Last week, five people were found dead in a ramshackle and overcrowded boat drifting off the Southern-most tip of Italy. The boat had been carrying 60 illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa to the tiny island of Lampedusa, a common entry-point into the European Union. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), about 60,000 people risked their lives to make the crossing to Italy in 2011. Some of them are fleeing conflicts that erupted in the wake of the Arab Spring. Others are “economic migrants”, looking for jobs and a better life in Europe.
As the issue of immigration steadily makes its way up the European political agenda, mainstream politicians have increasingly been seen employing anti-immigration rhetoric in order to see-off the challenge of far-right parties in the polls. In a move that many commenters feel was an attempt to prevent the far-right National Front from attracting voters away from his party, French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently intensified his rhetoric against illegal immigration, saying there are “too many foreigners in France”. In another speech, he criticised the EU, arguing that (if re-elected) he would “not allow the management of immigration flows to be in the hands of technocrats and the courts”. He has repeatedly called for tougher border-controls in Europe, even threatening to pull France out of the Schengen agreement if this is not achieved.
Yesterday, we spoke to Carlos Coelho, a Portuguese Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the Social Democratic Party (which is, despite the name, part of the centre-right European People’s Party group in the European Parliament, and thus an ally of Nicolas Sarkozy’s party). One of our readers, Christos, sent in a comment that was highly critical of the current approach:
We saw with the immigration problem, after the Arab revolution hit North Africa and thousands were loading themselves on a boat to enter the EU through Spain, Italy, Malta or even Greece, the Northern states ‘ducked’ once again and said that responsibility lay with the states where immigrants were entering into the EU.
But the immigrants do not want to stay in the poor South, they want to move on to the rich North… So why don’t the rich nations of Europe act as one with the states that are on the borders of the continent and assist them? Instead they decided to choose the easy option and suspend the Schengen agreement, like France and Denmark! If they had any problems with how Italy, Malta and Greece handled the situation, then why didn’t all our governments take action together?
How would you answer Christos?
My answer is that we are already in the process of trying to build up a European immigration policy with a solidarity clause. Christos is right to call for more solidarity in the EU in order to tackle these issues. But all the member-states, including member-states in the South, should make clear there is a difference between asylum and immigration. We are not obliged to accept everybody immigrating in order to look for a job. This is clearly what Italy wasn’t doing.
We also had a comment from Marcel arguing that: “If my country, the Netherlands, does not want to admit Romanians or Bulgarians because unemployment here is going up, then we have the right to.” He also argues that “elitist” politicians are out of touch with popular opinion on immigration. There is a furious debate taking place right now in the Netherlands over immigration, with far-right politician Geert Wilders causing controversy by setting up a website asking people to submit complaints against Eastern Europeans. Could you respond to this, perhaps?
That site is unbelievable. It’s spreading hate. It’s not the kind of attitude we expect from civilised people. What we are seeing is something that’s very worrying; the rise of the extreme right is something we have to fight against. One of the core values of the EU is the idea of “European citizenship”. Nobody can be descriminated against as a European citizen, and people in the Netherlands and elsewhere also don’t want their citizens to be dealt with in another way in other European countries. All citizens in Europe have the same rights. It’s something we have to always have in mind.
Of course, it’s clear to me there are worries among people about immigration. There is an economic crisis, and of course there is unemployment. But we aren’t going to solve our economic problems or lower unemployment if we fight against one another. To be able to create jobs and tackle the crisis, we need to be united.
What about the accusation that politicians are “elitist”, too politically-correct and too out-of-touch with people’s concerns on immigration? When politicians adopt anti-immigration rhetoric, are they not responding to people’s legitimate concerns? Or should we be worried by this trend?
I’m worried about it. It’s giving legitimacy to some terrible views. The extreme right is trying to fight for values that are completely alien to what we call “European values”: i.e. the dignity of all human beings in the face of the law; no discrimination on the basis of racial, sexual and other differences, etc. We have to fight for these European values.
What do YOU think? Should we be worried by politicians adopting anti-immigration rhetoric? Is this just a cynical election ploy, or is the political mood in Europe shifting against immigration? And are politicians elitist and “out-of-touch” on this issue, or are they trying to balance feelings of social disruption with other issues (such as keeping an open economy and promoting trade and movement of labour)? Let us know your thoughts in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers to respond.
Carlos Coelho is a Portuguese MEP for the Social Democratic Party, part of the centre-right European People’s Party in the European Parliament