Thursday 14 August 2014

The Tide is Turning

Thoughts on impact of mass-scale immigration on Europe and rise of right-wing nationalist parties in European Elections

(Originally Published in The Nation on 16th June, 2014)

On 31st of May, 2014, more than 3000 migrants from North Africa reached the shores of Italy. Most of the refugees, using boats to cross the Mediterranean Sea, had arrived from Syria. In 2011, the number of illegal border-crossing detections in the European Union (EU) jumped by 35% to 1, 41,000 as thousands of Tunisians arrived at Italian island of Lampedusa after the start of ‘Arab Spring’. This exodus from Africa continued in 2012-13 due to the uprising in Libya and Syria. In 2013, a boat carrying 360 people from North Africa to Italy capsized in the Mediterranean Sea. It was not a solitary event and similar accidents have been reported in the last five years. In 2012, 51% of migrants entering the EU illegally did so via Greece. This prompted the Greek authorities to construct a barbed-wire fence at the Greek-Turkish border.

According to the Dublin Regulation in European Union’s Law, entry-point states bear unilateral responsibility for migrants. The law stipulates that asylum seekers must remain in the first European country they enter, and that country is solely responsible for examining migrants’ asylum applications. Migrants who travel to other European Union (EU) states face deportation back to the EU country they originally entered. In Italy, migrants face fines and deportation under the Bossi-Finni Immigration law enacted in 2002, which stipulates that migrants must secure work contracts before entering the country. According to the law, illegal migration is a punishable offense in Italy.

The great economic recession that engulfed United States in 2008 affected many countries in Europe as well. The first to fall was Ireland in 2007-08, followed by Spain, Greece, Italy, Iceland, France and Portugal. Economic disparity reached new heights while the number of jobless people was on an all-time high. The Eurozone crisis was blamed on trade imbalance between countries in Northern Europe and Southern Europe.

In November 2008, the European Commission presented the European Economic Recovery Plan which aimed at promoting austerity and decreased government spending in the affected countries. Following the recession, there is a significant decrease in confidence faced by European Institutions and according to data from Eurobarometer, levels of mistrust towards the European Commission escalated from 27% to 47% in the period between 2007 and 2013.

Results of the latest round of European Elections should be evaluated in the backdrop of increased immigration and financial crisis. Far-Right nationalist parties witnessed a surge in their vote share and were able to win a few seats in different countries in the European Union. From among 751 electoral seats in the EU parliament, far-right or euroskeptic parties were able to win 108 seats, compared to 56 seats in the previous election. Countries where Euroskeptic parties made inroads included Germany, France, United Kingdom, Poland, Greece, Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Austria. Major political parties across Europe did not place too much importance on these elections and a sharp decline in number of voters was seen.

Judy Dempsey-an expert on European politics at Carnegie endowment for International peace-was of the view that “the turn out continues to decline [in the EU elections]. This time around, the recent economic crisis has fed into this sense of disillusionment with Europe and boosted Euroskeptic parties across the continent. The two most prominent are Britain’s UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) and France’s Front National. It must be said that mainstream parties standing for European parliament have not done the kind of grassroots campaigning necessary to defend Europe. In contrast, the nationalist/populist parties are exploiting this weakness with their own high-profile campaigning. They are well-organized and highly motivated, and they are able to sell a very clear message.”

Founder of France’s ‘Front National’ party suggested prior to the elections that “releasing the deadly Ebola Virus could sort out Europe’s immigration issue in three months”. A neo-Nazi party called ‘Golden Dawn’ in Greece vows to “rid Greece of Filth” and a good number of members of the party are in prison for hate-crimes against immigrants.
In the last few months, Russia and its annexation of parts of Ukraine, has threatened to bring war to Europe, after relative peace for the last 70 years. Russia is the main supplier of Natural gas to Europe and a conflict can lead to serious energy crisis in European countries including Germany. Presence of far-right parties in the European parliament is not going to cause too much trouble for the European populace because of limited powers of legislation. The maximum that can be achieved by the nationalist fringe is ‘nuisance value’ during legislation.

Due to unexpected results in the elections, multiculturalism and integration have been deemed to fail in European societies. It is far too early to mourn the demise of an idea as big as multiculturalism. Societies across Europe are changing at a sluggish pace and it would still take many decades to integrate migrants from places that are less developed socially and economically in the diverse native cultures. The far-right/nationalist movement is a reactionary enterprise and would defeat itself in the near future.

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