Immigration: populism's winning bet in Europe?

Published on 29/09/2023

In the run-up to the European elections, most populist parties are focusing on the fight against immigration in the hope of gaining electoral success. This poses a real challenge to our democracies, which are struggling to find national responses capable of allaying people's fears. Citizens who are increasingly sensitive to the rhetoric that presents migrants as a threat in a Europe that is incapable of taking action.

Europe and migration: denial

The countries of the European Union (EU) share a number of unresolved problems that are felt with concern by voters. These include labour shortage in many areas, skills shortages, an ageing population which will increase the need for social services and threaten the equilibrium of pension schemes. The demographic decline has also become a major concern in many EU countries where the birth rate is falling and young people see no future for themselves.

Elsewhere in the world, some countries are facing the same concerns, such as the United States, Canada and Australia. But they have deliberately opted for a proactive immigration policy to meet their needs. It's an approach that we've been taking for a long time, and one that is bearing fruit, fostering dynamism and helping us to be better prepared to deal with the many crises that are now affecting the whole planet.

Yet in Europe, it is extraordinarily difficult to define a common position on migration, despite the fact that our continent has always been traversed by population movements that are part of its history.

National reflexes

By June 2023, the 27 Member States had painstakingly reached agreement on the principles of the new European Pact on Migration and Asylum including a reform of the Dublin Regulation and the introduction of new mandatory procedures at the EU's borders to rapidly assess inadmissible asylum applications. But on 13 September, the sudden influx of several thousand migrants on the Italian island of Lampedusa close to the Tunisian coast has once again resulted in a refusal by other Member States to play their part in welcoming these asylum seekers.

Prejudice versus reality

Many political parties today tend to present foreigners as the main culprits behind our difficulties. They are accused of taking the place of nationals, of taking undue advantage of public generosity, of being the source of delinquency and insecurity and of being "unassimilable". This hammered speech for years by populist or nationalist parties has succeeded in imposing the idea on large sections of the population in Europe that foreigners are not an opportunity but a threat. The problem is that this idea is essentially based on prejudice rather than reality, but it has ensured electoral success for those who hold it. And, unfortunately, we are seeing normally moderate political parties tempted to take up these same ideas.
As a result, very few opposition parties in the EU Member States dare to speak out. rational reasoning on immigration.

Just remember that :

  • Countries that have been able to absorb large waves of immigration have benefited in the medium term from a significant increase in their dynamism and prosperity. (1) (2).
  • These countries have not seen an increase in unemployment but, on the contrary, a diversification of jobs.
  • The hypothesis of an "air gap" resulting from the regularisation of undocumented migrants has never been verified.
  • Immigrants end up earn more than they cost to the State budget, provided that their social and professional integration is not hindered from the outset.
  • Immigrants to the EU end up quite quickly with share the dominant valuess of their host country, whatever that country may be (3).

These are realities documented by numerous university and government studies. To refuse to acknowledge these facts is to take the side of ideology, prejudice and belief.

Populist promises doomed to failure

Once in power, however, certain realities come to the fore and we sometimes see surprising reversals. For example Giorgia Melonihead of the Italian government, from the far-right party Fratellli d'Italiawho won the elections by promising to be extremely tough on immigration. She finally acknowledged that Italy would have to need for hundreds of thousands of foreign workers to support its economy in crisis (4). In appealing to Europe to help find an emergency solution by activating its inter-state solidarity mechanisms, Giorgia Meloni also admitted that only Europe had the means to propose appropriate solutions for receiving migrants.

In reality, many leaders of the right or extreme right, once they have come to power, are forced to deny the speeches they hold in opposition. They promise to close the borders once and for all to immigration or refugees, or even to expel those who have entered the country, but they don't do it because it's impossible under the rule of law, materially unfeasible and economically disastrous. They promise to tighten the conditions of entry or reception in the country to dissuade migrants, but this has never succeeded in stemming the flow of migrants who are risking their lives to flee their country. (5). And when they propose to finance transit countries outside the EU to guard their borders, the results are, with rare exceptions, failures. In so doing, they are entrusting a mission to regimes that are often unsavoury when it comes to human rights, and are thus exposing themselves to all manner of blackmail. In reality, applying the programme of populist leaders and those who imitate them generally only leads to the following resultsexacerbate the problems instead of solving them.

The lure of radicalism
Why persist in promising policies with such disastrous consequences? Why do populists only respond to their failures by becoming more radical? (6) ?

Populism's primary vocation is not to solve problems, but rather to "make the world a better place".offering a political outlet for frustrationsto the fears and anger of those who feel, sometimes quite rightly, that they are the losers, the relegated, the forgotten by public policies in a world that is changing without them and over which they no longer have any control. (7). This narrative is always binary when it pits foreigners against nationals or the people against the elites, elites who are by definition "corrupt and ignorant of reality". The aim of this discourse is neither to analyse the complexity of the world nor to propose pragmatic solutions that will benefit everyone. It seeks to pointing fingersIt is the radical and violent simplicity of the solutions proposed that makes these stories so effective. And it is through the radicalism and violent simplicity of the solutions proposed that these stories exert their influence. irresistible attraction. They are winning over more and more people, who are convinced that at last there are courageous leaders who understand them and who will succeed where everyone else seems to have failed.

Emotions manipulated

The terrible images of thousands of migrants concentrated on a few landing points such as Lampedusa seem to validate their argument. If Lampedusa is submerged, it's because all the other migratory routes in the Mediterranean are blocked. The shock images circulating seem to validate the xenophobic theses that immediately appeal to voters. These binary discourses divide the world into "them" and "us", the better to manipulate emotions: these are the formidable tools of populism. The mechanisms of populism are now well known: they consist of stirring up emotions in order to manipulate them more effectively. exploiting emotions They reinforce the idea that an existential threat hangs over the people, presented as a family clan to be defended: fear, disgust, resentment, love of country... (8). Once these instinctive emotions have been activated, the incessant repetition of a few simplistic ideas illustrated by a few striking facts will anchor a belief which will be reflected in terms of mobilisation and electoral popularity. And that's regardless of any arguments of reason or facts that might be put against them.

A European response expected

How can we come up with credible responses to these fears, while preserving human dignity and the rights of all? This is the daunting challenge we face.
The Pact on Migration and Asylum proposed by the European Commission has been under discussion for four years now. In June 2023, after painstaking negotiations, the 27 Member States adopted two important texts that will make it possible for the European Union to adopt a common asylum and migration policy. redistribution of asylum seekers as soon as they arrive in Europe or, failing that, an financial solidarity from countries that do not wish to accept refugees. All that remains is to find a final compromise on crisis management and the inclusion of unaccompanied minors for the negotiations to reach a conclusion. The European Parliament's agreement should pose no problem, and Europe will then have a mechanism that is undoubtedly imperfect, but vastly improved.

If the EU finally managed to put in place its plan for a solidarity pact on migration and asylum before the European elections in 2024, it would already be a success. strong message addressed to all the populist parties who thought they were thriving on Europe's supposed impotence.

The editorial committee


1- Ekrame BOUBTANE. 2023. Immigration: what are the economic effects? Vie Publique. Directorate of Legal and Administrative Information. Légifrance.

2- Leila BEN LTAIEF.  2018. Impact of migration on economic growth in OECD countries. European Journal of International Migrationationales. p. 167-193.





7- Giovanni ORSINA. 2023. Politics, technocracy and globalisation put to the test in the culture wars. in Fractures of the extended war: from Ukraine to the metaverse. 233 pp. The Great Continent. L'Esprit du Monde. Gallimard. Paris.

8- Eva ILLOUZ. 2022. Emotions against democracy. 332 pp. Ed. Premier Parallèle. Paris.

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