German elections mean Europe’s populists aren’t going away ‒ but neither are the immigrants

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

After she has completed the painstaking task of forging a new ruling coalition, German Chancellor Angela Merkel must join forces with other European leaders to tackle the re-awakened demons of far-right populism.

The success of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the much-watched German polls is a sobering reminder of the power still wielded by Europe’s populists and the abiding attraction of their simple and unabashedly anti-Islam, anti-immigrant and anti-EU message.

True, Mark Rutte in the Netherlands and France’s Emmanuel Macron managed to ward off the far-right threat in milestone elections earlier this year. The increasingly erratic performance of US President Donald Trump – a hero for most European far-right populists – and the post-Brexit chaos in Britain has further dimmed the allure of Europe’s populists. But the battle has not been won.

Europe’s mainstream politicians will be further tested in legislative elections in Austria on 15 October. Stridently xenophobic and anti-immigrant slogans continue to dominate the government discourse in Hungary and Poland. With the AfD becoming the first far-right party to enter the Bundestag in more than half a century, there is little doubt that Europe’s far-right populists, aided by powerful domestic and foreign backers, are part and parcel of the continent’s political landscape.

European politicians should become bolder in tackling the populists’ racist agenda

The populist parties may be here to stay but so are the immigrants.

If they are to contain – and even diminish – the power and attraction of the far right, European leaders must steer clear of embracing – and thereby amplifying – the populists’ xenophobic rhetoric. Instead they should take the more courageous route of speaking out in favour of more inclusive and diverse societies, the approach successfully adopted by French President Emmanuel Macron.

It’s time to go further. European politicians should become bolder in tackling the populists’ racist agenda. Given the toxic and corrosive nature of the current debate, developing a fresh and credible European narrative on immigration – a “heroic story” – will not be easy. Here are six suggestions:

First, use the coming months to hammer out a new and convincing policy, based on rules and obligations, which looks beyond the current migration “crisis” to creating more effective, intelligent and realistic legal pathways for migrants seeking to live and work in Europe.

While many people, businesses and non-governmental organizations have been welcoming and compassionate in their response to refugees and migrants seeking shelter in Europe, governments’ often messy and erratic response has led to confusion and panic. A balanced and effective migration management policy will require the opening of legal pathways to migrants, rights-based partnerships with countries of origin and transit and more development assistance, trade and jobs as well as education-centred policies for countries in Africa.

Second, speak truth to the public. While open-door Europe was a necessary humanitarian response at a difficult time, it is not a medium-term option. But neither is Fortress Europe. Immigration is a global phenomenon and a fact of life. People will continue to move across borders in search of jobs but also to escape war, famine and environmental degradation. Europe will remain an attractive destination.

Third, for all the fire and fury directed at migrants by the far right, ageing Europe needs the talent, skills, energy and youth of migrants, both skilled and unskilled. Countries that accept immigrants (like Canada) are thriving. Migrants are needed to pay the pensions for the elderly, work in hospitals and schools and perform a million other tasks in a growing 21st Century economy.

The populist parties may be here to stay but so are the immigrants

Fourth, confront the conventional anti-Islam clichés by showing respect and being inclusive of Europe’s Muslim minorities. Far from being terrorists and criminals, “the vast majority of Muslims in the EU have a high sense of trust in democratic institutions despite experiencing widespread discrimination and harassment,” according to a recent report by the European Fundamental Rights Agency.

Fifth, while making new policies, do respond to the fears and anxieties of those who fear being submerged by alien cultures and traditions but also remember that the majority of Europeans are open and tolerant and distressed by the far right’s diatribes. Europe has always been and will always be resilient enough to cope with change and diversity.

Sixth, practice what you preach. European governments and European Union institutions have been woefully slow in recruiting ethnic minorities into their ranks. There was a golden opportunity to turn this around earlier this year when the Commission published a new “Diversity and Inclusion Charter”. But sadly the document’s goal to create “a better workplace for all” does not mention ethnic minorities. European Parliament elections in 2019 can and should correct this error by adopting more inclusive policies.

Finally, instead of being wrong-footed by the far right, Europe’s leaders need to celebrate their Union’s diversity. In an increasingly competitive and globalised world, Europe’s future depends not on pandering to nostalgic nativists but on mobilising the energy, talents and skills of all Europeans.

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