The seemingly unstoppable rise of anti-establishment political forces in recent years has added a new layer of complication to Europe’s immigration question.
The results of May’s European Parliament elections revealed the true extent of the popularity of far-right, nationalist parties, all but ruling out constructive debates on the politically sensitive topic of migrants and asylum seekers as well as the grievances of minority groups, of whom Muslims happen to be the most prominent.
The gains made by right-wing and populist nationalist parties in the European Parliament elections have left Muslims of European countries and the (mostly Muslim) communities of migrants and refugees on uncertain ground. In the absence of political will to engage with the communities concerned, it is difficult to see how the EU can address both the migrant issue and the Muslim question in a fair manner.
For the first time in 40 years, previously dominant center-right and center-left blocs no longer hold a majority in the European Parliament. Centrist parties have suffered political reverses across all member states, especially in their traditional strongholds of Germany and France. Migration has turned out to be a decisive factor — and the bane of the continent’s established political parties — from the refugee crisis of 2015 all the way to this year’s elections.
Even European countries that had long been seen as reliable bastions of centrist politics failed to defy the upsurge of populist nationalism. UKIP grabbed 31.7 percent of votes cast in Britain in the European Parliament elections, while in France the far-right National Rally took 23.2 percent. In Italy, the Northern League, led by Matteo Salvini, won 33.43 percent, up from a mere 6.2 percent in the 2014 elections. Elsewhere in Europe, Hungary’s ruling right-wing Fidesz party, which vowed to further tighten the country’s rules on migration, rolled up impressive gains with 52 percent.
Despite steadily decreasing arrivals to Europe and a substantial difference in the “immigration and asylum” situation between 2015 and 2019, many European governments remain deadlocked on a planned revision of the EU’s immigration policy. In March 2019, EU interior ministers attending a European Council meeting tried but failed to iron out their differences, kicking the immigration can further down the road.
In the popular imagination, hostility to immigrants and asylum seekers is associated with Europe’s far-right groups, but the general tenor of the continent’s political discourse points to a hardening of positions across the spectrum. In recent times, especially during the election season, mainstream political parties and their stalwarts have taken to fear-mongering and touting harsh measures to limit or dissuade migration.
Violence against Muslims reached a peak in the run-up to the enactment of the anti-hijab laws in several European countries. Austria approved a hijab ban in primary schools, while the French Senate voted to ban mothers who wear the hijab from accompanying their children on school trips. In 2018, up to 580 anti-Muslim attacks took place in Germany alone.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel may have been among the few European leaders to welcome large numbers of political refugees, but even she now says some of the migration policies are problematic. The growing appeal of anti-immigrant parties could be a factor behind the new-found necessity of politicians of even Merkel’s stature to sound tough on immigration. Whatever the real reason, such rhetoric does little to address the underlying problems, much less to resolve them.
“There are ongoing policies against Muslims (in Europe). Since 2008, we have seen the rise of populism — not only right-wing but also left-wing populism,” said Belgium’s Mahinur Ozdemir, the youngest and the first hijab-wearing member of the European Parliament. “Traditional parties, as they become unable to answer the people’s needs through traditional ways, instead of getting more democratized, get more populist and grasp racist rhetoric.”
Ironically, the change in the political rhetoric has coincided with a sharp fall in the number of migrants and refugees making it to the continent’s shores. In January 2019, arrivals to Europe were at their lowest in five years; the peak was reached during the 2015 refugee crisis with more than 1 million arrivals. In the first three months of 2019, applications for just over 10,200 refugees were submitted by the UNHCR for resettlement in 17 EU member states.
According to the UNHCR, this is one-third of the total applications submitted in 2018, and 60 percent of the average rate of 16,960 applications per year during the previous 10 years. Since the beginning of 2019, six EU countries — Germany, Sweden, France, Norway, the UK and the Netherlands — have received 81 percent of all resettlement applications.
In the run-up to the European Council meeting in March, the European Commission (EC) reviewed the progress made since the 2015 refugee crisis. Frans Timmermans, the EC’s first vice president, noted that “while the EU is no longer experiencing the migration crisis, there are structural problems within its policies that ought to be urgently addressed in moving forward.”
The Dutch diplomat’s statement could be interpreted as an acknowledgement of a lack of consistency in Europe’s immigration policy, with talk of safe passage, human rights and greater cooperation going hand in hand with a regime of tighter border controls. Between the two extremes, there are some political parties that are eager to export the continent’s migration problems to third countries, with the controversial Malta agreement between Italy and Libya’s Government of National Accord serving as a viable template.
None of this is to say that attempts to address what Timmermans called “structural problems” are doomed to failure. For all the ethnic cleansing, genocide and institutional discrimination to which Muslims of Europe have been subjected since the outbreak of brutal wars in the former Yugoslavia, Islam is deeply woven into Europe’s tapestry of many different religions. Since the end of World War II, vibrant new Muslim communities came into existence as a result of guest-worker programs and the arrival of people fleeing political persecution.
The countries that have taken in the largest number of Muslim refugees all happen to have a thriving network of Muslim civic organizations and youth platforms. Platforms catering to the needs of Muslims set up by young European Muslims, such as the London-based the Muslim Vibe, Brussels-based Mvslim.com and Paris-based Oumma.com, are trying to give a voice to the European Muslim community, including Muslim refugees. These platforms see themselves as being run by staff who are representative of their audience and conscious of the growing presence of Muslim communities in Europe in all fields except policy-making.
A Gallup poll conducted in 2008 underscored the respect that Muslims have for Europe’s democratic institutions. Muslim respondents are likely, sometimes more likely than the general public, to express confidence in official institutions. For instance, two-thirds of Muslims in London (64 percent) said they had confidence in the UK government, compared with just 36 percent of the British public. At the same time, Muslims in three of the Europe’s largest capitals (69 percent in London, 66 percent in Paris, 87 percent in Berlin) felt that their communities should be more involved in politics.
Yet, political representation remains woefully unrepresentative of the Muslim population’s size, needs and expectations. In the European Parliament, there were only seven Muslim MEPs out of 751 before the May elections. Such poor political representation of the continent’s second-largest religious group would seem shocking in itself. But it looks even more unjustifiable considering that Muslims are expected to make up more than 4 percent of Europe’s population by 2020, according to the Pew Research Center.
The political landscape after the European Parliament elections reveals the polarization of society between non-Muslim and Muslim Europeans in many countries. Until now, EU members have managed to get away with treating the vexing immigration question in the same way as the Muslim question — by avoiding it. But it is past time for European governments to appreciate the diversity of Muslim views and issues and treat the community as trusted partners. While Muslims have certainly not introduced pluralism to Europe, their presence is a stark reminder of the continent’s failure to practice it.