The European response to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” of illegal migration and especially the controversial separation of children from their parents has largely been one of outrage and disgust.
“We do not share the same model of civilization,” said French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux in June. “Has ever a US president displayed such a total lack of empathy, such a deficit of common human decency?” thundered Britain’s Observer newspaper in an editorial.
But to the US President, it’s Europe that’s got it all wrong. “Crime in Germany is way up,” he tweeted in June, although the statistics show otherwise.
“Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!” Trump added – a wild assertion.
Many Europeans take umbrage at Trump’s attacks. But even if they don’t subscribe to his “zero tolerance” approach to migration, European governments have also become much tougher in handling migrants, asylum seekers and even minorities already resident.
More than 1,000 would-be migrants and refugees are known to have died at sea this year trying to reach Europe. But there is no coordinated rescue response; the European Union has left it to merchant ships and nongovernmental organizations to pick up those adrift. And two of those NGO vessels have been detained in Malta.
The Europeans’ focus is on pushing the problem back to the Middle East and North Africa. Italy is bolstering the Libyan coast guard; more migrants are being sent back to already crowded detention centers in Libya.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, fighting for her job, has proposed setting up “reception centers” in several North African states, most of which have already said they’ll have nothing to do with the plan. She has also offered to help Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovenia improve border security.
Those who do make it to Germany would be confined for up to 18 months in what Berlin euphemistically calls “anchor centers” – large camps close to the border – while their asylum requests are processed.
Meanwhile, the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean declined sharply after 2015 from 1.07 million to 360,000 in 2016 and 172,000 in 2017, according to the International Organization on Migration. So why the drastic measures, if the flow of migrants has already ebbed?
Some governments, notably Merkel’s, are reacting to pressure from populist movements and right-wing parties for whom immigration is a dominant issue. The motive, simply, is political survival. Other governments – in Hungary and now Italy -- are made up of those populist and right-wing parties. The result is a battery of laws making asylum harder, repatriation quicker and detention camps more common.
’We can do this’
It was Merkel who opened Germany to a large number of migrants and refugees who had crossed the Mediterranean in 2015, with words that soon became a catchphrase: “Wir Schaffen das” or “We can do this.” Nearly a million arrived in Germany, many of them fleeing the violence in Syria. “Refugees Welcome” was the slogan at football stadiums and town halls. At the time, Trump said what Merkel had done was “insane. They’re going to have riots in Germany.”
He was wrong about the riots, but 2016 saw a sharp increase in violent attacks on migrants in Germany. The mood has soured since that summer of compassion three years ago; and not just in Germany.
A poll in the autumn of 2016 found that in eight European states, including Britain, France, Germany and Italy, more than 70% agreed that people had become “more negative about immigrants or other groups that are different to them” than previously.
That doesn’t mean a majority are negative; it means that, to a growing minority, immigration has become the most important issue. This has benefited the parties of the radical right, such as the People’s Party in Austria, Fidesz in Hungary and the Five Star Movement in Italy.
In Germany, it’s the threat of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) that has prompted a crisis within Merkel’s coalition government, with her junior partner the Christian Social Union demanding tougher measures on migration to defend itself against the AfD in upcoming Bavarian elections.
Merkel has been pushed into a tougher position. Governments in Italy, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia have championed a hard line. One of the first acts of the new Italian government was to refuse to allow a ship with some 600 would-be migrants to dock, forcing the vessel to divert to Spain. Malta followed Italy’s lead. Matteo Salvini, the Interior Minister and leader of Five Star, says his aim is to end all arrivals by boat.
This spring, the re-election campaign of Hungarian’s avowedly populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban featured claims that the financier George Soros, the financier, had masterminded an EU-backed plan to “swamp” Europe with millions of mainly Muslim migrants. His government has since pushed through a law that treats helping any illegal migrant as a crime.
Despite objections from the Council of Europe, the continent’s top human-rights body, the Hungarian government said the law would “assert the will of the Hungarian people” by prohibiting “the resettlement of alien population groups in this country.”
The Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) emerged as the largest party in elections last month with a campaign modeled on Orban’s. The Hungarian premier even attended an SDS rally, warning that Europe’s aim was “to settle among us people who do not belong to our culture, and who will want to live here according to their own religions and customs.”
But mainstream parties have also adopted tougher measures on asylum-seekers and migrants. The same French government that sniffed at Trump’s “model of civilization” has pushed through a new law that toughens asylum rules and makes it easier to deport would-be migrants. It also doubles the length of time – to three months – that individuals who have been denied asylum can be detained. But it allowed for children to be kept in detention with their families.
In Denmark, the success of the right-wing People’s Party, now the second largest in parliament, has propelled tougher policies. Authorities can seize assets exceeding $1,500 from asylum seekers to help pay for their subsistence.
A new package of measures aims at forcing assimilation in 25 low-income and mainly Muslim areas the government openly refers to as ghettos. It includes mandatory day care – for at least 30 hours a week – for children up to six years old, so they can learn Danish “values.” If families fail to comply they can lose their benefits.
Lost in the noise is the fact that migration is keeping Europe alive. Birth rates in all 28 European Union countries are below replacement rates. Germany alone needs 400,000 immigrants a year to sustain its workforce, according to one recent study. This week Italy’s pensions chief warned the system would go bust without migrants joining the workforce.
Europe has had its fair share of crises – failing banks, terrorism, the ongoing divorce known as Brexit – but has rarely seemed so much in disarray as over migration.
“How we deal with the migrant question will decide whether Europe continues to exist in the future,” Merkel told the German parliament a week ago. Alice Weidel of the AfD retorted: “Under your regime Germany has gone from a motor and stability guarantor to a factor for chaos.”
The stakes, for Chancellor Merkel, for Germany and for Europe, could not be higher. And President Trump is enjoying the spectacle.