Populists Keep Winning the Messaging War in Europe Over Migration

by Laura Kupe

January 25, 2019

European leaders gathered twice last year to try and develop an EU-wide approach to the still-divisive issues of migration and the integration of refugees, and both times they failed to reach any consensus, yet again. Building on public anxieties around migration, far-right populist parties succeeded in sowing more discord across the continent, with many centrist and liberal politicians having difficulty formulating a response. 

The effectiveness of these anti-migrant and even nativist campaigns was evident with the controversy over the adoption of the United Nations’ Global Compact on Migration last month in Morocco. The compact initially enjoyed support from all U.N. members, including the United States, when its drafting process was launched in 2016. But the Trump administration pulled the U.S. out of the compact more than a year ago, claiming that numerous provisions in the agreement were “inconsistent with U.S. immigration and refugee policies.” 

The American stance on what was supposed to be a landmark U.N. migration pact opened the door for far-right voices in Europe to condemn the agreement too. Following the lead of Hungary’s anti-immigrant prime minister, Viktor Orban, who was already a vocal opponent during the negotiation process, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz pulled out of the compact last October. In an apparent bow to his coalition partners, the far-right Freedom Party, Kurtz said the deal would only encourage more migration.

Austria’s move was a turning point that triggered similar debate and government infighting in the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland and the Czech Republic. In the case of Belgium, Prime Minister Charles Michel’s decision to sign on to the compact led to the collapse of his coalition government, as one of its parties, the right-wing, nationalist New Flemish Alliance, revolted and left the coalition.

The recent fallout over the U.N. accord surprised leaders who were initially involved in the early stages of its negotiation in 2016, when the urgency of the migration crisis captured headlines, following a year when more than a million migrants and refugees arrived in Europe. After all, the compact is not a legally binding agreement, instead serving as a framework for countries to improve international cooperation on global migration in order to most effectively reduce the risks and vulnerabilities of migrants during transit. Most importantly, it “reaffirms the sovereign right of states to determine their national migration policy.”

Yet by the time the text of the compact was approved by acclamation in Marrakech in December, only 164 countries approved it, out of 193 U.N. member states. Support fell even more when it was officially ratified at the U.N. General Assembly several days later, by a vote of 152-5, with the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Israel and the U.S. all against it. Among the 12 countries that abstained were five EU member states in which far-right populist movements placed enormous pressure on governments to abandon the compact: Austria, Bulgaria, Italy, Latvia and Romania. 

The compact’s defenders, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have stressed that it highlights the importance of international cooperation on migration and that a single country cannot address this issue alone. But Merkel has also had to acknowledge that false narratives around the compact have been “used by the opponents of the pact to spread false information.”

Any humanitarian and moral appeals have been consumed by debates and outright fearmongering about economic security and national identity. Statistics—like the fact that migrant flows to Europe are down 95 percent from the record highs of 2015 and 2016 because of targeted measures, including the EU’s refugee agreement with Turkey, a bilateral deal between Italy and Libya in 2017, and the beefing up of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, known as Frontex—are not resonating with the public. You wouldn’t know, based on the political rhetoric in Europe and the U.S. over migration and asylum, that 85 percent of the world’s refugees are in fact hosted in the developing world.

This is, in part, a failure of messaging. The inability to push back against anti-immigrant populism and defend the integration of migrants and refugees rests with political leaders who have not developed the appropriate political and cultural vocabulary, or found the right advocates, to explain migration and better articulate its complexities to European publics. Some historical perspective would help. Europe is and has always been a diverse and multicultural continent. People from Africa and the Middle East coming to Europe is nothing new; migration, forced and unforced, has occurred over centuries, alongside deep trading links and colonial empires from many of the very nations that are objecting to migration today. Europe is more interconnected to the Middle East and Africa than most European politicians want to admit.

The U.N. migration pact took a more accurate view of migration. During its negotiation process, the U.N. consulted critical constituencies like human rights groups, the private sector, and diaspora and migrant communities. This same process could be repeated within the EU by purposely including diaspora and migrant communities in future policy discussions and summits around migration.

Across Europe, diaspora and migrant communities with African and Middle Eastern roots have unique insights into how complex forces like poor governance, the legacies of colonialism, and the lack of employment opportunities can force someone to leave one’s country of origin. These communities have also experienced the integration process firsthand—the good and bad. I know this is because I am part of a diaspora community. I was born in Germany to parents who left the Democratic Republic of Congo for Germany for educational opportunities. I have also been an immigrant on both sides of the Atlantic and had to learn new languages and integrate into societies different from my parents’ country of origin.

The integration stories of many diaspora communities often include unfortunate tales of racism, xenophobia and discrimination, including in countries that opened their borders in recent years to refugees and migrants, like Germany. Nationalist rhetoric spread by far-right and populist movements is not only exposing political divisions, but also putting the safety of these communities at risk.

Engaging with these communities could help EU leaders develop new vocabulary and strategies in the migration debate going forward. Last year, the European Parliament hosted its first-ever EU People of African Descent Week, a forum that gathered black European politicians, civil society groups and activists to discuss policy issues, including migration, that affect the approximately 15 million black Europeans living in the EU. It was a good start. More of this kind of outreach, stressing the interconnectedness of Europe to Africa and the Middle East, could help silence nationalist propaganda that harps on the “foreignness” of the EU’s migrant and diaspora communities. 

As political figures like Merkel prepare to step aside, the EU desperately needs to find new voices and new ideas when it comes to migration. It cannot keep letting far-right populists set the tone and dictate the narrative.

Laura Kupe is a German-born, Congolese-American attorney and trans-Atlantic security expert. She served as a special assistant in the Office of Policy, working on European affairs, at the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration. The views expressed here are her own.

Bonnie Jenkins