Migration is set to define European politics in 2024

With many economies on the brink of recession, incumbents have little else to rely on as elections loom in several countries

German police near Forst, south-east of Berlin, confront a group of migrants who illegally crossed the border from Poland. Many European countries are concocting tough new laws on migration. AP
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It wasn’t quite a Gallic shrug but France's President Emmanuel Macron came pretty close to one in his reaction last week to resignations from his team as a new immigration law passed parliament.

What was contentious among Macron supporters was that the law moved forward with support from the far-right party of Marine Le Pen. That left Mr Macron coping with the fallout on his own side as his health minister and others quit, rather than accepting the taint of association with Ms Le Pen.

The French President said he could appreciate the strength of feeling but he shrugged the protests off. He urged his critics to acknowledge that the grievances that sustain Ms Le Pen’s party must be addressed and not be allowed to fester.

It is a moment that sums up the most important driver of politics in Europe in 2023. With a busy slate of UK and European elections in 2024 it is also the defining drumbeat for politics in the coming months.

It is not just France that is concocting tough new laws on migration. Across the Channel in London, Parliament has been presented with new measures to cut the number of incoming migrants.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has a raft of restrictions in train, not least a punitive hike in the salary cap for a family visa to bring a close relative to the UK.

In Germany, too, the media is filled with leaks about an overhaul of the country's migration law due in the new year. Reflecting its acute gangland problems, one leak said the law would include powers to deport those gangsters who had migrated to Germany.

In the Netherlands, the extremist Geert Wilders won the November elections. As talks get under way to form a new coalition, Mr Wilders has promised to moderate his manifesto, which currently includes measures such as the rejection of all new asylum claims as well as bans on Islamic headscarves in public buildings and on building new mosques. If he does emerge as the top power in the government, it is a fair assumption that policies close to these are likely to emerge.

Meanwhile, Italy – along with the UK – has become something of a leader in the European sphere with its hardline focus on the Mediterranean and a deportations deal with Albania. One possible reason for the surge in rightward politics in Europe is that conventional politicians are not delivering. In Britain, this is accompanied by an entrenched collapse of the Conservatives as a party of government. When it came to power in a coalition in 2010, the party talked about net migration into the UK in the tens of thousands. In 2022, the figure ballooned above 700,000 for one year alone.

The formula that is being adopted in European capitals is becoming pretty uniform. With new laws, governments are trying to make clear that they are putting their own citizens first

While it is also true that the UK was feuding with itself over migration being out of control just as much in 2003 as it was in 2023, the exhaustion of the government’s authority threatens to raise the scale of the voter backlash during the general election.

The formula that is being adopted in European capitals is becoming pretty uniform. With new laws, governments are trying to make clear that they are putting their own citizens first. In practice, that means not only excluding more people, either by denying them entry or deporting them, but by sharpening the definition of an asylum seeker or migrant by barring them from family reunions. Simply put, one person may come in but not, say, their five closest relatives.

There is no real opposition to these moves. Barring a smattering of French liberals, there are no sacrifices. The left may vote against the measures but it does not say it will lift the crackdown if it came to power or even what it would meaningfully do instead.

So, Mr Macron is ready to impose migration quotas on France. The new law, which has already gone to the country’s courts, also makes it harder for immigrants' children to become French citizens.

New arrivals have been barred from accessing welfare benefits and health care. The public health concerns don't seem to be an issue now when it is necessary to secure the support of the right–wing MPs. Expelling illegal migrants is also on the cards. Even employers suffered a reverse because the legislation waters down plans to expand residency permits for workers in sectors with labour shortages.

There are plenty of backward steps across all these countries. With the far-right Alternative for Germany party now being the second largest in nationwide polls, it is not hard to see the direction of travel when the country unveils it citizenship measures.

With economies on the brink of recession, incumbents have little to rely on as voters go to the polls in 2024.

In the UK, the celebrity-turned-political insurgent Nigel Farage is back on the scene, flirting with challenging Mr Sunak on the issue of migration. He won’t win but his candidates could devastate Conservatives' already fragile hopes for a miraculous turnaround in their fortunes during their few short months left in power.

Published: December 25, 2023, 4:00 AM