After the events of May in Lampedusa discussions on, and fears of, migrants in Europe seemed to become quieter and less urgent. The European Commission did put on the table a possible quota system to share the burden of relocation among member states, which will be discussed during. Yet, the growing number of people landing on the Italian coasts, and those camping and protesting in Italy’s border town of Ventimiglia because rejected by France, along with the 25-26 June Euro-summit where many European leaders rejected the (modest) proposal from the Commission, tell us how central this humanitarian situation in the old continent is, and how complex it is for this latter to manage it.
This is even harder today with the renewed appeal of nationalism and promoting national interests only. Hungary’s right-wing nationalist government, for example, is planning to build a fence along the 180 km border with Serbia to make life harder for migrants from the Middle East. Post-election Conservative Britain is instead downgrading its involvement in the migration operation in the Mediterranean, shifting from “rescuing” people to “stopping” smugglers, to pay tribute to a more isolationist politics. Worryingly, David Cameron’s Eurosceptic ally in the EU parliament, the far-right Danish People’s Party, doubled its seats in national election, becoming the second largest party on an electoral manifesto also based on the rejection of multi-ethnic society because “Denmark is not an immigrant country”.
Migration has been generally a troubling policy for Europeans. Its politicization from the 1980s onwards by some mainstream political forces and media contributed to the strengthening of a popular anger, and the growth of the anti-immigrant far right. This movement of people is a feature of Europe, and not merely because its citizens moved overseas to colonize and populate, for example, the American continent and Oceania. Intra-European emigration has been persistently present: the “Portuguese” and the “Italian”, among others, were often portrayed in a xenophobic manner in postwar Europe. The establishment of the European Community surely helped to build a better sense of a shared belonging and to promote people’s integration.
Yet from 2004 onwards, with the EU moving eastward, anti-foreigner attitudes reappeared. The beliefs in Polish plumbers invading western regions, Bulgarian workers “stealing” jobs, and Rumanians (allegedly) promoting illegal activities became widespread in some European societies. This mirrors what happened in the past century, including in 1903 when a royal commission report on the so-called “alien immigration” to the UK discussed Central and Eastern European immigration (at the time mostly of Jews), and, to try to ban it, used words which sound very familiar to us: overcrowding, lack of jobs, and shortage of housing.
These nationalist anti-immigrant tendencies resurface quite frequently in European history. The difference is how we approach them and how one frames public debates. Today this is aggravated by the rising state deficits and the austerity which forced the youth (especially in Southern Europe) to move to richer nations. This generated, once more, collective fears of excessive job competition and welfare exploitation which have been immediately monopolised by some politicians and media outlets, even when data show a very different reality.
An example? A ruling of the European Court of Justice on 11 November 2014 on some EU migrants in Germany seemed a victory for many of these pro-nationalistic and demagogic stances. Nations may refuse some benefits to unemployed immigrants attempting to exploit welfare provisions. British newspapers such as the Daily Express immediately proclaimed: “At last a benefits ban: Jobless EU migrants will NOT be allowed to milk our welfare system.” Cameron added how this ruling stopping “benefit tourism” was “simple common sense.” These Europeans are presently encountering very large scale third-world migrations in search of jobs and a real life, at times escaping persecution and wars. Hundred thousands of refugees arrived on the Italian coasts, with about five EU member states hosting the majority of them.
What is Europe’s reaction to all this? All societies are full of contradictions. There is a sense of egoism, mixed with indifference. Excluding all migrants from welfare provisions is the easiest policy. The fear of losing high living standards is bigger than any other rational consideration of the future of humankind and the working of capitalist societies (we live as we do partially because of cheap labour provided by immigrants). Many others really prefer to overlook this humanitarian situation, and these silent ghosts who shake the consciences of many Europeans. At the end of the day, it is also just easier queuing outside a shop for the newest mobile phone than volunteering in Lampedusa. In other cases, helplessness is the perceived feeling.
Another simplistic answer is then to erect, again, borders and resurrect the belief in reassuring, though outdated, almost mono-ethnic nation-states. This is what is happening, and it comes along with the undermining of both human dignity and a rather successful European integration. Indeed, the Danish People’s Party assured voters of how, despite any real external threat, they fundamentally “assert Denmark’s independence”, because the nation “belongs to the Danes”, while the centre-left French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, asked about immigrants crossing the border, simply pointed out that France “cannot welcome” those economic migrants desiring a better life in Europe, “they have to be sent back …. to Africa”. Similarly politicians from Forza Italia and Lega Nord in Northern Italy are refusing to give any help to refugees.
In other words, the rise of far-right parties and the fears of sections of public opinion seem more important than these stateless lives and of the young Europeans looking for jobs. It is then not even a matter of migrant quotas, it is simply the EU motto, “United in diversity”, which would require a better integration of people.
Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London. His book on transnational neo-fascism is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press. He is presently writing a short book on Europe in recent years. He also has written op-eds for Al Jazeera America, International Herald Tribune, The Independent, Foreign Affairs, The Guardian, Reuters, The New York Times, and the New Statesman.