by Jonathan Fenton-Harvey
The 2019 elections for the European Parliament (EP) could lead to a further enforcement of inhumane refugee and asylum seeker policies, as far-right, anti-immigrant parties made gains at the expense of centrist coalitions. There is a chance for this effect to be blunted, however, if a progressive EP alliance raises immigration as an urgent area for reform.
The election results, announced on Monday 27 May, show right-wing parties winning EP elections across Europe, including in large countries like the United Kingdom, France, and Italy. The UK ‘Brexit party’ polled 31.7% of the British vote, while in France the far-right National Rally—formerly known as the Front National—won with 23.2%. Italy’s North League, led by Matteo Salvini, won 33.43% of the vote, up from a mere 6.2% in the 2014 EP election, showing the gains the far-right has made there. Hungary’s ruling right-wing Fidesz party won 52% of its country’s vote, vowing to toughen its already harsh stance on migration.
For the first time in forty years, the European Parliament’s previously dominant center-right and center-left blocs no longer command a majority. Centrist parties overall lost ground, especially in Germany.
The far-right’s ascendance risks worsening the circumstances for migrants trying to enter Europe, who are stuck in horrific conditions as the European Union blocks them from entering. Though the EU offers freedom of movement within its member states’ territories as part of the Schengen agreement, restrictive border policies to stem the migrant flow have infamously earned it the name ‘Fortress Europe’. Although hostility to migrants is often being associated with far-right movements, mainstream European leaders have engaged in fear-mongering against migrants and imposed inhumane regulations to limit and dissuade migration.
EU institutions and member states have worked to stop asylum seekers and refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea through Libya, by funding and cutting deals with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. Under those arrangements the Libyan coastguard has tried to stop migrant boats from leaving Libyan territorial waters. This has led to migrants being kept in inhumane conditions in so-called detention centres in Tripoli, whose lax controls have even allowed illegal smugglers to sell people into slavery. Horrific marks from lashes, burns and other signs of torture indicate the cruel reality for migrants stranded in Libya. Europe has played a large role in facilitating these conditions.
While migrants do still attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea, in a bid to escape severe poverty and conflict in their home countries, they face treacherous conditions that have taken nearly 40,000 lives. Though aid groups seek to rescue migrants from drowning, the EU has also opposed and even tried to stop their work.
Conditions for migrants detained in Libya have worsened due to recent escalations in that country’s civil war. Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar continues his assault to capture Tripoli, which began in April and has already displaced several tens of thousands of civilians. The conflict will naturally lead to more refugees, while also endangering migrants already in Tripoli. Rights groups like Human Rights Watch argue that it is more vital than ever for Europe to reform its anti-migration policies, and instead ensure that migrants are given a safe haven in Europe or returned to their country of origin, if conditions are safe enough.
As Italy is one of the main landing spots for migrants crossing the Mediterranean, Salvini’s victory in Italy’s EP election could give him leverage to push for harder border controls. Already, his governing coalition with the Five Star Movement has imposed harsher restrictions on migrants entering and settling in Italy.
Other steps, like the EU-Turkey deal in 2016, have shown Europe’s desire to strictly regulate migration. While European leaders lauded that agreement as pragmatic and effective, rights groups like Amnesty International slammed the deal, highlighting its significant humanitarian consequences. Countless Syrian refugees reaching Greece from Turkey faced forcible expulsion from Greek islands as part of the deal. Tens of thousands of refugees are still stranded in “overcrowded, unsafe and dirty” conditions in Greece, waiting for their status to be processed before being returned to Turkey.
Prominent European leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, among the few who have welcomed large amounts of refugees, have acknowledged that some of Europe’s migration policies are problematic. Yet the new prominence of anti-immigrant parties could sway EU leaders to uphold tough policies towards migrants, akin to what’s happened in Libya.
However, there is a chance that the EU’s anti-migrant policies could be challenged. While the far-right did well in last week’s elections, multiple European Green parties exceeded expectations, especially in Germany and France, collectively gaining 70 seats in the European Parliament. Like the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats bloc, made up of several European center-left parties, these Green parties and other left-wing parties could unify and push to reform Europe’s migration policies.
While it seems that new blocs will be formed, the emergence of a reformist alliance could push for more progressive migration policies. Without such a unified movement, Europe’s harsh migrant policies will remain or even worsen—especially if right-wing parties also have success in future national elections.
In any case, the victories of both green and far-right parties will clearly force a more robust debate on migration in the future, especially as more migrants try to seek a safe haven in Europe and their humanitarian situation becomes more severe.
Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a roaming journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, international relations and humanitarian issues within the Middle East and North Africa. He has particularly focused on the Yemen conflict, Libya and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) regional foreign policy. He has also studied History and Middle East Studies at the University of Exeter, in the United Kingdom. Follow him on twitter: @jfentonharvey