Across the West, apprehension over immigration and national identity are boosting the electoral fortunes—and in some cases, bringing to power—political forces hostile to the liberal world order. Support for such forces has been on the rise for several decades, though in key countries it is reaching a more critical mass for attaining power or blocking business as usual. In the United States, presidential candidate Donald Trump unexpectedly rode to victory by promising to deport millions of illegal immigrants and build a wall along the southern border. Trump’s radical departure from traditional GOP foreign policy nostrums on trade, international alliances, and Russia—that is, his repudiation of key-elements of the American-led liberal world order—has done little to dent enthusiasm among his supporters, who are willing to overlook or endorse his heresies because of his tough position on immigration.1
On the other side of the Atlantic, the 2016 decision by the British people to leave the European Union, Marine Le Pen’s doubling of her father’s vote share in the 2017 French presidential election, the entrance of Alternative für Deutschland into the Bundestag and all 16 German state legislatures, and the formation of a populist coalition government in Italy between the far right Northern League and the Five Star Movement are all political expressions of deep frustration with establishments, including a belief by many that borders are too porous, that their countries are accepting too many immigrants (whether legal, illegal, or refugees), and that these newcomers are not assimilating quickly and thoroughly enough into native cultures. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has earned an international profile far out of proportion to that usually afforded the leader of a small, Central European country of just ten million people, and has done so solely due to his fierce criticism of what he characterizes as an elite, cross-partisan, Brussels-based consensus in favor of mass immigration that thwarts the will of national publics across the continent.
The rise of right-wing populism, at least in Europe, is in large part attributable to the nearly two million mostly Muslim, mostly male migrants and refugees who entered the continent over the course of 2015-16 and to the perceived inability of European governments and the European Union to handle the influx. And while the numbers of these entrants to Europe has declined significantly in the time since then, the lingering after-effects of the deluge—namely, the sense that European governments had lost control, combined with a pessimism as to European societies’ ability to integrate so many newcomers—have had a profound effect on the politics of the West. According to the Spring 2018 Eurobarometer poll, Europeans list immigration and terrorism as the two most important issues facing the European Union, issues that have become increasingly intertwined in the minds of ordinary citizens, given the threat of Islamist terrorism and the Islamic faith of the majority of the migrants.2
Since the twin shocks of Brexit and Trump in 2016, the world has been inundated with books, think tank reports, films, and media analyses on the subject of populism and the threat it poses to liberal democracy. To the extent that it can be defined as a political tendency that demonizes any and all opposition to it as inherently illegitimate, populism is indeed a menace to liberal democracy, a constitutive element of which is pluralism—the belief that for a society to be decent it must make room for various perspectives, attitudes, and political formations.
But what if the phenomenon that is near-universally described as “populism” is not so much hostility to liberal democracy per se, but an expression of frustration that liberal democracy has not been democratic enough? What if populism is mainly being driven not by some desire to undo liberal democracy and replace it with autocracy, but by frustration with Western political establishments for not heeding the popular will on an issue of major importance to voters—that is, mass immigration? The rise of populist politics in the West is often laid at the feet of the 2008 financial crisis, and a range of economic factors—from the growing gap between rich and poor to declining wage growth—have all surely played a part in fanning the flames of populism on both the Left and Right. But in countries as diverse as Germany, Poland, and Sweden, the rise of populist political tendencies cannot be blamed on the usual suspect of poor economic performance; all three countries have posted impressive growth and low unemployment since the 2008 financial crisis. “The majority of academic studies over the past three decades have found that objective economic indicators such as income have only a weak effect or none at all when it comes to explaining the appeal of national populism,” observes Matthew Goodwin, an expert on European populism and a professor at the University of Kent.
My aim here is not to weigh the merits or morality of the liberal and restrictionist approaches to immigration. Immigration is ultimately a national competency, a realm best left to individual governments in consultation with their citizenries. While one can oppose restrictive immigration policies on an economic or humanitarian basis, there is nothing inherently illiberal in reducing immigration levels. The specific matter of asylum excepted, a liberal democracy does not have an obligation to open its doors to foreigners in the same way that it is obliged to protect the basic freedoms of its own citizens. What should concern all of us with a stake in upholding the liberal international order, however, is how opposition to mass immigration across the Western world is politically channeled. For what all of the aforementioned populist political leaders and movements share, in addition to their anti-immigration fervor, is skepticism if not outright opposition to that order, as well as a positive disposition to its chief external threat: the Russian regime of Vladimir Putin.
In Europe, it is becoming increasingly apparent that mass immigration and the liberal order (and maybe even liberal democracy itself) are incompatible. So opposed to mass immigration are they that a large and growing number of citizens are voting for parties that, in addition to espousing anti-immigration views, also threaten to dismantle democratic institutions and their nations’ roles in upholding the liberal democratic order.
When it comes to immigration, European policy, on both the national and supranational levels, has for years been engaged in a game of catch up with public opinion. In no case has this inability of the political class to meet the demands of the public had more momentous consequence than Brexit. Between 2000 and the vote for Brexit 16 years later, the percentage of voters who viewed immigration as a major problem increased from 7 percent to 49 percent, making it the voters’ most important issue. Yet this growing concern was not reflected in the formulation of public policy, providing an opening for someone like Nigel Farage and his United Kingdom Independence Party to advocate for the wholesale departure of the UK from the European Union. After the EU welcomed ten new member states from Central and Eastern Europe in 2004, the United Kingdom under Prime Minister Tony Blair was one of only three EU member states that chose not to avail itself of temporary immigration controls it could have placed on citizens from those countries. This decision may have made economic sense at the time, but, in retrospect, it was also decisive in pushing public opinion in the direction of leaving the European Union. Seven years later, a YouGov poll found that 67 percent of the British public believed that immigration over the previous decade had been “a bad thing for Britain.” Cognizant of these worries, the Conservative-led coalition government of Prime Minister David Cameron promised to reduce immigration but proved either unwilling or unable to slow it down, to the point that immigration actually increased to a high of 330,000 people annually. It was in this context of repeatedly thwarted expectations that the Leave campaign’s mantra, “Take Back Control,” was so effective.
It is not just Britain where public and elite opinion on immigration have been out of sync. A 2017 Chatham House survey found that, in eight out of ten European countries, majorities opposed any further immigration from Muslim countries, precisely the same position Donald Trump announced, to great controversy, during his successful presidential campaign. Fifty-three percent of Germans, whose country was so widely lauded for its humanitarianism during the 2015 refugee crisis, agreed with Trump on this question. Divergence between public and elite opinion on immigration is a phenomenon noticeable across Europe, according to political scientists Markus Wagner and Thomas M. Meyer, as “voter positions are generally to the right of mainstream party consensus, so that shifts to the right on immigration and on law and order are in fact shifts towards the median voter.” According to Chatham House, in no country polled did more than 32 percent disagree with a complete ban on Muslim immigration.
Such statistics are no doubt dispiriting to those who believe in the inherent virtue and workability of multiculturalism. But if preservation of the liberal international order is the foremost concern of policymakers, more important than the morality of public attitudes about Muslim immigration is how politicians handle this undeniably widespread skepticism towards immigration’s alleged benefits. Voters, simply put, want and expect stricter immigration policies. In an electoral democracy, they will get them either from mainstream political leaders (who support NATO, the European Union, market economies, an alliance with the United States, and other elements of the liberal order) or from far Right demagogues who support none of these things. “It would be a major political mistake if liberals simply ignore or ridicule these fears,” writes Ivan Krastev of the anti-immigration sentiment rising across the West. His sentiment is echoed by European Council President Donald Tusk, whose native Poland is one of the European countries most hostile to immigration. Speaking of controversial efforts to partner with non-EU governments to limit immigration to Europe, Tusk put it bluntly: “If we don’t agree on them then you will see some really tough proposals from some really tough guys.”
Despite the best intentions of its proponents, mass immigration is having a destabilizing effect on European democracy by abetting populist parties hostile to both liberal democracy and the liberal world order. As these parties exploit the gap between public opinion and public policy, European political leaders increasingly face a dilemma: Should they sacrifice the stability of the liberal international order on the altar of a liberal immigration regime? To save liberal democracy from its illiberal antagonists, they will need to decouple the highly charged subject of immigration from those metrics—respect for checks and balances, adherence to the rule of law, protection of minorities, pluralism, freedom of the press, support for democratic alliances, a values-based foreign policy, and so on—that truly determine whether a nation is a liberal democracy and a contributor to the liberal world order. Japan is one example of a nation that has a highly restrictive (one might even say xenophobic) immigration policy but is nonetheless a liberal democracy and plays a productive role in maintaining liberal order. It is my contention that, if leaders who are genuinely committed to preserving this order ignore or dismiss popular opinion on immigration, they will lose ground to far Right movements committed to neither.
A compelling illustration of how not to handle the issue of immigration is Sweden, which touts itself as a “humanitarian superpower” and has accepted more migrants and refugees per capita than any nation in the world. This intake reached its height during the refugee crisis of 2015-16, when the Scandinavian country accepted more than 160,000 people, second only to Germany in terms of absolute numbers. Over the past five years, Sweden has taken in 600,000, an enormous number for a country of fewer than ten million.
Yet in recent years, migrants have been disproportionately involved in certain types of high-profile crimes, namely sexual assault, gang violence, grenade attacks, and car bombings. In addition, the unemployment gap between native Swedes and the foreign born is the second highest among members of the OECD, with immigrants three times as likely to be unemployed—a disparity due to the low educational achievement of most migrants and a lack of unskilled jobs in the highly advanced Swedish economy. “Sweden is statistically one of the worst countries at the integration of foreigners,” Aje Carlbom, a professor in social anthropology at Malmo University tells the Financial Times. “Why? Mainly because this is a highly complex country where you can’t get a job without education. Many of those who come are uneducated—that is the main problem.”
Sweden’s approach to immigration and assimilation has been the subject of criticism among its neighbors. “I often use Sweden as a deterring example” of how not to deal with these issues, the former Danish Prime Minister and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in an interview on Swedish television. Many Swedes would agree. In 2014, a year before the refugee crisis, 44 percent of Swedes supported cuts in the country’s generously high annual intake of immigrants and refugees. Three years later, after the government was forced to announce the deportation of 80,000 people (half the number it admitted during the brunt of the crisis), 48 percent of Swedes expressed agreement with the sentiment that “there are too many immigrants in our country,” and 44 percent endorsed the statement that “immigration is causing my country to change in ways that I don’t like.”
Despite the problems presented by mass immigration and the large portion of the public opposed to it, no mainstream political party in Sweden broached the subject. This unfortunately left a massive vacuum to be filled by fringe actors. When it first entered parliament in 2010, the Sweden Democrats (SD) barely passed the electoral threshold with 5.7 percent of the vote. The party has its origins in the neo-Nazi movement, and while it has certainly moderated its message and expelled some of its more visibly extremist members over the years, it nonetheless opposes Swedish membership in the European Union, argues against joining NATO, and seeks better relations with Russia. In the most recent national election, the SD scored nearly 18 percent of the vote, its best result ever and enough to constitute the balance of power between the main center-left and center-right blocs. Due to the mainstream parties’ refusal to form coalitions with the SD, however, Sweden has been without a government for the longest time in its history.
The rising popularity of the SD is a lamentable development that would likely have never occurred had Sweden’s mainstream parties deigned to represent the views of nearly half the population. Support for the SD and its anti-establishment message has coincided with the longest economic expansion in Sweden in four decades, a trend visible among populist candidates and parties across the world and an indication that issues related to national identity and immigration transcend the vicissitudes of economic cycles. (In France, as the immigration issue has gained salience over the past 15 years, the proportion of French who see Marine Le Pen’s Front National—now the National Rally—as a threat to democracy has fallen from 70 percent in 2002 to 58 percent last year.)
Belatedly, the Swedish center-right is acknowledging that it has failed to represent the sizable portion of the public in favor of reducing immigration levels, and that condescending to voters by dismissing their concerns has only emboldened the far Right. “When voters are discontent, don’t blame them,” the recently elected leader of the center-right Moderate Party, Ulf Kristersson, says. Over the past two decades, Swedish governments of both the Right and Left have pursued “very unsuccessful integration policies.” The Moderates’ 2018 election manifesto called for a “strict migration policy” which reduces the number of people granted asylum, “faster integration” with a greater emphasis placed on language acquisition, and tying welfare benefits to employment.
Neighboring Denmark’s approach to immigration provides an instructive contrast with Sweden. The countries are more similar to one another (linguistically, culturally, socially, and economically) than they are to any other European nation, and so a comparison is instructive. Unlike Sweden, Denmark has adopted a restrictive immigration policy focused less on gauzy humanitarian ideals than on domestic economic need, and one that also places a premium on integrating the immigrants it does accept. It has enforced symbolic policies aimed at discouraging irregular migration (like confiscating valuables over a certain monetary amount and placing advertisements in newspapers to dissuade prospective migrants from making the long and arduous journey to Europe), which some have derided as inhumane.
Yet by restricting newcomers to a volume acceptable to a broad swath of Danish society, Denmark has avoided the negative consequences Sweden has incurred by taking in so many people. Denmark’s right-populist party, the Danish People’s Party, is not as extreme as the SD, and its tacit inclusion in various Center-Right governments has not adversely affected Denmark’s liberal democratic bona fides or its vital contributions to the liberal world order. Denmark remains a staunch American ally and one of the most robust (on a per capita basis) contributors to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, for example.
Adopting tougher policies on immigration, to the point of actually inviting a far Right party into government, is the strategy currently underway in Austria. There, the young Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the Christian Democratic Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) has been governing since 2017 in coalition with the Freedom Party (FPÖ), founded by former SS officers and the impetus for European Union sanctions when it last formed a coalition government in the early 2000s. Many criticized Kurz for agreeing to work with the FPÖ rather than prolonging a coalition with the Social Democrats, yet a poll taken before the 2017 parliamentary election found only 15 percent public support for continuation of such a “grand coalition” government. While establishing a cordon sanitaire around the far Right might make it seem like its influence is being constrained, such maneuvering is not without its costs. Many voters view these frequent pacts between the country’s two main political parties, which have been the norm in postwar Austria, as a form of elite collusion, thus discrediting democracy and contributing to the rise of the far Right as a protest vote.
Though it’s far too early to draw any categorical conclusions, initial signs indicate that what the Austrian journalist Franz-Stefan Gady calls “Kurz’s populism lite” may be working. Addressing popular concerns about immigration and integration “not only helped him gain voters who previously cast their ballot for the FPÖ (168,000) as well as for two other far-right, populist parties (158,000), but also managed to attract 84,000 votes from former Green Party supporters, 60,000 votes from the New Austria and Liberal Forum (a liberal party), and 121,000 nonvoters, including first-time voters, from the previous election.” Taking a harder line on these issues has not led Austria towards the “illiberal democracy” of its neighbor Hungary; nor has it encouraged Kurz to adopt the anti-pluralist rhetoric which is the hallmark of populists Left and Right. “Unlike most populists,” observes Gady, Kurz “has never tried to delegitimize his political opposition.” When the European Parliament voted to censure the Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán for its anti-democratic drift, a move that divided the center-right European People’s Party of which both Kurz’s ÖVP and Orbán’s Fidesz are members, Kurz directed his MEPs to vote against Orbán. This move was all the more significant given the warm, personal ties Kurz has developed with his Hungarian counterpart.
The Austrian government’s turn away from liberal immigration policies, crackdown on Islamism, and emphasis on integration has inspired something close to hysteria in Germany, where liberal elites see signs of incipient fascism in any deviation from the Wilkommenskultur (Welcome Culture) elucidated by Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2015. “What we are talking about here is the question of whether Germany’s neighbor is, bit by bit, bidding farewell to the democratic way of life,” warned Der Spiegel. “Whether its society still wants pluralism and if it is capable of enduring the thousand varieties of multiculturalism and the processes of migration despite all the difficulties they present.” But there is nothing in the writings of John Stuart Mill, John Locke, the documents of the American founding, or any of the other foundational texts of Western liberalism mandating that a country must “endure the thousand varieties of multiculturalism” in order to classify as a liberal democracy. Reducing non-EU immigration will not adversely affect the quality of European democracy (on the contrary, by reducing the number of entrants from the non-democratic world to more manageable numbers, it might increase it). We may not be able to say the same thing should (more) populist parties come to power as a consequence of elite snubbing public opinion on immigration.
The inability—real or perceived—of mainstream European political leaders and parties to control immigration and alleviate its negative consequences has simultaneously decreased popular backing for the European project and increased support for parties once deemed extremist. Neither of these developments bodes well for the future health of the liberal world order, which depends upon a strong, coherent European Union governed by mainstream parties committed to the Transatlantic alliance with the United States and a values-based foreign policy. Opposition to immigration correlates strongly with opposition to European integration, as membership in the European Union is increasingly perceived as entailing the opening up of a country’s borders to migrants not just from within the bloc but from outside Europe as well. In turn, voters are increasingly willing to overlook the illiberal tendencies of anti-immigration parties, a dangerous development.
Across Europe, the failure to control external immigration and the inability to fully integrate newcomers risk elevating into power parties that are not only nativist but also opposed to the liberal world order. To be sure, populist parties often exaggerate the downsides of immigration and scapegoat immigrants as terrorists and criminals. But to echo Ivan Krastev’s warning, “In democratic politics, perceptions are the only reality that matters.” If a perception exists among European voters that mainstream political leaders are unable or unwilling to control immigration, and if this perception festers, then political forces that would upset Europe’s postwar political, economic, and security settlement will gain strength.
Unfortunately, many European elites and commentators are taking the opposite tack, establishing a totalizing, and false, dichotomy between proponents and opponents of liberal immigration policies that correlates perfectly with a dichotomy between proponents and opponents of liberal democracy itself. According to Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman, because “mass migration into Europe is unstoppable,” there today exists a “battle between nativists and liberals,” with the former waging an “all-out war on democracy and on migration”—as if a “war” on migration (by which Rachman presumably means a reduction in the numbers of immigrants) were in any way akin to dismantling democracy. A Politico op-ed by the Swedish Moderate Party MEP Anna Maria Corazza-Bildt that called upon the EPP to expel Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party was consumed almost entirely with complaints about his migration policies—policies which, however upsetting they are to Corazza-Bildt, are democratically legitimate and popular with the vast majority of Europeans, never mind Hungarians.
The conflation of the liberal world order with a liberal immigration regime is nowhere more an article of bien pensant faith than in Germany, recently lauded as “the ideological anchor of the European experiment, maybe of the entire liberal Western order” in an obsequious New York Times piece. There, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her sympathizers in the domestic and international media have framed the debate in such a way as to depict criticism of her position on immigration as nothing less than attack on liberal democracy itself. “This isn’t a debate about the future of the Chancellor, it’s about the future of Europe,” the editor of Handelsblatt warned after a dust-up between Merkel and her more conservative allies in the Bavarian Christian Social Union over migration.
But the conflation of liberal immigration policy with the liberal world order is becoming a disaster for both. One risk of associating liberal immigration policies with both the liberal world order and its component parts (of which the European Union is a major one) is that it can taint the latter in the minds of voters. It also plays right into the hands of proto-authoritarians like Orbán, who has instrumentalized widespread anti-migration sentiment into hostility against liberal democracy writ large. “Liberal democracy is pro-immigration, while Christian democracy is anti-immigration,” he said in the summer of 2018, as the European Union debated various migration policy proposals. Contra Orbán, liberal democracy is not inherently “pro-immigration.” But given the rhetoric and behavior of many of its leading practitioners, it’s not hard to see why many voters would fall for this simplistic rendering.
If the European debate over migration is framed as one between the Willkommenskultur of Angela Merkel and the harsher position adopted by Viktor Orbán and his ilk, then it is the latter, unfortunately, who will win. The optimal immigration and refugee policy—one that balances a commitment to humanitarian concerns with an alertness towards the negative consequences that high numbers of poorly educated migrants from vastly different societies can bring—lies somewhere in between. But for that policy to be achieved, the terms of the immigration debate have to change. In the words of Ahmed Mansour, an immigrant to Germany, the conversation in his adopted land has become one between the “overly tolerant and panic-mongers.” Out of a desire not to aid the far Right, many Germans choose to ignore issues like migrant criminality and attack anyone who does draw attention to them as crypto-fascist. “I would like to hear criticism of Ms. Merkel’s refugee policies from places other than the AfD. I want to hear it from the center of society, too. Differentiated. What did Germany get right in 2015? What did we get wrong? Differentiation has eluded us because the fear of serving those on the Right has become so great that we wind up doing so anyway by making the issue taboo.”
The task for Europe’s centrist parties on matters of national identity and immigration, then, must be to better represent the views of their constituents. This is a particular duty of Center-Right and Christian Democratic parties, whose traditional role in postwar Europe has been the articulation of a healthy patriotism and national sentiment.3 In many European nations, large pluralities or even majorities believe that most immigrants coming to their country are not refugees or asylum seekers fleeing violence and persecution (in which case Europe has a legal duty to shelter them) but rather economic migrants. Considering the 2016 statement by EU Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans that 60 percent of the people entering the bloc at the time were indeed economic migrants, they are not wrong in this assumption. Political leaders must therefore be more discriminating in how they apply the terms “refugee” and “economic migrant,” as a continued blurring of the clear, legal distinction between the two will only play into the hands of populists who would completely deny entrance to both.
The vast majority of Europeans want drastic decreases in immigration. Eventually, they are going to get it. (Indeed, the British people already have, and did so via a political means in a way that was once considered inconceivable—voting to leave the European Union.) Who will deliver this policy goal to them? To ensure that the answer to this question is not the far Right, the Center-Right will need to find solutions that are both workable and humane. Supporting economic development in Africa, the Middle East, and other regions of the world that are sending migrants toward Europe is one way to reduce migratory pressures over the long term. Throwing aid money at governments is not a solution, but opening up markets to producers in these countries is. Additionally, pushing the asylum process outside the continent, perhaps via the creation of “regional disembarkation platforms” where potential asylees will have their claims processed (a proposal the Commission has endorsed) is one that Center-Right parties should consider. Increased funding for the body’s Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, is a cause around which the vast majority of the European public could rally. This agency need not be fully autonomous; more important is that it fill the gaps in national border protection capacities.
Voters intuitively (and correctly) realize that, once a migrant makes his way into the European Union, there is little chance of deportation if his or her asylum claim fails. When a Swedish court overturned a decision to deport a Palestinian refugee who firebombed a synagogue on the grounds that he would be in danger from Israel if he were sent back to Palestine, it sent different messages to different constituencies. Potential migrants to Sweden were told that even committing a violent hate crime would not be a grave enough offense to risk deportation. Meanwhile, Jewish Swedes were told that the comfort of anti-Semitic criminal refugees is more important than their own safety. According to European Commission data, just 36.6 percent of failed asylum claimants are sent back to their home countries. In Germany, some 233,000 rejected asylum seekers remain in the country, and in 2017 German authorities only carried out about 24,000 deportations. The low deportation rate isn’t necessarily a result of political obstacles; rather, the cost of removing a failed asylum seeker can be prohibitively high.
The experience of another failed asylum seeker, a Tunisian named Anis Amri, who killed 12 people in a December 2016 truck attack on a Berlin Christmas market, demonstrates the weaknesses and potential dangers of the current system, and why increasing numbers of European voters are falling into the arms of the far Right. Denied an Italian residence permit in 2011, Amri was imprisoned after setting fire to a government shelter. Upon his release, he moved to Germany, where his applications for asylum (under several false identities) were rejected. Though he was subject to deportation, the German government lost track of his whereabouts; moreover, the Tunisian government refused to accept him back. It was in the midst of this bureaucratic confusion and incompetence that he was radicalized and carried out his deadly attack. Preventing such cases from occurring by making it harder to enter Europe illegally is a way both to protect against terrorism and to earn back the trust of European publics.
In exchange for these measures aimed at reducing external immigration into the European Union, Europe’s Center-Right should work to convince their more recalcitrant ideological brethren among the body’s newer members to help share the burden of finding homes for those migrants whose asylum claims have been successfully processed. Taking part in the European project—which substantial majorities in Hungary and Poland, whose governments have fought the European Union on its migrant distribution efforts, continue to support—entails solidarity. In the context of external migration, solidarity means that those countries which, by dint of geography, receive more migrants (namely, the Mediterranean states) should not have to bear the burden of future migratory flows.
However, no state should be forced to take refugees it does not want (and, as events over the past four years demonstrate, there is no means by which the European Commission can force recalcitrant members to do so). One proposal to alleviate the problem of refugee disbursement is a “Tradable Refugee-Admission Quota” regime, whereby nations that do not wish to accept refugees can pay others to bear their share of the burden. Another proposal is an “international refugee match system,” in which nations and refugees can effectively “choose” each other. Such a program is also likely to result in better integration, in contrast to systems where countries accept migrants without the appropriate level of public “buy-in.”
Regardless of how the challenge of future irregular migration to Europe is handled, its continued existence as a specter haunting Europe is one that demagogues will use to bash the European Union as a whole, attack mainstream political leaders, and draw public support for their illiberal political programs. The danger here is that voters, tempted by a simple yet seductive message on immigration, will overlook a party’s hostility to NATO, the Transatlantic relationship, judicial independence, media freedom, political pluralism, and other markers of adherence to liberal order so as to achieve more restrictive immigration policies. The neutralization of irregular migration as a matter of serious ideological contestation should therefore be a priority for European leaders.
1As Axios described following an early August poll with SurveyMonkey, “The fact that [Trump’s] job approval rating (44 percent) is so closely aligned with his immigration numbers suggests that Trump’s immigration policies play a huge role in how the public sees his presidency. If they’re with him on immigration, they’re with him on everything . . . [though] more than half of voters disapprove of Trump’s immigration policies, support DACA, and oppose building a border wall along the southwest border.”
2This has been the case for some time. A 2008 study of five European countries found “questions of community and identity (the defense of national identity against outsiders and the upholding of an exclusive form of community) to be more consequential for [right-wing populist party] support than economic grievances in all five countries.”
3The problem is hardly exclusive to the Right, and it may even be more pertinent for the European Center-Left, which has been decimated across the continent as its traditional voters flock to far Right parties, largely over disagreements on cultural issues, not least immigration.