The Politicisation of migration in Europe

27 September 2012

Wouter van der Brug, Professor of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam, said that in many countries, the politicisation process was ‘top down’, particularly in multi-party systems within which pro-immigration political blocs responded strongly to anti-immigration opponents.

However in other countries, such as the UK, migration politicisation was more a ‘bottom up’ process, with momentum generated by civil society interest groups and the media, Van der Brug said.

The common factor was that mainstream parties everywhere tried to keep immigration off the agenda whenever possible, he explained.

The researchers found no clear link between numbers of migrants and politicisation, explained Kevin Cunningham, a researcher at Trinity College Dublin.

There were clearer links between government action on migration and levels of ‘politicisation’ and ‘de-politicisation’. It could be argued that the politicisation was a normal part of the democratic process, but immigration was in a particularly sensitive category, Cunningham said.

Luciano Scagliotti, head of the Italian section of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), wondered whether immigration policies were best conducted at national level or at European level, "where the political heat is lower".

UK Conservative MEP Timothy Kirkhope, a former immigration and race relations minister, observed that a "positive" atmosphere surrounding any immigration policy could only work if the policy itself was sustainable.

Making empty promises about the impact of immigration – including pledges to the immigrants themselves about a "better life" – could be a disaster, Kirkhope warned.

He said the key was to be free to talk openly about such delicate issues and to ensure that resulting policies were not "dictated by sensationalism". But immigration could never be tackled effectively solely on a European basis.  The best way forward is to “talk with people directly, instead of leaving it all to the media,” the UK MEP said.

Fundamental, basic EU-level rules should be in place, but the SOM research showed that immigration and asylum issues were so "personal" that national cultures and situations had to be the priority concern when setting immigration policies, Kirkhope said.

Reza Aslan, adjunct senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York, said the whole issue was hidebound with immigrants' perceptions of themselves: he had many US friends insisting on being called "Italian-Americans" when they knew nothing about Italy and "didn't even like pasta".

The entire situation and culture was confused: while "American Muslims" wanted to distinguish themselves from other Muslims, the term "British Muslim" in the UK was used to differentiate the user not from other Muslims, but from other Britons, Aslan said.  He also highlighted the difference in the role religion played in society by saying that “in the US, religion is part of society and encouraged, and steeped in religious freedom”.

Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini, a former member of Amsterdam City Council, observed that Europe was now experiencing its second and third generation of migrants, and traditional terms of nationality – Turks, Moroccans, and so on – no longer applied.

Thus many people were dubbed "Muslims" rather than being described in terms of the nationality of their parents or grandparents, Sargentini said.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said that in a debate full of prejudice and emotions, it was vital to have clear, scientific evidence on which to base policy decisions.

Migration was often blamed for all kinds of societal problems, because when people faced crisis, their sense of insecurity created fertile ground for "populism". It was crucial that political leaders, the media, and civil society took responsibility for preventing such fears from being exploited at local, national and European level, the commissioner explained.

Even in a time of economic cuts and job reductions, there were skills gaps which could only be filled by migration. So there was a need to maintain strong mobility and labour migration policies – especially as an OECD report had warned that some people were quitting Europe because it was considered a "doomed continent", she said.

The commissioner added that “member states may be in different situations but we at the EU can still take away the red tape and contribute to making Europe a more welcoming place”.