It has been four years since the migration crisis hit Europe. It was feared that it will ultimately challenge the cultural identity, the social cohesion and the economy of Europe, however, it seems that its biggest effect was on the political landscape of Member States.
A number of European countries have seen their citizens go to the ballots these past months while in several others, people will be voting later this year. Some Europeans will be voting for a president, some for parliament or local representatives. But one thing is common: the central themes of these elections are the migration crisis and the future of European security.
The wave of migrants fleeing conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia hit Europe hard in 2015. In just that year alone, the number of people applying for asylum in the EU reached 1.26 million. An additional 2.2 million people were found to be illegally present (those who failed to register properly or left the Member State responsible for processing their asylum claim) on the territory of the European Union. This triggered a continent-wide migration crisis to which each Member State reacted differently, although with the same sense of shock. From German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming approach to the reestablishment of internal border controls between some Member States, reactions varied. However, a common pattern emerged: nationalism became the center of political discourse and populist voices are now more prominent and accepted on the continent. Parties across the political spectrum did not hesitate to capitalize on the migration crisis and it is safe to say that despite the drop in the number of immigrants, the issue became the center of political debate in practically all Member States. It also gradually became a key issue of national elections across the European Union, from France and Germany in 2017 to a range of other countries in 2018.
Italian voters went to the polls early March. Italy, one of the most affected countries by the migration crisis – located on the Mediterranean route into Western Europe – received more than a million migrants through various sea routes from Northern Africa in just 2015. This number has significantly dropped to just 172,000 in 2017 thanks to European sea patrols and international agreements with neighboring countries. Despite the significant decrease, Italians were still worried; the majority (over 30%) voted for the anti-establishment Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement, M5S), which ran on an anti-migration campaign aimed at stopping boats bringing migrants to Europe. M5S did not receive enough votes to govern on its own so it is expected to form a coalition government with either the center-left (Partido Democratico), the center-right (Forza Italia) or the far-right (Lega). Either way, given Italy’s geography and the extent of its refugee problem, once in power, M5S will likely demand greater solidarity from European partners in tackling the flow of Northern Africans arriving on its shores.
A month after the Italian elections, on 8 April, Hungarians will also go to the polls to decide whether to give current Prime Minister Viktor Orbán a chance at a third consecutive term in office. Similar to M5S, Orbán’s right-wing populist party Fidesz also campaigns on an anti-migration agenda, with the far-right party Jobbik (the second most popular) following suite. Both are set to “protect” Hungary (from the culturally and religiously different migrants) and prevent it from “becoming an immigrant country.” Hungary, geographically located on the Balkan-route into Western Europe, became infamous for its wired fence erected on its border with Serbia in order to stop the flow of Syrian refugees arriving through the Balkans. According to recent polls, Fidesz is likely to gain the plurality of the votes giving Orbán a chance to continue his policy of inducing fear towards migrants and xenophobia among the Hungarian population. A policy that is aimed at stirring attention away from the systematic corruption and mishandling of EU funds by the government and Orbán’s cronies.
The migration debate reached the more pro-migrant Scandinavian states too, where Sweden will be electing a new government in early September. Social Democrat Prime Minister Stefan Löfven is predicted to win another term in office, however his party’s coalition partner, the Green Party is dangerously close to not getting into parliament this time around. Without a partner, the Social Democrats would have to find a new ally, possibly in the center-right Alliance, led by the Moderate Party. However, populist sentiment fuelled by the migration crisis has been growing stronger in Scandinavia as well, which is visible in the strengthening support for the nationalist Sweden Democrats, currently polled at third place. With the Social Democrats’ (SD) coalition looking weak, the Moderate Party’s new leader Ulf Kristersson has expressed closer support to the nationalists and an unwillingness to work with the SD. With nearly half a year to go until the Swedish elections, it is too soon to tell what the outcome will be, but the tendency of moderate right-wing shifting towards the far right of the spectrum is a cause for alarm.
No matter how this year will end, it is certain that the new governments elected will have a say in how Europe faces the migrant crisis on its doorstep. However, there is one upside to the whole crisis: it opened the floor for the long-overdue debate on the future of European security cooperation and the role of Member States within. Migration has challenged the effectiveness, the coherence and the credibility of the European Union, both internally and externally. It has also highlighted some major decisions the Union will have to face in order to not just overcome this crisis in the short-term, but to define itself on the world stage in the longer term. The EU will have to decide whether to prioritize its own territorial integrity or to stand up for its humanitarian obligations. It will also have to decide whether to take in more immigrants to fulfill its economic and demographic needs or to turn them away in fear of breaking social cohesion. Finally, it will have to come to terms with national governments that are set on opposing what the European Union stands for in order to carry out their own nationalistic agendas.
Cover Photo: Syrian refugees strike at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station, Hungary, 2015, © Mstyslav Chernov / Wikimedia Commons