Fate of migrant ship Aquarius exacerbates divisions within EU

Fate of migrant ship Aquarius exacerbates divisions within EU

Italy’s decision to turn away the migrant ship, Aquarius, reinforced the deep schism within the EU on how to manage the migration crisis. With a pan-European solution looking increasingly unlikely, the crisis is only going to continue, increasing political and economic risk in the region by further emboldening the populist right and undermining the EU’s capacity to solve collective problems.

The Event

The first consequences of Italy’s new populist coalition were felt across Europe when the Aquarius, a migrant ship with approximately 600 refugees, was denied safe harbour in Italy. While the immediate crisis was resolved when the ship was eventually able to dock at the Spanish port of Valencia, divisions among the EU member states over migration only worsened. President Macron, of France criticized the Italian government for being “cynical” and “irresponsible.” The new Italian Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, hit back, arguing that France had done too little to redistribute the pressures faced by the Mediterranean countries to incorporate large numbers of refugees.


Varieties of populism

The row between Italy and France is indicative of the failure to redistribute migration pressures across the EU member states. Due to their geographical proximity to North Africa and the Middle East, the Mediterranean countries have borne the brunt of the burden of the incoming asylum seekers, while also having to deal with the aftermath of the financial crisis. Most of the northern European countries have refused to correct this unequal distribution, giving fuel to Salvini’s claim that Italy has become the “refugee camp of Europe.” For example, Sebastien Kurtz, current Austrian PM, unilaterally decided to close its borders in 2015 to block the migrants’ pathway to the richer northern countries.

The reluctance to share the burden of these irregular migration flows can in part be explained by the exclusionary nature of the populist movements that have characterized much of northern Europe. The academic literature on populism has identified two distinct varieties of populism: an exclusionary, xenophobic populism driven by the  extreme right that relies on anti-immigrant appeals and exploits cultural anxieties of native populations, and an inclusive economic populism that relies on economic appeals to those disaffected and left behind by an economic crisis by railing against a financial and economic “elite”. Rodrick notes that it is easier for populist movements in northern Europe to exploit the ethno-national cleavage due to the influx of immigrants who were culturally dissimilar over the last two decades. They have now been scapegoats for the strains on public services and the erosion of welfare state benefits. On the other hand, the Mediterranean countries, most notably Greece and Spain, were most severely hit by the financial crisis, which was only intensified by the institutional drawbacks of the single currency and austerity policies that were largely imposed by external organizations like the IMF, the European Central Bank and the EU. Hence, the so-called ‘enemies of the people” were the economic and financial elite, who provided the context in which left populist parties could thrive by exploiting this economic cleavage.

However, the recent Italian election and the crisis over the Aquarius has demonstrated that the geographical distinction between the varieties of populism is no longer clear cut. The lack of an EU-wide strategy to deal with migration flows has meant that the Mediterranean countries have had to accommodate a majority of migrants and asylum seekers over the last three years. As a result, the exclusionary anti-immigrant brand of populism has spread to Italy as voters have lost patience after having been forced to be on the frontline of the migration crisis. Furthermore, a recent academic paper found that in Greece, support for the extreme anti-immigrant Golden Dawn party is causally linked to the arrival of new asylum seekers. The authors find that the vote share for the Golden Dawn increased the most in the Greek islands close to the Turkish border that experienced a sudden and large influx of immigrants as opposed to those islands further away. This recent spread of anti-immigrant populism in Southern Europe, largely as a consequence of the migration crisis, has rendered a pan-European solution even more difficult to achieve.


A migration-populist right feedback loop

While the numbers of refugees attempting to enter Europe has decreased since 2015, the recent incident with the Aquarius highlights that the issue is still salient and remains a potential flashpoint. In the short-term, political pushback against incorporating more migrants is likely to grow as a Europe-wide solution is increasingly unlikely. Austrian Chancellor, Sebastien Kurtz, has already called for an “axis of the willing” between Austria, Italy and Germany to limit the flows of asylum seekers. Meanwhile, Angela Merkel’s call for an EU-wide strategy to create a more equitable sharing of the migrant burden has left her increasingly isolated within her own governing coalition. A self-fulfilling dynamic has emerged: an unequal distribution of migration pressures has led to rising anti-immigrant attitudes in Southern Europe while attitudes in the north have continued to harden, deepening divisions among EU member states. These divisions mean that the crisis will continue to fester which can only benefit the populist right’s popularity, thereby increasing political uncertainty in the short-term.


Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Aman Navani

Aman Navani is a graduate student at the University of Oxford pursuing an MPhil in Comparative Politics. He holds a BA in Political Science and Economics from Columbia University. At Columbia, he founded a student-led international development organization called Nourish International that collaborates with NGO’s around the world to implement projects in the health and education sectors.