In 2015, the ‘refugee crisis’ was a pressing issue facing European societies. Now, it has become the main vehicle for mobilizing the far right.
Three years ago, Europe faced its largest influx of migrants since the wars in former Yugoslavia. A seemingly endless flotilla of unseaworthy boats attempted to cross the Mediterranean, as desperate people from the Middle East and Africa (many of whom had never seen the ocean and could not swim) crowded into these tiny vessels, mostly without life jackets, oftentimes helped into them by unscrupulous people-smugglers. They were met by large swathes of the mainstream press and politicians in Europe with hostility. Brave NGOs and hastily-formed groups from civil society did what they could to help, but thousands of migrants ended up being held in makeshift reception centers and were left to continue their trek to safety with very little support.
When Sweden, which in terms of its population took in more migrants than any other European country; and when Germany, setting its postwar memory culture to work, took in over one million refugees, a standard was set which most other European countries chose to disregard. Eastern European countries such as Romania, Poland, and Hungary refused to take in migrants, and Hungary also soon tried to shut its border with Serbia, thus preventing the migrants’ preferred route through to Austria and Germany from operating. Denmark and Britain objected too, reaching for the letter of the various EU agreements stating that migrants should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach.
The migrants were widely represented as dangerous, primarily as the icebreakers for Islamic extremism. As if it were not the case that all migrant groups don’t need to learn new languages, cultural norms and ways of behaving. And antiquated economic arguments were quickly deployed: migrants can’t be afforded, they place too much pressure on social services, housing, health care and so on. Elites across Europe acted as if an economy is a household with a fixed income, forgetting that as soon as they become economically active, migrants contribute to the economy and help to build it. Past experience shows that any large influx of people carries with it short-term effects, and neighborhoods change. The history of migration in Europe – which is largely synonymous with the history of Europe as such – shows this clearly. But migrants typically desire to assimilate; they do not undertake such a perilous journey without hopes for their futures, and the desire to contribute to their new countries.
Some commentators at the time pointed out that migrants would not try to make the sea crossing were they not so desperate. As one said, for parents to place their children in these ramshackle boats, they had to assume that the sea was safer than the lands from which they were fleeing. This was all too readily forgotten, as migrants were deemed invaders plotting to ‘swamp’ Europe. Such depictions have helped to fuel the backlash in Germany, the rise of the radical right in Austria and Italy, the success of ‘populist’ parties in Scandinavia, and the near-success of the Front National in France’s Presidential elections.
Yet while the sense of crisis in the ‘refugee crisis’ has died down, something more insidious has happened. The politics surrounding migration has moved on, so that it has become the leitmotif of politics as such, especially in Hungary. In Hungarian 2018 elections this spring, Fidesz said little about the grave issues of the day: climate change, economic stagnation, nuclear proliferation, and the threats to the international order coming from various parts of the globe. Instead, it redeployed images of migrant caravans first used by the Vote Leave campaign during the June 2016 Brexit referendum campaign. The governing party also suggested, in a none too subtle way, that George Soros (read: international Jewish finance capital) was deliberately bringing Muslims to Europe in order to destroy European Christian civilization. When he talks of defending Christian Hungary, Viktor Orbán uses the same phraseology as Admiral Horthy, Hitler’s ally during World War II. The scapegoating of refugees – of whom there are hardly any in Hungary, for it is not their destination of choice – has become synonymous with politics as such.
Where the ‘refugee crisis’ was one issue facing European societies in 2015, today it has displaced all other issues and become the main vehicle for mobilizing a ‘populist’ vote. In doing so, the radical right has been able to insert its message of hate into mainstream discourse, focusing upon nativist ‘national preference’ to the exclusion of all else. What does it matter if we become a little poorer as long as there are fewer people ‘not like us’ around? What does it matter if the judiciary and the press lose their independence, as long as we are not surrounded by foreigners? The refugee crisis is thus no longer only about migrants: it is the impetus for reviving a vocabulary and an authoritarian style that has not been seen in Western Europe since the demise of World War II, or in Central-Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War. What is startling is not that migrants are demonized; this has been the lot of all migrant groups since 1945, even those who are ‘like us’. What is more worrying is that the ‘refugee crisis’ is now assisting the normalization of a radical right mindset challenging Europe’s best values – albeit not always achieved – and which threatens the stability of the international order. This is the real crisis.
Dr. Dan Stone is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and Professor of Modern History at Royal Holloway, University of London. See his profile here.
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