The EU needs a new story on race and inclusion

Of note:

Three months ago, as angry Black Lives Matter protests erupted across Europe in the wake of the death in police custody of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, flustered European Union officials promised urgent measures to tackle the bloc’s own dismal record in combating race-based violence, discrimination and harassment.

The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, recognised their countries had a long way to go to achieve racial equality. ‘We need to talk about racism with an open mind,’ the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, told the European Parliament. ‘Racism is alive in Europe, not just in the US,’ the commissioner for equality, Helena Dalli, confessed, adding: ‘We have to address the roots of the problem, not just the symptoms or the results.’

Von der Leyen held a first-ever commission debate on racism, insisting there must be zero tolerance for discrimination based on colour or race, and promised to ensure more ethnic diversity in EU bodies often described as ‘Brussels so white’. There were plans to craft an ‘action plan’ to tackle inequalities in employment, health and housing, curb police brutality and ensure fair treatment for all.

It was a heady moment. After years of ignoring warnings that racism was a serious problem in Europe and averring that recruitment policies would need to remain ‘colour-blind’, leaders of EU institutions were finally ready to listen and learn—and, most importantly, recognise that discriminatory practices were weakening social cohesion, depriving the economy of its full potential and undermining European values.

Running deep

Turning good intentions into credible and enforceable policies will be a challenge, however. And not just because of the EU’s previous lack of interest and experience in combating ethnic discrimination.

Systemic racism in Europe runs far deeper than toxic far-right diatribes. It has seeped into much of the EU’s institutional discourse and policies. It cannot be wished away by inspiring speeches or noble resolutions.

Moves to dismantle racism in Europe’s economic, political and social systems will therefore need to be deliberate, intentional and sustained—and based on a deeper understanding of the lived reality of Europeans of colour.

Most importantly, to be credible and effective, EU measures to ensure racial justice and equality must be anchored in a fresh and more inclusive European narrative. But that difficult conversation has not even begun.

Toxic stereotyping

Proud talk of ‘unity in diversity’ ignores the fact that European Muslims are still struggling against toxic stereotyping as extremists and potential terrorists. Surveys by rights agencies point to continuing anti-Semitism across Europe, while black Europeans face unrelenting discrimination in their professional and personal lives, including police harassment.

Europe’s estimated 50 million ethnic-minority citizens—representing about 10 per cent of the EU population—are still routinely viewed as permanent ‘migrants’ or exotic foreigners. Many are haunted by the one question they can never, ever, sidestep: ‘Where are you really from?’

That should not surprise. Sometimes unintentionally, though often deliberately, the European narrative—the story of Europe’s history and identity propagated by its leaders and institutions—implies a self-comforting exclusion, contrasting ‘true’ Europeans to unwelcome, intruding outsiders. The ‘European way of life’ which it is now a commission priority to ‘promote’, invokes ‘strong borders’, a ‘modernisation’ of the asylum system and co-operation with ‘partner countries’ to achieve ‘a fresh start on migration’.

The message may be strident or subtle, harsh or soft but it is always clear: Europe is white and Christian. Members of other ethnicities and religions may be tolerated—even needed—but they do not really belong.

Reinforced through school curricula, which ignore the dark side of European colonialism, and by far-right rhetoric, toxic, ‘us’ vs ‘them’ groupthink is no longer the prerogative of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán or other populist leaders. It has been embraced by many mainstream politicians, pliant, uncritical media and anti-migrant campaigners disseminating misinformation.

With ‘race’ and migration so pejoratively linked in the public domain, the systematic demonisation of migrants and refugees, the refusal to accept desperate asylum-seekers and the dehumanising language of tabloid media have further poisoned the conversation.

No quick fixes

Changing Europe’s narrative to become more inclusive will not be easy. There is no miracle solution or quick fix, no one policy which can change years of wilful neglect.

There will have to be a mix of immediate actions—such as raising awareness of dehumanising language and unconscious biases, less discriminatory EU recruitment policies, collection of data on ethnicity, improved police training, close scrutiny of the link between artificial intelligence and structural racism and stricter enforcement of the EU’s 2000 race-equality directive—as well as determined, longer-term policies and measures to change deeply-anchored and long-standing prejudices, stereotypes and cultural norms.

The conversation on facilitating a faster integration of minorities and migrants—which puts the onus on ‘outsiders’ to become part of ‘national culture’, in assimilationist fashion—will need to be replaced by a wider, deeper and fairer concept of inclusion, as developed by the Council of Europe. This recognises the dynamic, multi-faceted and multi-layered interaction between people as they live and work together, providing all members of society with the opportunity to participate equally in political, economic, social and cultural life, and the ‘diversity advantage’ which results in practice.

EU leaders and institutions should play their part discouraging outdated or one-dimensional definitions of ‘European identity’, in favour of a recognition that ‘hyphenated’ Europeans, with fluid, changing and multiple identities, are also true Europeans. As European economies slow down and work begins on ensuring a sustained and sustainable recovery, Europe will need the engagement, skills and talents of all its citizens.

Opportunities for change

The coming months provide important opportunities for change. The EU can prove it is serious about fighting discrimination by developing stronger links with anti-racist organisations, clamping down harder on far-right hate speech and violence and making sure Europe’s ethnic minorities are represented and listened to in the upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe. Access to resources from the recently-agreed, EU-wide, multi-billion-euro recovery fund must also be ensured.

The union’s rule-of-law provisions should include reference to national measures to secure racial equality. And EU institutions should indeed make sure their recruitment policies include outreach to ethnic minorities.

There is no magic wand and no one European leader or institution can immediately make black lives matter in Europe. Dismantling years of neglect, and visible and invisible discrimination, will require sustained and painstaking effort.

An EU action plan to combat racism is a good first step. But it must be accompanied by a modern narrative of a truly inclusive and just Europe, which is genuinely ‘united in diversity’—in deed as well as word.

About Shada Islam

Shada Islam is a commentator and analyst on EU affairs, including migration, inclusion, diversity and women’s empowerment. She runs her own Brussels-based global strategy and advisory company, New Horizons Project.

Swiss researchers gear up for crunch immigration vote, fearing return to scientific exile

Of note:

Swiss voters go to the polls in a month to decide whether to cap free movement of citizens from the EU, in a referendum seen as a crunch test of the country’s ties with the 27-member bloc.

The vote, were it to succeed, would violate bilateral accords that enhance Swiss access to the EU’s single market, and directly threaten researchers access to the next science programme, Horizon Europe.

“I’m a bit worried about the vote,” said Gian-Luca Bona, CEO of the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology. “This is extremely important for our economy. The special circumstances of COVID-19 mean there are many irrational things happening. There are a lot of emotions around at the moment.”

Bona leads a lab of 1,000 scientists, made up of 60 different nationalities. He fears a repeat of 2014, when a slim majority of Swiss voters backed a similar motion that sought to restore limits on immigration. The EU responded by cutting off full Swiss membership to Horizon 2020, the current research programme. What followed was an almost three-year scramble for Switzerland to regain full access.

Now, in what is essentially a repeat of the 2014 vote, Bona fears the country could be thrust back into scientific exile.

“Infections are growing slowly but steadily,” he said. “The real impact on the economy from COVID-19 could start to show this fall; a second wave could aggravate things. We could see chapter 11-style closures of businesses.”

“The discussion that could follow, around prioritising the Swiss citizens, is the dangerous part in this referendum. I hope rational thinking determines what we do next.”

While not unusual for Switzerland, where plebiscites on specific questions are common, for Brussels, the vote raises the prospect of yet another embarrassing national referendum on the EU.

The threat of being blocked from the full €94.1 billion Horizon programme, which starts next year, is a source of major disquiet for Swiss academics.

After the 2014 experience, they’re fully alive to the danger. On Thursday, a collection of top scientific organisations, including the ETH Board, the Swiss National Science Foundation and Innosuisse, the Swiss Innovation Agency, jointly called for voters to reject the proposal.

“It’s rather open for me, what’s going to happen in this vote,” said Tilman Esslinger, who leads the quantum optics group at ETH Zurich.

“There’s a very special set of circumstances – coronavirus, severe economic challenges. This can amplify in one or the other direction. The world has changed. People probably don’t even know themselves yet how they’ll vote. People have other things on their mind now, like how they will get their kids back into schools safely. They might not be thinking of politics,” Esslinger said.

Political analysts, however, say the initiative faces many obstacles.

“Plenty of things are now running against it. Because of coronavirus, it doesn’t have the monopoly of attention or debate,” says Oscar Mazzoleni, political scientist at the University of Lausanne.

The Swiss will be voting on five separate subjects on September 27, including the purchase of new military airplanes, the length of paternity leave and the right to hunt wolves and other animals.

Support for the Swiss People’s Party, which put the immigration vote on the agenda, is lower than it was six years’ ago, Mazzoleni noted.

The build-up to the vote is short, too, in comparison to the months-long campaigning seen in 2014.

The reaction to the government’s handling of coronavirus is generally positive, meaning the public may not view the upcoming vote as a weapon to punish politicians.

“They delivered the money; they supported the economy during the pandemic. And it’s too early to see the impact of the virus on the economy anyway. The real crisis is still in the future,” Mazzoleni said.

Politicians fear success for the immigration vote would wreck their hopes of putting relations with Brussels on a new footing.

Like the UK, Switzerland is in its own difficult negotiation with the EU, being asked to endorse a new treaty that would require it to routinely adopt single market rules.

The EU views this as merely updating and simplifying the Swiss arrangement, which spans a complex web of more than 120 bilateral deals. But the new treaty also includes demands that the Swiss soften rules protecting wages, the highest in Europe, from cross-border competition by EU workers on temporary assignments. Critics say the treaty infringes Swiss sovereignty.

The country’s relationship with the EU is the “hidden dimension” of the immigration vote, Mazzoleni said

“We’re in a no-man’s land, from a diplomatic point of view, with the EU right now. Brussels is much more focused on the UK. So the future relationship is not part of the referendum debate at the moment,” he said.

More support for immigration

For Nenad Stojanović, professor of political science at the University of Geneva, “The chances are quite high that the initiative will not be accepted. Many people outside Switzerland, who don’t fully understand our tradition of direct democracy, simply presume that people would accept something like this. In the Swiss context, this claim is not supported by the facts,” he said.

There have been seven similar popular initiatives to curb immigration since 1970, said Stojanović. “With one exception, the 2014 vote, the others failed. And this was during all kinds of periods, good economies and bad,” he said.

If anything, Stojanović expects the experience of coronavirus will have strengthened peoples’ perception of foreigners, who account for almost a quarter of the Swiss population.

“The pandemic has shown that without foreign workers, the whole health system would have collapsed,” he said.

Source: Swiss researchers gear up for crunch immigration vote, fearing return to scientific exile

Brexit fuels brain drain as skilled Britons head to the EU

Not surprising:

Brexit has sparked an exodus of economically productive people from the UK to European Union nations on a scale that would normally be expected only as a result of a major economic or political crisis, according to a detailed new study.

Using a combination of official statistics across the EU and in-depth interviews with people living in Germany, the study found huge changes in migration patterns of UK citizens since the 2016 referendum, which contrast with largely stable ones among nationals from the 27 EU states remaining in the bloc.

The report, a collaboration between the Oxford in BerlinResearch Partnership – a project made up of Oxford university and four Berlin institutions – and the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, also found a “seismic shift” in the number of UK citizens already living abroad who had decided to go a step further by obtaining EU member state passports since 2016, showing how Britain’s vote to leave the EU pushed many individuals into long-term decisions.

Source: Brexit fuels brain drain as skilled Britons head to the EU

Northern Ireland-born British and Irish win EU citizenship rights

The UK government forced to change its position:

All British and Irish citizens born in Northern Ireland will be be treated as EU citizens for immigration purposes, the government has announced after a landmark court case involving a Derry woman over the residency rights of her US-born husband.

The move is a major victory for Emma de Souza ending a three-year battle to be recognised by the Home Office as Irish, a right enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement (GFA).

De Souza said: “This is great news. To get a concession from the British government and a change in the immigration law is no small feat.

“It is incredibly satisfying to be considered as EU citizens and will be a great help to all the other families in my situation.”

Her husband, Jake, will now be allowed to remain in the UK indefinitely if he applies for the EU settlement scheme, an immigration status for all EU citizens wanting to remain in the UK post-Brexit.

The Home Office made its rule change in parliament on Thursday, finally bringing immigration law into line with the 1998 peace deal, which allows anyone born in Northern Ireland to be British, Irish or both.

Source: Northern Ireland-born British and Irish win EU citizenship rights

Sadiq Khan urges EU to offer Britons ‘associate citizenship’

Not sure how this would work or the likelihood of the EU agreeing:

The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, will use a trip to Brussels to implore EU negotiators to be open to continued free movement for Britons through “associate citizenship”.

With the backing of the former prime minister of Belgium Guy Verhofstadt, Khan said the offer of such rights to those who wish to retain them should be at “the heart” of the coming negotiations over the future relationship.

The idea of “associate citizenship was first raised in late 2016 by Verhofstadt, who was then the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator.

The offer would be of continued freedom of movement and residence around the bloc for those who wished to retain such rights. Such a status would also protect rights in healthcare, welfare and workplace conditions and likely the right to vote in European parliament elections.

The chances of such an initiative making headway in the negotiations are extremely limited as it would be unlawful under EU legislation.

There is unlikely to be appetite for any rewriting of treaties among the 27 member states, given the UK government’s hostile attitude to the free movement of EU nationals who wish to live and work in Britain.

Khan, who will also meet the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, and the European parliament’s president, David Sassoli, during his visit on Tuesday, said he believed the idea still had merit.

“Like so many Londoners, I am heartbroken that we are no longer a member of the European Union, but that doesn’t mean our country’s future can’t be closely linked with the rest of Europe,” he said.

“The prime minister says his job is to bring the country together and move us forward and I cannot think of a better way of reconciling the differences between British voters who wanted to leave, and the millions of Londoners and British nationals who still feel and want to be European.”

Khan added: “There would be support from millions of Londoners and British nationals who are devastated they are losing their rights as EU citizens. As the UK and EU start their next phase of negotiations, I want this issue of associate citizenship to be at the heart of talks about our future relationship.”

Attempts by UK nationals in EU member states to argue in the courts that the loss of citizenship and its associated rights was a disproportionate and unjust consequence of Brexit have all failed.

Verhofstadt, who has the backing of the European parliament to be chair of a new conference on the future of Europe involving all the EU institutions, said he believed that Brussels should be open to the concept.

“The Maastricht treaty created the concept of ‘European citizenship’ and I am in favour of using this now as a basis for people who want to keep their link with Europe,” he said. “It is the first time in the history of our union that a member state leaves, but it is not because the UK government wanted exit that individual citizens have to lose their connection with the continent.”

Source: Sadiq Khan urges EU to offer Britons ‘associate citizenship’

From UK ex-pat to EU citizen: A huge rise in Brits getting another EU passport

Good summary of the numbers. Would be interesting to see the percentages of UK citizens applying for EU member citizenship:

A new study conducted by Oxford in Berlin and the WZB – Berlin Social Science Center has revealed that the number of Brits receiving German citizenship has risen by over 1000% since the Brexit referendum in 2016: While 622 British citizens received German citizenship in 2015, numbers jumped dramatically to 7,493 ‘naturalisations’ in 2017 and predictions for 2019 are higher than all previous years.

Figures released by the OECD for the whole continent show a similar trend of Brits acquiring another EU citizenship with a rise of 600% in ‘naturalisations’. With Brexit, deal or no–deal, all British citizens living in the UK or elsewhere stand to lose their European citizenship rights such as freedom of movement or recognition of qualifications. Obtaining the nationality of an EU member state is a way for British citizens to guarantee maintaining EU citizenship rights that many peoples professional and personal livelihoods over the years have come to depend on.Rachel from Loughborough who gained dual citizenship in 2018 and now lives in Berlin says:

Getting German citizenship has given me a whole new confidence and security that I had lost.

The study conducted by Oxford in Berlin and the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB) interviewed British citizens who have arrived in Germany over the last decade with a wide sample in social background, age and profession. The huge spike in post-2015 naturalisations (both UK citizens in the EU and EU citizens in the UK) is marked by the survey data as almost entirely motivated by the Brexit referendum.

According to migration researcher and co-author of the study Dr. Daniel Auer:

These dramatic jumps tell us we’re onto a significant social phenomenon here whose implications are yet to be understood.

If there were to be a no-deal Brexit at the end of this month, new applications for German citizenship from British citizens would require them to give up their UK citizenship because German law stipulates that only EU citizens can acquire dual-nationality.    Therefore, those Brits that want to maintain their European citizenship rights will have to give up their British citizenship, a heart-breaking and impossible prospect for many.

Alex, a start-up business owner who moved with his wife and two children from the UK to Germany in 2013 said:

We are being hung out to dry by the politicians from both sides. With my German language level, I’d have no chance of securing German citizenship and even if I could in the future, I wouldn’t want to give up my British passport. I just have to trust the German Government to keep their word and not kick us out.

While the legal consequences of Brexit remain so uncertain, people like Alex and Rachel – along with more than 5 million other EU or UK migrants on both sides of the channel – are taking often large risks to do whatever they can to mitigate the pending impact of Brexit on their lives.

Source: From UK ex-pat to EU citizen: A huge rise in Brits getting another EU passport

Boris Johnson’s dramatic immigration u-turn leaves 2.5m uncertain of their future

Ongoing train wreck:

Less than a month after Boris Johnson officially became the UK’s prime minister, his government has announced changes to the status of EU citizens after the current deadline for UK withdrawal from the EU – October 31, 2019.

The new home secretary, Priti Patel, has said that if the UK leaves the EU without a deal on that day, then free movement will end immediately for all EU citizens in the UK.

This has caused much anxiety and confusion among the almost 3.5m EU citizens in the UK – 2.5m of whom have not yet registered for settled status, having been given a deadline of 2020 to get it done.

The previous government, led by Theresa May, made very different promises to these people. They were told that the UK wanted to “guarantee the rights of EU citizens who are already living in Britain … as early as we can.”. It appears that the new government has gone back on this promise.

EU citizens are still welcome to visit the UK for short trips without a visa. However, anyone planning to stay long-term after October 31 will be subject to proposed new rules if the UK leaves without a deal. So what is being planned by the new government in case of a no-deal for EU citizens?

Change of plan

Ending free movement on October 31 means that there would be no grace period for anyone who arrived after this date. A previous transition period was set to last until December 31, 2020. During this time, EU citizens arriving after Brexit day would enjoy the same rights as those who were there before.

Now, EU citizens would be subject to the planned new immigration system immediately.

The Department of Health has also said that after October 31, 2019, without a deal, NHS trusts will have to start to charge EU citizens for previously free treatment. This would mean NHS trusts would need to check the immigration status of EU citizens seeking treatment. This proposal has already been criticised by the British Medical Association. It would add more work to an NHS already under great strain.

Aside from anything else, the plan has been criticised for being impractical. The previous government admitted in January 2019 there needed to be some time between the end of freedom of movement and a new immigration system coming into force. This is because it would be difficult for employers, universities, landlords and others to distinguish between pre-exit residents and post-withdrawal arrivals. In particular, businesses have said it will make it difficult for them to recruit workers.

What do EU citizens need to do now?

The advice from the Home Office to EU citizens wanting to stay in the UK beyond October 31 is to apply for settled or pre-settled status under its EU Settlement Scheme. This has been officially open since March 30, 2019. However, there are some concerns about this, too.

Just over 1m applicants have already been granted settlement under this scheme. That’s approximately 30% of the eligible population.

For those who have already applied or who are in the UK before October 31, there should be no problem. However, there will probably be disruption for those who arrive after November 1. They will not be eligible to apply for settlement.

There will also be disruption for those who do not apply for EU settlement in time (and there is not much time left) and want to change jobs or move house after Brexit. Employers and landlords would be required to check these individuals’ immigration statuses, and it could be difficult to distinguish if they arrived before or after withdrawal.

There are serious concerns around certain groups of vulnerable individuals who will have most difficulty applying successfully for EU settlement, such as children without a passport, women in abusive relationships or those who simply cannot read English.

Of the approximately 3.5m EU citizens in the UK, there are still 2.5 million who have yet to apply for EU Settlement. It is unclear how many of them are vulnerable. I have previously highlighted that if large numbers of individuals become illegally resident after a certain cut-off date (for example, if free movement ends on October 31) anyone who does not have settled status but is still in the UK then could be illegal, and expelled automatically.

Furthermore, this could affect British citizens in the EU. The current arrangement for this group of approximately 1.3m people is based on reciprocity. But ending free movement on October 31 would mean British citizens in the EU would also lose their rights to stay in the EU. In the rush to end free movement as soon as possible, rights of British citizens in the EU seem to have been forgotten.

Another Windrush?

A leaked Home Office discussion document has already noted that it would be practically difficult to enforce an immediate end to free movement because of various complexities in establishing the system. In particular, it warned of a repeat of the Windrush scandal.

While the end to free movement will only become reality if the UK leaves the EU without a deal on the newest deadline of October 31, the deadlock between the EU and the UK suggests a growing likelihood of no-deal – especially under Boris Johnson’s new government. It is cold comfort for EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU that once again citizens appear to be the bargaining chips for negotiations between the EU and the UK.

Source: Boris Johnson’s dramatic immigration u-turn leaves 2.5m uncertain of their future

Citizenship [by investment] scheme risks are flagged in EU terror report

Not surprising:

A report about EU-wide money-laundering and terrorism financing risks has again zeroed in on citizenship schemes like the one operated in Malta.

The controversial scheme, introduced by the Labour government after sweeping to power in 2013, allows passport buyers access to an EU passport against payments and investments totalling over €1 million.

Misuse of such schemes, which the European Commission notes are deliberately marketed as a means of acquiring EU citizenship, together with all the rights and privileges associated with it, create a range of risks for the EU.

The Commission’s report was highlighted on the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit’s website this month.

Among the risks identified by the Commission are the possible infiltration of non-EU organised crime groups, as well as money-laundering, corruption and tax evasion possibilities.

Just last week, Identity Malta, the government agency that runs the scheme, confirmed it had initiated the process to withdraw the Maltese citizenship of Mustafa Abdel-Wadood, who has pleaded guilty to fraud and money-laundering in the US.

Another passport recipient, Chinese national Liu Zhongtian, was recently indicted in the United States amid allegations he avoided paying $1.8 billion in aluminium tariffs.

Concern about lack of transparency and governance of the schemes

The Commission says risks associated with citizenship schemes are exacerbated by cross-border rights associated with EU citizenship or residence in a member state. There is also a concern about lack of transparency and governance of the schemes.

Malta’s scheme has been criticised by the Opposition and international bodies for failing to clearly identify who has bought their passport.

Another problem with EU citizenship schemes identified by the Commission is that the procedure of screening applicants is often outsourced to private companies, where there is a permanent risk of conflict of interest and corruption.

It also raises fears that competition between European Union countries could result in a race to the bottom over standards of due diligence and transparency.

In a direct reference to Malta’s scheme, the Commission says Maltese citizenship is popular with wealthy Russians. Saudi Arabians have also invested in the scheme.

It says one Maltese passport buyer, Waleed al-Ibrahim, chairman of the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, was arrested in November 2017 as part of a corruption purge.

The government insists the scheme complies with the highest standards of due diligence.

Source: Citizenship scheme risks are flagged in EU terror report

Despite falling numbers, immigration remains divisive EU issue

Easier to continue campaigning even if the numbers are falling, than address more substantial and complex issues:

Migrant arrivals to Italy have almost dried up, new asylum requests across the European Union have more than halved in three years and at the end of 2018, Hungary’s reception centers housed just three refugees.

On the face of it, Europe’s migrant crisis appears over, but the shockwaves still resound around the continent ahead of this month’s European Parliament election, and nationalist politicians are looking to capitalize on the continued tumult.

“The most important thing is that leaders are elected who oppose immigration so that Europe will be in a position to defend itself,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on the sidelines of an EU summit in Romania last week.

Opponents accuse far-right and populist parties of grossly exaggerating the problem, but the issue still resonates, with a YouGov poll published on Monday showing that immigration was currently the voters’ top concern, followed by climate change.

The survey, carried out in eight EU states, showed just 3% of respondents thought “all is well” on the migration front, YouGov said. Only 14% believed the European Union had done a good job handling the emergency.

Once consigned to the fringes of European politics, anti-immigrant parties saw support surge in 2015 when more than a million refugees and migrants flowed out of the Middle East and Africa in search of a safer, better life in Europe.

The influx caught EU governments by surprise, stretching both social and security services, and revealing the inability of Brussels to find a way of sharing the immigration burden in the face of wildly conflicting national interests.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, nationalist and eurosceptic parties are expected to chalk up their best ever result in the May 23-26 EU vote, putting them in a strong position to shape policy in the 28-nation bloc over the coming five years.

LOSING MOMENTUM

In all, some 4.57 million people have requested asylum here in the European Union since the last EU vote in 2014, a threefold increase over the prior five-year period, according to EU statistics agency Eurostat. But the numbers are receding.

Thanks partly to much tighter controls, often put in place by newly empowered anti-immigrant parties such as the League in Italy, new arrivals to Europe fell to under 150,000 last year here, U.N. data shows, with even fewer expected in 2019.

Headed by Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, the League looks set to emerge as Italy’s largest party in the May ballot, with polls suggesting it will win around 30% against 6% at the last EU election in 2014 and 17% at a 2018 national ballot.

Since taking office last June, Salvini has effectively closed ports to migrants rescued in the Mediterranean, helping cut new arrivals here to around 1,100 so far in 2019 here, down some 90% on 2018 levels and 98% on the same period in 2017.

But latest polls suggest momentum for the League might be slowing, with the focus on immigration starting to fade – at least in Italy, where concerns about the economy and corruption are pushing to the fore.

“Salvini hopes immigration will remain a central issue because it is one that generates most support for him,” said Lorenzo Pregliasco, head of political analysis firm YouTrend.

“But is hard for him to say ‘we have reduced migrant arrivals by 98 percent’ and then keep saying immigration is a threat. This is creating a problem for him,” Pregliasco told Reuters.

Looking to keep migration in the spotlight, the League and its political allies in Europe have been quick to portray the newcomers as a security threat, pointing to deadly jihadist attacks over the past five years, including assaults in Paris, Brussels, Berlin, London and Barcelona.

A poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations said there was a clear majority in every country for better protection of Europe’s borders, while Europeans saw Islamic radicalism as the biggest threat facing the continent.

“There is a creeping Islamisation, a population change, or a population displacement,” said Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of Austria’s far-right Freedom (FPO) party, a junior coalition partner.

PLAYING ON FEARS

Mainstream parties accuse the populists of playing on base emotions and say they are not interested in finding a comprehensive solution to the refugee question, which could include quotas for redistributing new arrivals around the bloc, and better integrating migrants into European society.

“The danger I see is that there are politicians in Europe who have a reason to keep this problem alive,” Manfred Weber, the German lead candidate for the EU center-right, told Reuters.

Germany took in more than a million asylum-seekers in 2015 – a decision welcomed by human rights groups, but that also stoked support for the anti-migrant, far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Tapping into discontent amongst part of the electorate, AfD entered the national parliament for the first time in 2017 and is the only German party that is putting an emphasis on immigration in campaigning for the EU vote.

“Refugees are bringing crime into our towns,” the AfD has said in Tweets and leaflets ahead of the ballot – an assertion rejected by its opponents.

Mainstream German parties are focusing on other issues and hoping immigration will fall off the radar screen. It is a similar story in France, where President Emmanuel Macron’s party has listed immigration as only its number 5 priority, with the environment in the top spot.

Gerald Knaus, chairman of the Berlin-based European Stability Initiative think-tank, believes that by relegating the question, moderate parties will allow extremist rivals to frame the debate and let the anti-immigrant narrative predominate.

“What is lacking from mainstream parties is a coherent, convincing message that they can control arrivals without violating human rights,” he told Reuters.

“The majority of people want migration control but they also have empathy for refugees. As things stand, these voters have no-one to turn to (in this election).”

Britons most positive in Europe on benefits of immigration

Seems counter-intuitive given the role that anti-immigration attitudes played in the Brexit referendum but compared to other European countries…. Of course, compared to Canadian numbers, support is low:

British people are more persuaded of the benefits of immigration than any other major European nation, according to a global survey, which has also found that almost half of Britons think immigrants are either positive or neutral for the country.

The YouGov–Cambridge Globalism survey found that 28% of Britons believed the benefits of immigration outweighed the costs, compared with 24% in Germany, 21% in France and 19% in Denmark. A further 20% of British people believed the costs and benefits were about equal, while 16% were not sure.

The findings contradict the assumption that Britain is more hostile to immigration than its European neighbours are. Britain was seen as taking a hardline and less compassionate response to the 2015 European migration crisis, while many argue concerns over immigration were the key driving force behind the Brexit vote.

But experts have detected a softening in attitudes towards immigration since that vote, which could in part be influenced by the prospect of the end of freedom of movement and the dramatic drop in net migration to the UK from EU countries, which in the last figures dropped to its lowest level since 2009.

In all, only 37% of Britons feel the costs of immigration outweigh the benefits – lower than in any other big European country apart from Poland. By comparison, 50% of Italians believe the net impact of immigration is negative, as well as 49% of Swedes and 42% of French and 40% of Germans.

The findings come weeks before the European parliament elections, where populist, anti-immigrant forces are projected to perform well across Europe.

Nigel Farage, whose anti-migrant “breaking point” poster came to symbolise the leave message in the 2016 EU referendum, is returning to politics with his Brexit party, while his former party, Ukip, continues to campaign on immigration issues.

However, the UK portion of the global YouGov survey suggests anti-immigrant messaging is unlikely to work across the party divide. While only 3% of Ukip voters thought benefits outweighed costs, this compared with 15% of Conservative voters and 42% who voted Labour.

The survey also suggested men were most open to the benefits of immigration, with 32% saying the overall the impact was positive, compared with 24% of women.

Sunder Katwala, the director of the identity and integration thinktank British Future, which last year published The National Conversation, a report on immigration in the UK, said studies were showing Britain was on the “glass half full” end of the debate.

“There’s an increasing body of evidence that attitudes, having been very sceptical, are becoming softer,” he said. “The salience of immigration has dropped significantly and there’s also been a warming up of attitudes.”

Katwala said a softening of attitudes had been noticed by politicians and as a result the likes of Farage had changed tone ahead of the European elections.

“There’s a lot of nuance in British attitudes. The nuance was missing in the last 10 years because we were having a debate about ‘are we able to talk about immigration or not?’,” he added.

“It’s now a debate about what we should do now. Some people accept changes are coming. Some people are more empathetic because they see stories like Windrush, they see that the 3 million Europeans in the UK aren’t just a statistic but the people we see on television worried about whether they’re allowed to stay.”

The survey shows Britons are particularly supportive of migrants, either unskilled or qualified professionals, if they have a job offer in advance.

Forty-one per cent of Britons agreed that unskilled labourers arriving in the UK with a job offer were good for the country, a higher proportion than in all other major EU nations apart from Spain.

Similarly, Britons showed the highest level of support than any country surveyed for qualified professionals coming to the UK with a job offer, with 80% agreeing they were good for the country – compared, for example, with just 56% of French respondents.

Conversely, Britons are less supportive than other western nations in the survey of migrants arriving without a job in search for work.

Only 14% of Britons thought unskilled labourers coming to the UK to search for work were good for the country, with only Sweden and Germany showing lower levels of support for this kind of migrant.

Britons also appeared relatively hostile to refugees. Only 29% of Britons thought people fleeing war or persecution were good for the country, less than any other EU or anglophone country in the survey. Almost half of Canadians (45%) and French (44%), in contrast, expressed support for refugees.

UK respondents also showed the lowest level of support of all countries surveyed for migrants coming to join family members who already live here, with just 22% of respondents thinking this was good for the country, compared with 56% of Polish respondents who, among the EU and anglophone countries, showed the highest level of support.

Source: Britons most positive in Europe on benefits of immigration