The upsurge of European nationalism has nothing to do with the movement of people. It is a direct result of centrism's failures
Hillary Clinton blames migration for the rise of far-right populism, but she should be looking much closer to home
Last week Hillary Clinton shocked the world by saying that Europe needs “to get a handle on migration”. She then added that the continent’s leaders should send a message that they are no longer “going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support” for displaced and vulnerable people.
These comments, made during an interview with The Guardian newspaper, apparently form the foundation of her strategy to tackle the global rise of right-wing populism.
Mrs Clinton’s words may appear to fly in the face of the liberal politics she has espoused throughout her career. However, they perfectly illustrate the fact that centrist politicians are often driven more by the prospect of success at the ballot box than by firm ideological commitment.
Their province is not one of messy and urgent, real-world problems, but one of power and high office, secured as the representatives of big-tent organisations that, by their nature, demand compromise and broad appeals to the voting public.
To underscore this point, the former Democrat candidate for the US presidency later took to Twitter, stating that if mainstream political parties refuse to crack down on migration, the fate of democracy “hangs in the balance”.
To anyone engaged with issues of migration at ground level, Mrs Clinton’s pronouncements are not just reductive, they completely ignore present realities. The truth is that the European “migrant crisis” is largely a thing of the past. The number of people fleeing conflict or poverty arriving on European shores has fallen precipitously since its 2015 peak, with some points of entry reporting drops of more than 90 per cent.
Still, the issue of how centrist politicians counteract the upsurge of right-wing populism remains real and present. Whatever the answer to that question may be, it should be obvious that they should never use its language or seek to appeal to its base – even when doing so appears to be a pragmatic electoral move. After all, engaging with the politics of prejudice in even the most watered-down manner can only ever help to legitimise it.
It is also ironic that the failed policies of centrist politicians are exactly what got us in to this predicament in the first place. For decades, generations of European workers have laboured at the sharp end of the free market, enduring rising levels of inequality, declining job security and falling standards of living. Under such straitened circumstances, people are often tempted to look for a scapegoat, and that is precisely what migrants have become.
It also appears to have escaped Mrs Clinton’s attention that Europe has already taken a hardline stance on immigration. This summer in Italy, the far-right Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini denied NGO rescue boats the right to dock in the nation’s ports. Italy has also banned aid organisations from operating in its territorial waters. Last week, a prosecutor in Catania, Sicily, even alleged that the rescue ship Aquarius was carrying “toxic waste”, based on the preposterous notion that the discarded clothes of migrants could carry the HIV virus.
In June, the Hungarian prime minister Victor Orban’s far-right Fidesz party passed, as part of its “Stop Soros” laws, a bill criminalising groups or individuals providing any kind of assistance to undocumented migrants.
Meanwhile, Austria, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, is led by the anti-migrant chancellor Sebastian Kurz, in coalition with the country’s far-right Freedom Party. Kurz has made migration a priority of his premiership and is seeking to create a system in which the EU migration agency Frontex co-operates with third countries in North Africa, in order to prevent “illegal” departures of migrants to Europe.
Italy has already instituted such a policy, enlisting the Libyan coastguard to “pull back” migrants, even as an increasing number of reports show that they face serious human rights violations – including beatings, rape and starvation – or death in Libya’s squalid internment camps.
In light of all this, it is clear that what supposed liberals such as Mrs Clinton should really be asking European leaders to “get a handle on” is their appalling border policies.
Since 2015, the EU has built a vast infrastructure to keep migrants out, letting many of them die in the Mediterranean Sea as an apparent deterrent. Two years ago, it reached a controversial agreement with Turkey to stop migrants – a large number of whom were fleeing the conflict in Syria – crossing the water into Greece.
The EU’s aim is to push the migration trail back to transit countries, where camps have been set up to detain migrants and process them for return to their countries of origin. It has made deals with countries such as Sudan and Niger, both key staging posts for sub-Saharan migrants on the way to Libya. So far, the results are grim, with thousands – among them many children – left stranded and helpless.
The vast majority of migrants tend to stay in regions where conflict and economic hardship occur. In Africa, for instance, 90% of all migration is intra-continental, meaning that only a small number ever even consider undertaking the arduous journey through the Sahara and into Europe. Yet right-wing populists have worked hard to propagate the false idea that everyone from the global south is determined to eventually make their way to Europe, and that in so doing they will irrevocably alter entire societies.
The correct response to growing currents of chauvinistic nativism is not to cave in and endanger the lives of migrants. It is to stand up for what is right. If Mrs Clinton wants to understand why she lost the 2016 US election, Brexit or why wider European discourse has ended up where it has, she needs to turn her attention away from desperate people in need of help, and look instead to the disastrous social and economic policies that she and others like her have clung to for so long.
Ismail Einashe is a journalist based in London and a Dart Center Ochberg fellow at Columbia University Journalism School