On Thursday, European leaders will convene in Brussels for a showdown over migration. The question of how the European Union will handle the migrants and asylum seekers in its midst has shadowed continental politics since an influx of Syrian refugees dominated global headlines in 2015. While the numbers of arrivals steadily dropped in the years since, the right-wing backlash in Europe has only escalated. Now, even the political future of German Chancellor Angela Merkel hangs in the balance, with mutinous allies to the right threatening to end her 13-year rule over what they view as her soft, permissive stance.
“Immigration policy is the central battleground in Europe’s deepening political divide,” wrote the Wall Street Journal. “A centrist, pro-European Union establishment is seeking to reassure voters that cooperative measures can curb migration flows while spreading the burden of taking in refugees fairly. Anti-establishment political insurgents, particularly on the far-right, are denouncing EU efforts as a failure and seeking to sweep away longtime incumbents such as Merkel.”
There is general agreement on reinforcing the bloc’s frontier security and working to boost aid to nearby African nations in a bid to curb migrant flows across the Mediterranean. But beyond that, the fault lines run deep. “Merkel is seeking a way to redistribute across the continent the migrants who have already arrived,” explained my Washington Post colleague Michael Birnbaum. “Italy, a front-line state to asylum seekers and migrants coming from North Africa, is more focused on the initial arrivals and on avoiding what it says is an unfair burden that has been placed on it by countries to its north.”
Far-right parties in coalition governments in Italy and Austria are pushing for all new arrivals to be turned away at the border, while illiberal nationalists in Hungary, Poland, and other countries in Eastern and Central Europe balk at Merkel’s proposals for all EU members to accept a quota of asylum seekers. As my colleagues reported, Merkel and other European centrists are being steadily challenged by more hard-line leadership on the right, including Austria’s youthful chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, and Italy’s new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, a far-right firebrand.
Both Kurz and Salvini have elicited parallels to President Donald Trump, who has cheered the cracking of Europe’s liberal consensus. In his time in power, Trump has borrowed the talking points of Europe’s far right, casting any influx of migrants as an existential threat, while scare-mongering over Muslim arrivals from a vast sweep of the globe. While Salvini leaves vessels carrying hundreds of migrants stranded in the Mediterranean, Trump has pushed for draconian treatment of migrants illegally entering the country, and prioritized both an expensive border wall and a travel ban on a number of Muslim-majority nations - neither of which national security experts believe is necessary.
While these policies galvanize right-wing sentiment, they don’t reflect the actual migration trends, as my colleagues note. “New arrivals of migrants and asylum seekers to Europe via the Mediterranean have dropped by more than half this year compared with the same period in 2017, according to the U.N. migration agency: 40,944 people as of Wednesday. The decline is even starker compared with 2016: It equals just 19 percent of the same period in that year.” (As has always been the case, the real human crises are outside the West, whether in squalid temporary camps in the Middle East housing millions of Syrian refugees, impoverished and gang-dominated corners of Central America, or the perilous smuggling networks disappearing and brutalizing countless migrants in North Africa.)
Trump, argued Wonkblog’s Christopher Ingraham, grandstands over a border crisis that does not exist. The vast majority of immigrants who enter the United States do so legally. According to one account, visa overstays comprise two-thirds of those joining the American undocumented population every year. “The number attempting to get across the Southern border is probably the lowest it’s been since at least the 1970s,” said Robert Warren, a demographer with the Center for Migration Studies, to Ingraham. “I’m surprised the [Trump] administration hasn’t really focused on overstays. That’s where the action is.” The White House is indeed also seeking ways to curb legal immigration, but the vision it propagates of a dangerous horde of barbarians massing at the gates is both inflammatory and overblown.
Of course, when it comes to questions over immigration, feelings almost always trump facts. Because it undermined Trump’s position on limiting refugees, the White House rejected a study conducted by the administration itself last year that found that refugees had brought in $63 billion more in government revenues over the past decade than they cost. More broadly, experts warn of the negative economic impact the United States now faces due to an apparent decline in low-skilled migration. In Europe, too, demand for low-skilled labor will only increase as the continent’s population ages and, in some cases, shrinks.
Nevertheless, opinion polling in numerous Western societies consistently finds that significant numbers of people over-inflate the size of the migrant population in their midst and the scale of their demographic impact. “The overestimates are largest among particular groups: the least educated, workers in low-skill occupations with lots of immigrants, and those on the political right,” noted the New York Times, citing a recent survey of public opinion in the United States and other European countries. “They overstate the share of immigrants who are Muslim and understate the share of Christians. They underestimate immigrants’ education and overestimate both their poverty rate and their dependence on welfare. Almost a quarter of French respondents, as well as nearly one in five Swedes and about one in seven Americans, think the average immigrant gets twice as much government aid as native residents do. In no country is this true.”
These misunderstandings have real political effects, as the Times reported, including “eroding support for Europe’s social democratic model as well as for the United States’ more limited social safety net.”
Europe’s centrists and liberals, including Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and a new center-left government in Spain, call for pragmatism and calm, urging burden-sharing within the continent and diplomacy across the Mediterranean to further reduce the numbers attempting to make the dangerous sea passage. But the passions of the moment do not sit well alongside this measured approach. Over the weekend, a frustrated Macron called on his peers to “not forget our values” of openness and tolerance. “We are living through a political crisis more than a migratory crisis today,” he said.
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York. Follow Isaan on Twitter @ishaantharoor.