sought to address what was a worst-case scenario.

There were various impacts from these crises, certainly too many to go into detail here. But one of them was the rise of resentment towards the governing elites. This was driven by the dismal economic conditions that the average individual faced in Europe and America, but was also coupled with what was seen as the inability to offer any real change to improve their lives. A number of right-wing (some more far-right than others) political candidates thrived on the anti-establishment rhetoric and found that that the migration flows into the West struck fear into the hearts of a number of average and working-class citizens. The UK voted for Brexit because of the immigration issue. Italy’s current governing party, and likely next government are a result of, in part, the immigration issue. Viktor Orban in Hungary has continued to govern, in part, by stoking the fires of the immigration question. It resonates with people, and the far-right have been savvy enough to weaponise that.

Traditional parties towards the centre of the political spectrum have taken a beating, and the rise of anti-establishment parties is not likely to dissipate in the short-term. This poses a risk to the European project, which despite its criticism (some justified, some not) remains the best hope for peace and stability in Europe. This is a point that many EU citizens tend to forget. Our grandparents’ generation lived through a period of war and turmoil that killed millions, and the following generation lived under the spectre of potential nuclear conflict which could have easily exterminated not just the combatants, but humanity itself. The EU is not the solution to every country and citizen’s problems – but offers Europeans a forum in which to cooperate on issues of shared interest for the betterment of all. It does not always succeed, and migration is certainly an area where insufficient progress has been registered.

The recent European Summit was lauded as making progress on the issue of migration. In truth, much of the language used in the communiqué hinged on EU members voluntarily offering to help with migration and migrant returns. This is already the status quo. Everyone had walked away happy, because the language was vague enough for leaders to claim victory, but no concrete solutions were found – nor are any on the horizon.

Migration flows to Europe have decreased in the past two years, although conflict, instability, the lack of economic opportunity and climate change will continue to push migrants to the Continent for decades to come. Politicians are afraid of being ousted if they take a line which angers their citizens on the migration issue and are implementing measures touted by far-right parties with the aim of taking the wind out of their sails. This will work, for now. But people will continue to try to traverse the Mediterranean if it gives them a chance for a better life. Nothing will change that.

The old cliché is that the problem must be dealt with at source. Financial aid needs to be given to Africa to an extent that rivals the US Marshall plan after World War II, or even China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative. Germany had tried this through the G20, but Europe is the best vehicle for it to succeed. This could improve the lives of millions, and improve Europe’s strategic position in Africa and the Middle East.

If European nations do not wish to accommodate migrants, they will need to fix the problems that bring them over in the first place. Failure to do so will lead to more radical parties taking over the reins of government, fuelling more nationalism, less cooperation and the erosion of the EU as an institution. Success will only come if there is concerted action as there was in 2008 and 2011 financial crises – nothing else will do.

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