Clinton Wants Europe to Get Tough on Migration. It Already Has.
Posted November 23, 2018 6:01 p.m. EST
ROME — When Hillary Clinton warned in an interview this week that Europe’s centrist leadership needed to “get a handle” on migration, or risk further fanning the flames of populism, some wondered where she had been the last few years.
“We already did this,” said Italy’s former center-left interior minister, Marco Minniti, when asked about the comments. “She is talking about another era.”
Unauthorized migration to Europe has already fallen by around 90 percent since the height of the Continent’s refugee crisis in 2015, when more than 1 million asylum-seekers, mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, crossed into Greece and Italy. That precipitous drop is due in large part to Europe’s centrist leadership.
On Friday, facing some backlash for her remarks, Clinton said in a series of tweets that it was precisely a centrist approach she was advocating.
“I have always been and remain a staunch advocate of comprehensive immigration reform that’s true to our values and treats every person with dignity,” she wrote.
She criticized President Donald Trump’s detention of immigrant children at the southern border of the United States, and she added: “On both sides of the Atlantic, we need reform. Not open borders, but immigration laws enforced with fairness and respect for human rights.”
Right-wing populists on both sides of the Atlantic continue to use the immigration issue — and to misrepresent it — hoping to deepen their political inroads. With elections for the European Parliament looming next May, the lingering fears about migration on the Continent are likely to be exploited all the more, analysts warn.
“The story populists sell is very loosely related to facts,” said Gerald Knaus, a migration expert who is the founding chairman of the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based research group.
While Europe’s mainstream leadership is perceived in many quarters to have been lax on migration, it has in fact quietly outsourced border management to countries with shady human rights records, curbing migration flows.
As early as November 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was spearheading efforts to persuade the autocratic Turkish government to do more to stem migration from Turkey toward Greece, then the main gateway to Europe. By March 2016, a deal had been reached that slashed migration flows almost overnight.
In July 2017, Minniti himself cut flows to Italy by 70 percent by negotiating with the Libyan militias that control the migration business in the southern Mediterranean. And it was the center-left Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s chief diplomat, who led efforts throughout this period to stop migration flows through Saharan countries, by forging contested deals with Sudan and Niger.
Behind the scenes, the Obama administration encouraged Europe’s hard-line approach, in meetings with Merkel and her counterpart in Rome, Matteo Renzi, Italy’s prime minister at the time.
After Merkel initially extended a warm welcome to the newcomers, President Barack Obama told her in late 2015 that if she didn’t take a tougher, but necessary, stance, she and the EU would be through.
“Angela, you’ve got to get real or it’s over,” Obama said, according to a person with knowledge of the conversation, who added that Merkel responded, “Barack, I can’t believe I’m agreeing with you.”
In October 2016, Obama had a similar message for Renzi, who had become a liberal model in Europe for his humanitarian approach to migrants.
During a meeting at the White House in October 2016, Obama told him “you must put a limit,” on the numbers he took in, according to a person who was present at the meeting.
A spokesman for Obama declined to comment.
Yet in practice, Merkel and Renzi and their centrist counterparts needed little encouragement.
If anything, Minniti and other people with knowledge of meetings between Obama and European leaders at the height of the migrant crisis said the United States was late in understanding the enormous political catalyst that mass migration from Libya posed to Europe.
Renzi, for example, had constantly appealed to Obama and other leaders to pay more attention to Libya as a potential launching point for migrants. But he was ignored.
“Back then,” Minniti said, “in Europe and the United States there was an underestimation of the problem.”
Starting in 2017, Italy put in place a strategy that acknowledged a large nation with an enormous coastline could not eliminate migration, but govern it.
The Italian government did so by combating human traffickers, striking deals with powerful militias in Libya, creating humanitarian corridors for asylum-seekers and offering financial incentives to economic migrants to return home.
Given this context, Clinton’s comments are “a bit surprising,” said Matteo Villa, a migration specialist at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, a Rome-based research group. “Europe has already got tough.”
But centrist leaders have failed to communicate the effectiveness of their approach. Minniti said the challenge facing the left was to take credit for their achievements.
But that is easier said than done. Politicians still risk appearing both too weak for the far-right and, conversely, too hard-line for those on the left who are horrified by their leaders’ lack of support for migrants trapped in dangerous conditions in Libya and in Greece.
“The absence of clear and credible policies on the part of centrists — policies that publics can understand and that combine control and empathy for people in need of protection — makes the job of demagogues too easy,” Knaus said.
Yet hard-line migration policy and rhetoric in Europe has so far had a mixed impact at the ballot box. Recent Continentwide polling suggests concern about immigration among Europeans has fallen back to pre-crisis levels.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has partly maintained his popularity by successfully creating the impression that his party alone can defend Hungarians from the threat of migration — even as migration to his country has been reduced to a relative trickle.
Conversely in Italy, Minniti’s effective countermigration measures were not enough to save his center-left party from losing office in a general election earlier this year.
“We arrived too late,” Minniti said.
By the time of elections last March, populist parties had been able to sustain the impression of an ongoing crisis, despite the marked fall in arrivals.
Minniti has been replaced in the interior ministry by the far-right Matteo Salvini, who has consistently made headlines for obstructing the work of charity rescue ships in the Mediterranean, but whose stated goal of ending migration to Italy had already been largely accomplished by the time Minniti left office.
In Germany, migration has had a similarly mixed effect on electoral results.
Frustration with Merkel’s perceived generosity to migrants initially helped drive support for the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Yet when Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party tacked to the right on migration in two local elections this fall, the center-right party ended up losing more votes as a result to the pro-refugee Green Party than to the AfD. And in Berlin, polling data released this week suggest that the Greens are now the capital’s most popular party.
In Greece and Spain, the two European countries currently facing the highest migration flows, far-right parties are polling below 10 percent.
Yet in Poland, which was almost untouched by the migration flows of 2015, a far-right party won office two years ago by capitalizing on a different set of anxieties.
Against this complex backdrop, Clinton’s comments have not attracted the same interest in Europe as they have in America.
Few politicians of any stripe reacted to Clinton’s remarks with much vigor, even in Hungary where the government has historically leapt upon similar statements from centrist figures as a vindication of their policies.
“It doesn’t make much difference,” said Gyorgy Schopflin, a member of the European Parliament from Orban’s Fidesz party, in a telephone interview. “Whether her conversion is sincere or tactical, I don’t know. I’m skeptical.”