Why EU states are converging on restrictive migration policies, despite their different political traditions

Nadia Petroni |

Differing political cultures and migration traditions among EU member states have given rise to a variety of national policy approaches toward irregular migration. While in principle this diversity hinders agreement on common asylum and migration policies, EU member states are now increasingly converging toward more restrictive migration policies.

National policy approaches are deeply rooted in historical legacies as well as political, economic and social factors, including issues of religion and cultural identity. Member states are unequal in terms of power, resources, location, experience, institutions, cultural and historical baggage and the number of asylum seekers they receive. As a result, these powerful cleavages make it harder to reach consensus in this policy domain.

Historical experiences

In the aftermath of the Second World War, north-western Europe experienced high levels of immigration due to colonial commitments or recruitment programmes for migrant workers. Hence, such states have a history of taking in large numbers of migrants from multi-ethnic backgrounds, particularly from former colonies. France, for example, saw an influx of Algerians fleeing the Algerian War from 1954 to 1962, whilst in Britain, migrants arrived from the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean during the 1950s and 60s. By contrast, the southern and central-eastern member states had little experience with migration.

Beginning in the 1980s, southern members Italy, Greece and Spain were rapidly transformed from countries of emigration to immigration. These member states experienced a dramatic ‘migration turnaround’, from mass emigration during the 1950s, 60s and early 70s, to mass immigration during the 1980s and especially, in the 90s and 2000s. Similarly, Cyprus and Malta, post EU accession in 2004, became immigrant receiving countries.

The migration experience of the central-eastern member states has been quite different. Although they did experience some immigration after the end of the Cold War, it was mainly from migrants with very similar cultures to their own, mainly from Ukraine. This group of states thus had little tradition and experience in dealing with cultural diversity.

Geographic location

EU member states confront irregular migration to differing degrees due to their geographical proximity to zones of instability and conflict. Consequently, the different regions of the EU experience different migratory pressures.

Those member states on the EU’s periphery, namely Italy and Greece, have become the main entry points for irregular migrants by accident of geography, and are responsible for guarding long sea and land borders. As a result, the southern member states agree on the need to overhaul the Dublin Regulation and abolish the ‘first state of arrival’ rule, which places an unfair burden on them. They have also repeatedly pushed for the establishment of an EU mandatory permanent relocation mechanism in order to evenly distribute asylum seekers across the EU member states.

Public opinion

According to the latest Standard Eurobarometer (Autumn 2018), immigration is perceived as the most important concern of European citizens (40 per cent). Public opinion is an important factor influencing member states’ policy approaches to irregular migration as governments need the support of the people to be re-elected. The public’s focus on an issue affects the response of national governments.

In times where a given issue has low salience, national governments are not under pressure to ‘deliver’ a policy that the public accepts, mainly because the public is not especially concerned about the issue itself. However, when an issue is problematised in the media resulting in high salience, the public will be more concerned. The response of the governing party or coalition will therefore tend to be oriented toward public opinion.

The rise of right-wing populism

Following the outbreak of the ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015, the issue of irregular migration emerged as a key debate in national elections across the EU, with right-wing populist parties gaining support in several member states.

In the 2017 French presidential election, stopping ‘uncontrolled’ immigration was the slogan of the right-wing populist Front National (now ‘Rassemblement National’) candidate Marine Le Pen. In the 2017 German federal elections, the leader of the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD), Alexander Gauland, stated that Islam is alien to German society and spoke of fighting an ‘invasion of foreigners’. The party was elected to the Bundestag for the first time, winning 12.6 per cent of the vote and more than 90 seats.

At the end of 2017, the coalition government formed by the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) resulted in the first western European state with a governing far-right party. During the campaign, both parties put restrictive positions on immigration and integration at the centre of their electoral campaign. ÖVP leader, Sebastian Kurz, called for limits on the number of asylum seekers entering Europe and reduced social benefits for EU citizens living in Austria.

Irregular migration was also a key issue in Eastern Europe for instance in the run-up to Hungary’s election in 2018. A central pillar of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s campaign was that Hungary would be ‘overrun’ by refugees if he was not elected. He also appealed to the prejudices of his core supporters with talk of the importance of ‘ethnic homogeneity’, and of a ‘Europe under threat of invasion’.

In Southern Europe, in the run-up to the Italian general election in 2018, the electoral campaign of the centre-right coalition was characterised by anti-immigrant rhetoric. Former Prime Minister and leader of Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi, claimed there were 600,000 ‘illegal’ migrants living in Italy representing a ‘social time-bomb ready to explode’, and pledged mass deportations. The leader of the League, Matteo Salvini, declared that if he was elected Prime Minister, one of his principal objectives would be to expel half a million failed asylum seekers.

Towards convergence of migration control policies

National policy approaches to irregular migration quickly diverge as a result of the factors discussed above. At the same time, there has been a visible convergence. Indeed, as the issue of irregular migration gained salience in the political debate, the salience of national identity and secure borders resulted in convergence towards restrictive migration policies. Deterrence has become a key theme in the rationale for EU asylum and migration policies, exemplified in the agreements with Turkey and Libya.

Austria’s motto when it took over the Presidency of the Council of the EU in 2018, ‘a Europe that protects’, reflects the EU approach to irregular migration: the focus on the ‘fight against illegal migration’. Hence, although the EU is more divided than ever over irregular migration, it is united when it comes to the externalisation of migration controls.

This article was first published on the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) blog on European Politics and Policy (EUROPP) on 17 July 2019.