European Union Policy Studies

Party Politics and the Refugee Crisis - Europe's Bad image

Source: Reuters
(Photo: Reuters)

Europe is facing one of the biggest refugee crises since WWII. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM)[1], in the first ten months of 2015 more than 700,000 people will have landed in Europe. Eurostat[2]  reports that more than 500,000 of the new arrivals are claiming asylum. Despite these enormous numbers, the vast majority of Syrian refugees still remain in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. The refugee plight has revealed an even more serious political crisis[3] for Europe, which is a continuation and/or a consequence of the EU’s deep economic and financial crises. Economic crisis management puts national interests at the center of the decision making process. This has deepened the divisions and animosity among the member states, causing a spillover of political decisions that goes against EU democratic and humanitarian values. There are three very important political factors that influence the lack of capacity and willingness to deal with the consequences of the refugee crisis. The first factor is the lack of a strong European leadership to move the processes forward. The second is the negative public discourse against migrants and the growth of Euroskeptic anti-immigration parties. The third is the EU’s loss of momentum and the lack of the EU’s capacity to act as a normative power[4] (Sjursen, 2006) among the member states and internationally.

Putting National Interests First

The inability of the EU to set an efficient and successful agenda for tacking the influx of migrants and refugees has revealed the weakness of EU leadership. For example, the Mare Nostrum operation was cut as a result because the EU was unwilling to keep it financed. This led to two major migrant shipwreck disasters that, combined, killed more than 1,000 people within one week in April. Additionally, the European Commission's ten-point plan to tackle the crisis has proven too modest an approach to dealing with the consequences of the crisis. It failed to reach an agreement among the member states as a significant amount of countries, primarily Visegrad countries (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia), would reject any agreement that includes mandatory migrant quotas. Even countries such as Finland and Denmark have taken a more cautious attitude toward accepting refugees. Denmark, with the conservative liberal government supported by the Danish People’s Party (among others), has also changed the course and even closed the E45 Motorway to prevent illegal migration. Due to limited powers in this area, the European Commission has not been able to lead the process. Despite leading by example, Germany could not work out a compromise among member states. Furthermore, the number of refugees agreed for allocation is far below the real number of refugees the EU is facing, and the dynamics of the relocation are slow. In general, deep divisions within the Union and the national interests of the member states have caused a supranational management crisis.

Party politics, public opinion and Eurosceptic anti-immigration discourse

The decision making of the national governments is heavily influenced by public opinion on a domestic level with a trend towards anti-migrant and islamophobic discourse. According to Eurobarometer 2015[5], the immigration of people from outside the EU evokes a positive feeling for just above a third of Europeans (34%) and a negative feeling for 56% of them. Sweden stands out as being the only country where a large majority of the population takes a positive view of the immigration of people from outside the EU, while a negative feeling predominates elsewhere, most strikingly in the Czech Republic (81%), Latvia (78%) and Greece (78%)[6]. The growth of Eurosceptic parties is a result of the economic and financial crises. Such parties play a role in shaping the political discourse by leading center-right parties to adopt more extreme positions. Even in the positive cases of dealing with the refugee crisis, such as Sweden under the Social Democratic government, the far-right anti-immigration Swedish Democrats (SD) are receiving increased support, toppling the polls in the summer of 2015 according to YouGov public opinion polls. Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing resistance by the CSU party and numerous party officials from CDU while getting support from the coalition partner SPD.

No more EU as a “normative power”?

The normative power of the EU as a promoter of democratic values has been considered as one of its strengths in achieving prosperity both domestically and internationally. Through conditionality, the EU was effective against Mečiar’s Slovakia in 1999 when it slowed down the pace of negotiations for Slovakian membership as a result of the autocratic style of administration, lack of respect for democracy, misuse of state media for propaganda, and corruption. It was particularly effective when, in 2000, the heads of government of the other fourteen EU members decided to cease cooperation with the Austrian government as a result of the coalition agreement that included the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). However, these kinds of actions were missing when the Hungarian government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, recently built a fence on the border with Serbia. There are numerous examples of discriminatory and islamophobic behavior being unsanctioned. They all show that the EU missed the moment to react when human and democratic values inside the Union. The EU’s failure to sanction violations of core values it legitimizes the existence of normatively questionable practices.

In conclusion, the refugee crisis hit the EU at a time when the Union had not fully recovered from the financial crisis. The rising Euroskeptic and anti-immigration discourse has captured the party systems on a national level and is reflected in negative decision-making processes in regards to the refugee crisis. This behavior by the member states in their national interest sends a powerful message against the universal humanitarian values that are the core of the European Union. Further action and decisive policy is required in order for the EU to be able to respond to this humanitarian disaster.

Written by Trajche Panov, EUPS Faculty Members



[3] Hernández, Enrique, and Hanspeter Kriesi. 2015. "The Electoral Consequences of the Financial and Economic Crisis in Europe."

[4] Sjursen, Helene (2006) The EU as a ‘normative’ power: how can this be? Journal of European Public Policy, Volume 13, Issue 2, 2006, Special Issue: What Kind of Power? European Foreign Policy in Perspective



Published: Sunday, November 1, 2015

Last Updated: Friday, January 19, 2018

Back to Top

Related Articles