Following the 18th April tragedy in the Mediterranean that lead to the loss of over 700 lives, and the subsequent 13th May Commission proposal for a new agenda, migration has lately been a very hot topic in Brussels.
We were positively surprised by the Commission’s proposal, which embodied a significant step ahead from the frozen, motionless situation of the previous years that had not offered any substantial solution to the never-ending loss of lives of those escaping from war and extreme poverty. At the same time, we did somehow expect the often negative – sometimes outright hostile – reactions from many European capitals, not only unwilling to engage in a redistribution of European migrants but even unwilling to engage in a constructive debate over how to solve an issue that is predicted to become more and more pressing over the next couple of years.
However, what struck us most was the lack of vision that many politicians from various political backgrounds showed during the subsequent debate. To be sure, we did not expect someone like the UK Home Secretary Theresa May to change the dehumanizing course that she has displayed over the last five years. But when we were in the audience at an event about migration on the day when the Commission agenda was presented, we were reminded of the conformity of almost all politicians to the negative, dismissive, and anti-immigrant narrative that has pervaded European politics since the early 2000s.
This can be illustrated by describing what we witnessed in the debate on migration, while refraining from naming the politician in case – it could have been pretty much any politician in any Western European country. Let’s leave that to your imagination. During the debate, a left-wing, social democrat politician claimed that the issue of migration should not be given more prominence on the national political agendas of European countries, because this would only favour right-wing politics. This applied to refugees and migrants with humanitarian concerns, and especially – god forbid – to economic migrants: in an era of high unemployment there could be no room for further migration. This was the harsh reality of ‘pragmatic politics’.
This shows precisely what has been missing in the debate on migration as it has unfolded over the last years: a lack of vision, of true innovative political thinking, of options for voters. The left-wing politician in our example did not realize it herself, but by and large, she accepted the anti-immigrant discourse of right-wing political parties. This is a discourse that plays on the economic aspects of migration, as there is a fear that ‘waves’ (or even tsunamis) of migrants will deprive the hard-working citizens of their jobs. Equally persuasive, this discourse invokes the social aspects of migration, appealing to the negative gut feeling towards migrants and often mentioning them as having dispositions towards radicalism and terrorism.
Turning challenges into opportunities
Mentioning migration in the same sentence as unemployment is the trick of populists who want to keep inward migration at a minimum, and following this narrative means being falling in the trap. The need for migration towards Europe is real, as we are facing rapidly aging populations and declining birth rates. Our pension systems – our hard-earned savings will soon be unsustainable, and rather than being threatened by migration this system actually mandates it.
More importantly, the political left completely lacks a narrative that plays on the gut feelings of many citizens – although there are possibilities to do so. Many citizens are appalled by the suffering on our doorstep, and would favour an alternative discourse that links migration to values such as human dignity and piety. Acknowledging the problems deriving from migration is one thing, and surely a proper balance must be struck between integration of migrants and the social and economic benefits for European countries. But forgetting the founding values of democracy and inclusiveness, on which our societies are built, is another thing.
Every challenge can be turned into an opportunity. Of course, we do not claim to have a solution for migration. Nobody has, and nobody ever will: migration is an integral part of humanity. The point is that we could start to think about migration not as a problem needing a solution, but as an opportunity for an alternative left-wing discourse. After all, we need to remember that the anti-immigrant discourse that now dominates politics gained power at the end of the 1990s – times of unprecedented peace, prosperity, and social cohesion in Europe. The social democrat story on migration should, above all, be another story, an alternative story to the right-wing populist story that has polarized and exasperated the migration debate for too long. A story about democracy and the value of human life. So that no one has to die on the doorstep of Europe.
Robert Zielonka is project coordinator in a Brussels-based think tank and a proud graduate of democracy 2015. Camille Schyns is trainee in a European institution. The views of both authors are personal and don’t in any way represent the institutions the authors work for.
School of Democracy 2015 graduate