Migration crisis “sunk” leftist parties in Europe

In less than two years, the Social Democratic parties of the continent suffered historical defeats in France, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. In his article on Project Syndicate, he notes that on a continent whose political life has long been driven by democratic competition between center-left and center-left parties, the collapse of the left can have far-reaching consequences that go beyond the interests of individual parties.

Many factors led to the decline of the left, including the disappearance of the traditional working class. But one of the main reasons is as gloomy as it is simple: European voters are increasingly opposed to immigration and do not believe that leftists are able to curb it.

Faced with a continuous influx of refugees and migrants, primarily from the Middle East and Africa, European voters have turned a series of recent elections into a kind of referendum on immigration. Far-right populist movements skillfully played on the fears of working-class voters, convincing them that traditional Labor parties would allow immigrants to arrive virtually without limits.

In April, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban won a landslide election by running an election campaign that focused on the “threat to Christian values” posed by Muslim immigrants. Italy’s new coalition government, opposed by the establishment, has come to power thanks to the popularity of the League party, which has been tough against immigration. It is led by Matteo Salvini, who has now become Minister of the Interior and Deputy Prime Minister.

In Slovenia, the far-right opposition party of former Prime Minister Janez Jansi received just under 25% of the vote in the parliamentary elections this month, which means that Jansha will form a new government. Echoing US President Donald Trump, Jansha conducted an election campaign on an anti-immigrant platform under the slogan “Slovenia First.”

When the ultra-right populists were just starting to gain political power, the center-left parties of Europe hoped that they could deal with this problem, thanks to their traditional strengths. In an effort to avoid the involuntary assistance of far-right campaigning, center-left politicians tried to divert the topic of public debate into an ideologically comfortable zone for them – unemployment, inequality, social justice. The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) carried out the entire election campaign of 2017 under the slogan “The time has come for more justice.”

However, one after the other, the painful defeats made the center-left parties clearly realize that voters who are concerned, above all, with immigration cannot be attracted to appeals for justice, no matter how reasonable. As a result, center-left parties across Europe began to change course: in several key countries, the Social Democrats are changing their long-standing position on migration issues.

In Germany, the coalition government (it includes the SPD, the Christian Democratic Union and its fraternal party in Bavaria – the Christian Social Union) has been embroiled in a fierce dispute over immigration, which threatens the survival of this coalition. The SPD seeks a pan-European solution and denies the need to close the borders of Germany, however, party leader Andrea Nales has come forward with a proposal to expedite the processing of asylum applications, allowing the authorities to make decisions on applications from citizens from safe third countries within one week. And in May, Nales initiated a debate within the SPD, clearly imitating ultra-right rhetoric: she stated that Germany “cannot accept everyone.”

Part of the leadership of the SPD and the youth wing of the party were outraged. But in response, Nales only emphasized her position by publicly supporting a critical analysis of the reasons for the party’s defeat in last year’s elections drawn up by a board of independent experts. In this report, the “lack of a consistent social democratic position” on migration issues was called one of the party’s structural weaknesses.

The Social Democratic Party of Austria went even further in matters of immigration. The party leadership has introduced a new program, which should be officially approved before the end of this year. It formally reformulated the position of the party: “for integration”, and not for migration. Although the program refers to the “humanitarian responsibilities” of the country, it also requires the establishment of “effective protection” on the external borders of the EU.

The Danish Social Democrats are one step ahead of their Austrian comrades. In preparation for the elections to be held next year, they adopted a new position paper on immigration; it’s called Fair and Realistic. As stated in this document, the flow of migrants to Denmark can be reduced by creating “reception centers” outside of Europe to consider asylum applications. The document also calls for more active cooperation with the UN and the development of a Marshall Plan for Africa, which is expected to convince more migrants to stay home.

This position is generally repeated by the Swedish Social Democrats, who are trying to weaken the strong public support for the far-right Swedish Democrats, who are opposed to immigration. Prime Minister Stefan Leuven, who is campaigning for re-election in September, recently called his country’s traditionally open immigration policy “unsustainable.” His proposed program, entitled “Safe Migration Policies for the New Age,” promises to halve the number of refugees accepted by Sweden, as well as measures that will not allow rejected asylum seekers to receive social assistance. This program has been heavily criticized by groups protecting migrants.

Their criticism emphasizes the main problem. On the one hand, the immigration shift among the Social Democrats is a necessary reaction to the demands of voters. Attempts to limit or control migration are not necessarily explained by racism or xenophobia. The main thing is to guarantee that this political reaction remains morally acceptable.

At the same time, a too abrupt change can be fatal for the center-left parties in difficulty. They obviously cannot copy the harsh nationalist recipes of the radical right, which would not only be economically counterproductive, but openly contrary to progressive values, rejecting the cosmopolitan supporters of these parties.

Instead, the center-left parties of Europe must strike a balance between national and international solidarity using a three-pronged strategy: effectively restricting immigration, focusing on integration, humanitarian action to alleviate massive human suffering. Such an approach would avoid the use of inflammatory rhetoric, instead offering real, visionary and morally consistent solutions that, while not being populist, could certainly become popular.

This approach was chosen by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron. Surviving difficulties, the center-left parties of Europe should follow suit, recognizing that such a re-positioning may well be the key to their political survival.

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