BY JONATHAN EYAL EUROPE CORRESPONDENT IN LONDON, Straits Times
THE Swiss are a politically combative lot: Almost everything they do is decided by referendums. So, it’s entirely unsurprising that at the end of this week, the Swiss electorate will be asked to vote on a proposal to restrict the number of foreigners allowed to settle in the country. After all, immigration is one of the biggest questions of our time, and the Swiss frequently had to wade into this debate.
Still, there is something highly unusual about the forthcoming Swiss referendum. For it is not, as one would expect, initiated by some rabid extremist nationalists foaming at the mouth about “hordes” of immigrants; instead, it was demanded by an ecological association which apparently cares about plants just as much as about people, and wants to impose strict quotas on migrants not because it fears foreigners, but because it wishes to preserve Switzerland’s pristine natural environment from too many people.
This is a perfect example of how the backlash against mass immigration is now cutting across the political spectrum in Europe: It is being embraced not only by the boorish and blinkered, but also by those who otherwise pride themselves on their political moderation. This is a tidal wave of popular discontent and anxiety which current governments must confront with clear arguments and patience even if, ultimately, not many minds are likely to be swayed.
The received wisdom that anti-immigrant sentiments are the product of extremist movements on the right wing of politics has never been true. Communist regimes on the extreme left stamped just as hard on “foreign” influence. The charge of being a “cosmopolite” – which often meant nothing more than showing an appreciation for another culture – was sufficient to send an unfortunate individual to a labour camp in Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China, and when Pol Pot ruled Cambodia, the mere knowledge of a foreign language meant a death sentence.
Nevertheless, political movements which are mainly associated with the far right have traditionally tended to elevate opposition to immigration to the top of their agenda. And their arguments are always the same: claims that immigrants dilute the “unique character” of their host nations, that immigrant habits allegedly contradict “historic principles” which bind nations together or that, ultimately, the new influx of people cannot be trusted to be loyal citizens.
Fuel for the far right
THESE arguments have gained many adherents in Europe over the past two decades, and especially in response to terrorism. The fact that some people of Muslim faith born and bred in France, Britain or Spain plotted and executed attacks against civilians in their own countries seemed to vindicate the warnings of those who always opposed immigration.
And the extreme right feasted on this opportunity.
“I accept that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is also true that most terrorists are Muslims,” quipped Mr Geert Wilders, the populist politician who founded the anti-immigrant Party for Freedom in the Netherlands.
“More and more veils, and more and more burqas: This is a military occupation,” said Ms Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front, now easily the single most popular politician.
The significant electoral advances clocked up by the far right have prompted mainstream European centre-right parties which usually shunned such sentiments to follow suit with their own anti-immigration measures.
It is now virtually impossible for a non-European to get a working visa on the continent and, for some nationalities, even a tourist visa requires huge paperwork and a small fortune.
France and Belgium have banned the wearing of the Muslim veil in public, while Switzerland has banned the construction of mosque minarets. In some countries, no amount of time or effort can erase the fundamental distinction between an immigrant and a native-born: Those who gain British citizenship by naturalisation can have this cancelled if they are later convicted of a grave crime.
And, as anti-immigrant measures become mainstream, so does the broader public discussion which now regularly vents anti-immigrant themes.
Given their awful history, Germans used to be acutely sensitive to any utterances which smacked of racism. Not anymore, however.
Bildt – Europe’s best-selling newspaper – recently complained about the “disproportionate crime rate among adolescents with Muslim backgrounds” in Germany, and about the faith’s alleged “homicidal contempt for women and homosexuals”.
Left-wingers get tough
BUT the most spectacular transformation has taken place within the ranks of Europe’s left-wing parties, which traditionally offered strong support to migrants and ethnic minorities.
Mr Manuel Valls, the current Socialist Prime Minister of France, rose to fame as an interior minister who was exceptionally tough on immigrants: During a visit to a market in the suburbs of Paris, he was overheard remarking that the place would “have a better image” if “more white people were present”. Since then, he has authored a book provocatively entitled To Put Old Socialism To Rest. It advocates the introduction of strict immigration quotas.
Germany’s Socialists are not far behind. Mr Thilo Sarrazin, who once ran Germany’s finance ministry, has authored a book claiming that his country is “doing away with itself” by accepting immigrants, and particularly Muslim ones who are good at only “producing little girls in headscarves” and selling vegetables. The book was an instant hit, selling over 1.5 million copies.
Not to be undone, Britain’s opposition Labour Party has also now hitched itself to the bandwagon: The party has promised that if it returns to power, it will boost the number of guards defending Britain’s frontiers and get all those nasty foreigners to pay for this personnel expansion.
Most of Europe’s Socialists are still deeply uncomfortable with such blatant anti-immigration excesses, but feel that they have no other option, since their own working-class constituency now feels threatened by immigration.
The most vulnerable minority in Europe today is that of uneducated, young, white working- class males, who are not merely unemployed but also largely unemployable, since their jobs are being taken over by an influx of cheaper, better educated and more disciplined labour force from Eastern Europe.
The recent conversion of some ecologists to the anti-immigration cause completes the circle which spans from the right to the left of the political spectrum. But in itself, it is not so remarkable.
For Migration Watch UK, a highly respectable British non-governmental organisation run by a distinguished retired diplomat, has long argued that the British Isles cannot afford further inflows of migrants without imposing a terrible cost on the environment and the quality of life.
The argument may seem specious, but is increasingly taken seriously by ecologists who otherwise have a distinguished record of opposing any racial stereotypes.
Need for public debate WHAT can be done to counteract this “perfect storm” of anti-immigrant anger, coming from all sides? First, it is important to separate the immigration debate from the question of race, for those who brand anti-immigration activists as “racist” achieve little, apart from boosting the ranks of extremist parties. Arguably, it was precisely the inability of governments to engage in such debates which brought us to today’s predicament.
Governments should also acknowledge that those who fear the arrival of more migrants are perfectly reasonable people, and many of their complaints are not as outlandish as they are often portrayed. While it is true that migrants are willing to take jobs few locals wish to do, it is also a fact that the constant supply of immigrants tends to depress wages in a national economy, and provide competition for local unskilled labour: It is not by accident that the largest example of the hiring of unqualified labour in Britain over the past decade also coincided with a steep decline in wages.
And although governments are often keen to put the best spin on the benefits of immigration, they should not be economical with the facts. It is true, for instance, that migrants contribute more to the local economy than they take out. But it is also true that this is only because the current wave of immigrants is relatively young; give them a few decades and they will start imposing their own burden on the national economy.
And, while the presence of many migrants paying taxes helps with the growing pension burden in an ageing Europe, it is also a fact that immigration cannot be a sustainable solution to an ageing society unless it is allowed to continue indefinitely and, indeed, increase in volume.
None of this is to suggest that the principle of immigration is not worth defending. Rather, it is merely to point out that engaging in a debate with the public, and one in which the drawbacks of immigration are just as readily accepted as the benefits, will do more to stem the backlash which now engulfs Europe.
Seen from this perspective, those who initiated the latest Swiss referendum may have done Europe a favour: Opinion polls indicate that a majority of voters in Switzerland will say “no”, thereby discrediting, at least for a while, the idea that there are “environmental” reasons for turning back migrants.