A forecast has dominated much of the mainstream media for months: migration will be the big issue of 2024. Although something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, polls suggest that the prediction does reflect a very real zeitgeist. According to a Eurobarometer survey published in December 2023, 28% of Europeans consider immigration to be one of the two main challenges facing the European Union, alongside the war in Ukraine.

Admittedly, the subject makes headlines in every election year. But this year’s highly anticipated European elections in June will be held in the wake of far-right breakthroughs across the continent. That can only make the subject all the more omnipresent.

A Europe-wide hobbyhorse

“Few topics were as influential in shaping social discourse last year as migration”, reports Lucia Schulten for the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW). “It’s likely to dominate the EU’s agenda again in the new year.”

The cause? The increase in asylum applications in some European countries is a factor, as are the multiple agreements signed by the EU with countries that might limit migration in the Mediterranean – Tunisia, Libya and Turkey. Above all, there is the upcoming reform of Europe’s policy for receiving migrants. The member states found agreement in mid-December and are due to adopt the package in the first half of 2024.

Europe’s appetite for the migration issue also seems to obey another logic: “Unofficially, it’s said in Brussels that an asylum policy agreement was needed to slow the rise of right-wing populists.”, reports Schulten. “Migration has often played a major political role in many member state polls”, she points out, but adds that experts “are sceptical that the new asylum rules can help to make the issue less explosive, because the reality is that migration will continue.”

A dread of the far right seems to be hardening at the summit of Europe. “Following [Geert Wilders]’s shock election win in the Netherlands, European elites are nervously scanning the political landscape for signs of what’s to come — including further surprise wins from far-right candidates”, confirm Clea Caulcutt and Nicholas Vinocur for Politico. And their concerns are not illegitimate: “In nearly a dozen European countries, including France and Germany, hardline anti-immigration parties, some of them more extreme than Wilders, are currently topping the polls, or in a close second place.”

Caulcutt and Vinocur note that the far-right parties are benefiting from the fruits of a long process of normalisation in public opinion. But not only that: “For several analysts, immigration, the Hamas-Israel war, the fatigue with mainstream parties, and insecurity over the war in Ukraine are turning into an unprecedented alignment of stars for Europe’s far-right parties as many of them attempt to capture the centre ground.” The two Politico journalists are doubtful about the strategy employed by some: “Pro-Europe, centrist parties have so far failed to nail the right response [to the rise of the far right], either avoiding difficult questions or trying to mimic the far right.”

Beggar thy neighbour

Getting out of trouble by copying the far right is not a new strategy, but it is counterproductive and dangerous, asserts migration expert Zoe Gardner for The New European. She takes as an example the United Kingdom, where the Conservative prime minister Rishi Sunak has made the fight against illegal immigration his main combat, at the cost of pushing for extreme measures and using the most alarmist rhetoric.

On 16 December, “Sunak gave a speech at a right-wing political gathering in Italy which was truly chilling”, writes Gardner. “He warned that Europe would be ‘overwhelmed’ without his radical measures.”

The tone was deliberately doom-mongering, believes Gardner. Presenting migration as an existential threat to the West can serve to justify the most abusive policies: “When it comes to our survival as a civilisation, the end justifies all the means.”

A risky strategy

Defeating the reactionaries on their own turf? It’s an intriguing move. On the issue of migration, the right and the far right tend to converge, as demonstrated in France by the draft law on the subject debated in December 2023. The bill, which has been criticised for drastically tightening reception conditions on French soil, is seen by some as a victory for Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, which weighed heavily in the parliamentary vote.

“‘Shame’, ‘disgrace’, ‘shipwreck’… There are no words strong enough to describe this disaster of an immigration bill, the ultra-radical version of which was finally voted through on 19 December in the Senate and then in the National Assembly”, fulminated Sandrine Foulon, editor of the French publication Alternatives Economiques. Claiming to be fighting the far right is no obstacle to working with it, the French example appears to prove.Appeals for calm and sanity are unlikely to find a place in this heated political atmosphere. Given the migration tragedies of the last year, and the persistent problem of housing migrants decently, the issue seems here to stay. In the run-up to the EU elections, a public debate on the question of receiving migrants remains urgently needed. But the connivance with reactionary talking points, the alarmist rhetoric and the rise of the far right do not augur well for the outcome of that debate.

On migration and asylum

Olena Yermakova | Eurozine| 11 December | EN

For Ukrainian migrants who left their country following Russia’s invasion, going abroad has brought comforts – and questions. Since the war began, the exiles have faced a changed relationship with their host communities, with other refugees and with their relatives back home. Ukrainian society as a whole is changing with them, believes Olena Yermakova.

Evelyn Groenink | Mondiaal Nieuws | 6 December | NL

This is the highly topical question posed by Evelyn Groenink. As Africa slowly turns into a prison, EU governments are increasingly consorting with undemocratic regimes, delegating to them the task of controlling migration.

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