Immigration – the new political battleground
At the end of World War II Winston Churchill famously said he thought the allied victory had bought “maybe fifty years” of enlightened politics and a focus on democracy and the rule of law in Europe.
It’s arguable that he foresaw a time when Europe again would “fall into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister by the lights of perverted science”.
A generation of political apparatchiks were raised on the irritating slogan “it’s the economy, stupid”.
But now, immigration has eclipsed economics as the driving force in western politics.
In economic terms, it makes sense for rich, ageing countries like the UK and the US to draw in new workers and citizens from poorer, younger neighbouring countries.
But the election of Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit were both fuelled by fears of uncontrolled migration, with Mr Trump promising to “build a wall” along the Mexican border, and the Brexiters vowing to “take back control” ” of borders from the EU.
And across Europe we are seeing the rise of the political right pushing nationalist and populist agendas that often cynically use migration and the global refugee crisis way of stirring up fears and racist sentiment.
Even in Germany, where Angela Merkel has put together a rickety coalition, there are tensions within her government over asylum policy.
In Hungary, Viktor Orban, the face of central European populism, has just won re-election after a campaign based on fomenting fears about immigration.
Poland too, now has a right-wing government that is intent on securing its borders.
Austria’s anti-migrant Freedom Party is also in government and in Italy the right has taken power with a pledge to stop all asylum seekers landing on the nation’ s shores.
This week a ship that had rescued six hundred asylum seekers from the waters of the Mediterranean was refused entry into Italian ports.
Meanwhile, Milos Zeman, the president of the Czech Republic, speaks and acts as if he is a Russian agent.
Alone among senior western politicians, he has defended the seizure and annexation of Crimea by Vladimir Putin and has called for the lifting of all sanctions on Russia.
Following his re-election, he reiterated his proposal that Czechs should vote in a referendum on whether to remain in NATO and the European Union – the fracturing of which is clearly a Russian aim.
In Slovenia, the populist Slovenian Democratic Party, led by two-time former Prime Minister Janez Jansa recently won an election victory with 25 per cent of the vote.
And Jansa, in a slogan reminiscent of Donald Trump, has vowed to “put Slovenia first”.
But, as we know, the political forces influencing western politicians can wax and wane. Human-rights groups and lawyers will continue to pressure western governments to treat migrants decently and to respect international law.
Politicians who go too far in their efforts to control immigration have, in the past, been forced from office by what is known as ‘the doctor’s wife effect’ – as the UK’s former Home Secretary Amber Rudd discovered last month.
Conservative voters can have innate progressive instincts when things go too far.
A hostility to immigrants as a principle can be tempered by a compassionate response to the stories of individuals.
We have seen that many western leaders, including our own, in a bid to navigate the vagaries of public opinion have been tempted to attempt to keep migrants away — while shielding voters from the distressing details.
Even a politician with clear liberal instincts like Angela Merkel has decided that she cannot risk another uncontrolled influx of migrants. Her government has tried to bottle up would-be migrants, well away from German borders.
There are now three million Syrian refugees inside Turkey — and they are being kept there, after a deal between the Turkish and German governments.
Meanwhile, Turkey itself has sealed its border with Syria trapping people in a war zone and putting them in considerable danger.
This is the ‘wicked problem’ and the unpleasant choices that western politicians face as they respond to political imperatives on migration.
Population trends suggest that migration will continue to drive western politics over the next generation. Unless centrist politicians in the US and Europe can come up with new ways of dealing with the issue, the drift towards right-wing populism may well increase.
These political developments will inevitably have flow of effects on migration and the global refugee crisis.
It is difficult to know where all this will end. Even Winston Churchill, with all his political acumen and instinctive sense of history, might struggle to see a way out.
AMES Australia Senior Journalist