Across Europe there has been an increase in the use of referendums by governments on a number of issues. Most recently, last Sunday’s referendum in Hungary was on the EU measures for the relocation of people who qualify for international protection from Greece and Italy. The aim of these specific measures is to ease the pressures on Member States on the periphery that have been responding to the the increased flow of refugees arriving in Europe. A few months prior to the referendum in Hungary, the UK also held a referendum on its membership of the EU, and before that a referendum took place in the Netherlands on whether the EU and Ukraine should strengthen political and economic ties. In all three referendums, there is a reoccurring presence of an anti-immigrant sentiment that has influenced the rhetoric in the campaigns, and to an extent, the outcome of these referendums.
The referendum in Hungary was dominated by a campaign which consistently linked refugees with terrorism with the Hungarian Government claiming that the EU was wrong to introduce measures which called on Member States to take in more refugees. Despite the low turnout of voters for the referendum, it did reveal the extent of the anti-immigrant sentiment as well as the extent of how institutionalized it is, so much so that a government would call for a referendum to convince people to reject welcoming 1,294 refugees from Italy and Greece. Despite the fact that the referendum in the UK was on EU membership and not migration alone, we saw a campaign that that was dominated with images of the UK being flooded with immigrants and at breaking point as well as the threat of Turkey joining the EU.
Similarly the referendum that took place in the Netherlands early this year was not on migration yet the presence of the far-right and anti-immigrant leader Geert Wilders contributed in shaping the euro scepticism and consequently, the vote against EU- Ukrainian closer relations in the referendum. All of these examples point to the large presence and success of the anti-immigrant forces in a majority of European societies. They have managed to frame the narrative of referendums so it is seen as a chance to reject immigration and ‘take control of borders’.
The anti-immigrant sentiment that has been exacerbated in these campaigns draws attention to an increasingly hostile environment towards immigrants across Europe who are used as scapegoats for the majority of the challenges and problems in Member States. By fuelling the belief that there are too many immigrants and the EU is to blame for this problem, the rhetoric that is framed simply becomes an issue of putting a stop to the EU, which in turn puts a stop to immigration.
The increasingly anti-immigrant sentiment in the recent referendum campaigns that have taken place in Europe also raises the question of whether referendums are the most effective tool to promote political engagement or whether they are simply used as a tool by the far-right and populists to be manipulated for political gain. Questions should be asked about why governments pick and choose the topics they decide to hold referendums on; why are we not asked about military intervention, the significant increases in tuition fees or key cuts to services? It indicates a lack of political will to defend immigrants and stop the scapegoating of this group. The recent remarks from the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, and the UK Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to reduce foreign-born doctors and make the UK more self-sufficient with ‘British born’ doctors is another example of the extent that anti-immigrant sentiment is dominating the political dialogue. The anti-immigrant sentiment that is being allowed to thrive draws attention to the lack of commitment to defend immigrants. Another example of this sentiment can be seen in the recent agreement signed between the EU and Afghanistan whereby Afghanistan should accept an unlimited number of Afghan asylum-seekers that are deported from the EU.
Following the success of the anti-immigrant forces in shaping the political dialogue in referendums and consequently policies on migration, this has fuelled calls for more to take place. The apathetic feeling and anger towards the political system has been seized upon and has provided an opportunity for the far-right as well as anti-immigrant forces to justify enhancing the hostile environment towards immigrants across the EU. Looking ahead, there urgently needs to be a counter argument within the political dialogue in defence of immigration as well as more commitments to spread the positive case and contribution of immigration. It is important that we improve political engagement and referendums can help to achieve this. However, this should not be at the expense of increasing the hostility towards a particular group in society. Simply scapegoating a particular group does little to enable proper scrutiny and accountability of the issues and challenges faced in Member States.
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Anike Bello currently works as a policy advisor specializing in migration in EU politics. Born and raised in London, she enjoys travelling and has lived in Spain and Belgium. Her interests are in human rights, African history, writing as well as trying to become more of a polyglot. You can reach out to her on Twitter at @AnikeBello_ or follow her blog at aniketalks.tumblr.com.