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Election Day Dilemma: Immigration’s Role in Shaping European Politics

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A divisive issue if ever there was one, immigration is generally considered to be one of the determining factors in any election. This assumption seems to apply universally, whatever the geographical context or the level of the ballot.


Election Day Dilemma: Immigration’s Role in Shaping European Politics

A divisive issue if ever there was one, immigration is generally considered to be one of the determining factors in any election. This assumption seems to apply universally, whatever the geographical context or the level of the ballot.

At first sight, the situation is no different for the European elections on 9 June. Both the conclusions of various surveys of voting intentions and the results of recent elections in certain Member States support the hypothesis of a shift in the centre of gravity of the European political system. The feeling of an unsatisfactory response to the challenges posed by immigration is no small part of this.

The absolute need to halt such a development was, moreover, one of the main arguments of the political and institutional players determined to reach an agreement, whatever the cost, on the pact on immigration and asylum. This has now been done, and the European Union, in the final moments of a parliamentary term that is undoubtedly historic in many respects, has at last equipped itself with a political framework likely to reassure public opinion worried about the apparent inability to manage a phenomenon that is increasingly perceived as uncontrollable.

Nothing is less certain. However, we won’t go into the many uncertainties surrounding this complex legislative package here. Its provisions leave many grey areas over the compliance with fundamental rights. It will take a long time to implement (two years) and will require considerable resources, particularly budgetary ones. It will rely on cooperation between the institutions and the Member States, which has often been uncertain in the past, and, above all, it presupposes the restoration of a particularly damaged sense of trust and solidarity between them.

The Commission – understandably – has welcomed a system that secures external borders by organising rapid procedures for processing applications for international protection and by providing for forms of solidarity between Member States[1]. However, there is a strong feeling that this is a technocratic response to a societal need, and even an excellent communication campaign to remedy it would be hard.

More worryingly, certain political forces – including those that supported the deal – already seem to be calling into question the validity of this hard-won agreement. A small chorus can be heard which, beyond the pure and simple refusal to apply it, underlines its inadequacies and therefore the need to ‘go further’.

But go where and to do what?  Undertaking a new legislative effort at the end of an exhausting journey would be nonsense. The aim, then, could be to consolidate the effectiveness of the pact through political initiatives aimed at supplementing it: beyond strengthening border controls and combating criminal networks of people smugglers, most of these concern relations with third countries. They may take the form of vague ‘agreements’ aimed, under the guise of a multi-sector partnership fuelled by massive financial transfers, at ensuring the cooperation of these countries both in controlling migration in transit on their territory and in implementing a return policy with more than disappointing results. Other avenues would involve exploring the possibility of outsourcing responsibility for receiving and processing applications for international protection. Added to this would be greater openness to ‘chosen’ migration, which is all the more essential to meet the needs of an economy with a skills shortage, and even to cope with the consequences of an inevitable demographic transition.

What if we were debating the wrong issues? A survey of opinion carried out in January 2024 in twelve Member States by the European Council on Foreign Relations is revealing in this respect[2]. On the one hand, it shows that immigration is only secondary in the perception of the crucial issues of the moment, after economic uncertainties, past and future pandemics, climate change and the war in Ukraine. It also appears that the ‘centrality’ of the immigration debate is mainly the result of effective political marketing by nationalist and populist parties, who have made it one of their main selling points.

The facts bear out this analysis: the majority of migrants are part of legal schemes (work permits or family reunification) and those detected as staying illegally have not, for the most part, crossed the European Union’s external borders fraudulently. Furthermore, tightening up border controls has no direct effect on reducing migratory pressure[3]. And let’s not forget that the European Union takes in only a very small proportion of the world’s populations fleeing persecution or natural disasters, and that few lessons have been learned to date from the formidable capacity to take in Ukrainians fleeing Russian aggression overnight.

There is therefore a trap here that political groups defending the objective of better management of migration should avoid falling into, or else – as the saying goes – the electorate will prefer the original to the copy. Elections are a key moment in democracy, and everyone involved must focus on the real priorities – often influenced by the national context – of those called upon to vote (in the hope that many of them will turn out to do so). Being clear about immigration is part of this approach, without making it the focus of the debate. But it is a difficult exercise, given that the subject remains toxic and sensitivities run high. We dare not even mention the impact that the slightest incident linked to migration could have in certain Member States just a few minutes before the vote.



[1] “Parvenir à un équilibre en matière de migration : une approche à la fois juste et ferme”, Communication of the European Commission of 12 March 2024

[2] “A New Political Map: Getting the European Parliament Election Right”, Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard, European Council on Foreign Relations, March 2024

[3] “EU Migration and Borders. Key Facts and Figures”, European Parliamentary Research Service, Briefing March 2024


This article was also published in French on Confrontations Europe’s website.


(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)