Border control has become depoliticised in the EU
Exactly seven years ago today, time stopped: when the Brexit vote came in, heartbroken British liberals and exultant Brexiteers both preserved for their warring purposes an image of the European Union forever frozen in time on an eternal 23rd June 2016. But history moves on, and eventually even the British comment class notices. As a perceptive recent Telegraph piece noted, the political polarities attached to Britain’s relationship with the EU are almost certain to shift, as European leaders become increasingly receptive to their voters’ demands to radically limit immigration, and British liberals become more deeply enmeshed in the utopian dreams of American liberalism.
We can already see the first stirrings of the new politics in the Guardian’s burgeoning critique of British complicity in the border management regimes of EU member states. Eventually the rest of the British media, still emotionally attached to a mental image of Britain as a harsh immigration outlier and an EU welcoming the benighted of the world to its accommodating Merkelian bosom, will follow suit. A recent Politico piece observes that, when it comes to migration, Europe’s mainstream is drifting Rightward, as Meloni’s “far-right partners in her European Conservatives and Reformists group are gaining power as Europe tilts right more broadly”.
Making this case, Politico observes that “just days after the migration pact was struck, Meloni was in Tunisia — where Italy seeks to send rejected asylum-seekers even if they are not from there — alongside European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, a Merkel protégé, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, a stalwart of Europe’s center and its Renew Europe group.” All the while, “a growing number of centrist and center-right parties are showing a willingness to work with — and even form governments with — far-right parties”.
But other conclusions could be drawn. There are few governments more insistently assertive of their centre-Right nature than that of Meloni’s FdI and her junior partner Salvini’s Lega. Rather than Europe’s centre-right mainstream being drawn into the orbit of Central European national populist governments, whose attitudes to external migration in fact often diverge sharply from their rhetoric, it is perhaps more accurate to say that centrist governments are more effectively enacting policies previously limited to Right-wing populists.
It is the “zero asylum seekers” policies of Denmark’s socialist government, after all, which French Right-wing populists aspire to emulate, while under Meloni, Italy has seen three times the number of migrant arrivals by boat than under the technocratic centrist government which preceded her. The much-discussed rise of Vox in Spain is also less a case of the centre-right ceding ground to the fringes as the radical Right seeking to subsume itself within Europe’s new centre-right order.
Rather than Europe’s centre swinging to the far-Right, it would be more accurate to say that a hardened attitude to migration is becoming increasingly depoliticised in the EU. Centrist governments are pursuing increasingly restrictive policies and Right-wing challengers are now aspiring to join, rather than overturn the newly-recalibrated centre. In this new world, sensible centrism is the new populism, and quietly reshaping EU policy replaces noisily raving against Brussels. Perhaps it took the self-ejection by Brexit of Europe’s most inherently liberal state for this new equilibrium to be reached. Yet in Europe, if not yet Britain, 2016 is already ancient history.