In May 2019, Europe will vote on migration

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Migrants on board the rescue vessel Aquarius react as the vessel enters the Grand Harbour in Valletta, Malta, on 15 August 2018. [EPA-EFE/DOMENIC AQUILINA]

Shortly after settling in at La Moncloa, Spain’s new prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, welcomed the ship Aquarius after it was rejected by the Italian government. But a few months later, his immigration policy changed, writes Beatriz Becerra.

Beatriz Becerra is the vice-chair of the human rights subcommitee at the European Parliament and MEP with the ALDE group (Alliance of Liberal and Democrats for Europe).

Sánchez’s initial welcoming gesture helped to reach those who had not heard that there was a new prime minister in Spain. But it also served to hand a victory to Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. I said it then: if the xenophobes win, while those who are not keep silent, something is not right. Something is not what it seems.

A couple of months later, Sánchez’s immigration policy continues to make the xenophobes glad. Now we have turned it upside down: we no longer welcome vessels but use existing agreements with Morocco to deport more than a hundred immigrants.

Those of the far right party Alternative for Germany like so much what they see that they even make gifs to celebrate it with the text “Spain shows how to deal with illegal immigrants”.

There has been a lot of talk about the urgent need for the European Union to have a common immigration and asylum policy, something that was expected from the Council meeting at the end of last June, but which was not finally achieved by far.

At least, some coherence and clarity in their policies could be expected from national governments, but it does not seem that these virtues are the strong point of Pedro Sánchez’s executive. Therefore, the question remains open, and the proposals we hear are leaning to the extreme.

As an example, the recent proposal of the Austrian government: militarise the hottest borders of the Union, with Ceuta and Melilla at the head. Meanwhile, the xenophobes and racists of Europe are organiaing themselves (with the figure of Steve Bannon always present, in flesh or in spirit).

This was crystal clear at the meeting held by Salvini and the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The meeting was very illustrative as the participants attacked the French president, Emmanuel Macron because he was in favour of immigration.

Not like them, who were against … illegal immigration. Take note of the distortion, because it is crucial here. Salvini, Orbán and their followers are “against illegal immigration”, not like Macron, Merkel and the rest of their political enemies in Europe.

The reality, of course, is that Macron defends the principle that immigration rules should be met. In other words, he is not in any way a friend of the illegal. But neither is he against immigration per se.

On the other hand, the Salvinis of Europe are, plain and simple, xenophobic and racist. They survive thanks to the anti-immigration vote and prosper thanks to prejudice and spreading fear. This is their true nature, their habitat.

This also truly reflects the moment we live in, and precisely where we are when we talk about these matters. It is extremely important for two reasons. The first is that we should forget that only by concrete measures, migratory reforms and asylum policies we will end with the political problem that Europe is experiencing.

Racism is a visceral prejudice that makes the person who suffers from it very susceptible to lies. Even if we reached an agreement on what is the best immigration policy and managed to implement it, even if it yielded positive results, the xenophobes would continue to manipulate.

It must be remembered that the current crisis began with the massive arrival of Syrian refugees. However, its worst effects are being seen now, when asylum applications have reduced considerably. We have to make reforms and implement measures, of course, because it is our duty.

However, let us not deceive ourselves, believing that this is the only solution to the existential problems of the Union. The second reason is that the European elections of May 2019 will be more European than ever.

Two confronting and antagonistic blocks are getting ready on either side of the ring. One is nationalistic and populist: it believes in the Union only as a dairy cow ready to be milked of European funds and always to be blamed for all their problems, which also appeals to national identities, supposedly endangered by the arrival of immigrants.

The other side is liberal in the broad sense of the word: it believes in Europe as an enlightened and plural political project with enlightened roots, defends multiple identities under the umbrella of the Rule of Law and believes we are facing a historic opportunity to reclaim the international leadership that Donald Trump has relinquished for the United States.

Around all this debate, the immigration issue will be recurrent. It is in this arena that the debate will take place, where both sides will try to reach the emotions of the electorate.

It is essential that we, Europeans, be prepared to fight the cultural battle, to win the framework and to prevent the xenophobes from appearing orderly and more reliable than the Europeanists. We must remember that nothing good has ever emanated from such ideas.

We must take them back to the dark past of which they seem to have returned, and remember that nationalist captivation is the most absurd thing that can be done in today’s world. We must mobilize many Europeans who were disappointed by the management of the crisis explaining that we are facing a crucial, decisive moment.

Not only should we be able to offer serious immigration reforms, but we should speak of a common defence, of a true foreign policy. We have to be able to explain that everything is related, that a united and strong Europe will have more influence over its environment, that it will be able to better manage migratory flows, to prevent future crises and offer citizens the pride of belonging to the best political project in history.

The xenophobes are coming together and the worst thing the liberals could do in May 2019 is to aim for a draw. Were we not asking for authentic European elections? Well, now we are going to have them.

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