The new year has started with a lot of political turmoil driven by a disintegration of stability in longstanding democracies – government shutdown in the US, defeat of a Brexit plan in the UK, week after week of the “Gilets Jaunes” in France, plus the vulnerability to terrorist attacks in so many places around the world (Afghanistan, Syria, Colombia, Kenya). One could go on and on about the upsurge in populism as well as the fragility of democracies generally. But none of this is new. It is just that they all seem to have an underlying and rather unsettled concern about or even a direct role in immigration flows. This might not be the only factor, but it is pretty amazing that it continues to appear in one way or another as a factor in almost all of these instances of political turmoil. Certainly, the media coverage of these tumultuous events has frequently dwelt on the anti-immigrant platforms of radical groups and their growing electoral strength. So what can be the response to this turmoil?
For starters, there is the Macron strategy of a “national dialogue” in France, but this is only the French version of the unfolding challenge of immigration in the world. It is also witnessing a changing dynamic in the UK over Brexit and in the US over the latest impasse over a “wall”. The turmoil in these different settings would suggest lively debates but also a momentum eventually for collaboration and consensus-building. Even as one complains about the manipulation of social media to provoke and exacerbate instability, it is essential to persist with a commitment to open and inclusive dialogue.- adapted to the new technologies. But it is also essential to implement the complexities of give-and-take, of searching for common ground without caving in to simplistic yes-or-no solutions.
The Turmoil in France
The inclusion of this issue of immigration in the response to the Gilets Jaunes has encountered criticism from the media, to be sure. After all, it has not been a priority in and of itself from the Gilets Jaunes, and skeptics are suggesting that President Macron has only thrown it into the mix of this “national dialogue” in order to divert attention from the main issues of domestic income redistribution and declining purchasing power that the Gilets Jaunes have been protesting about.
In my previous commentary on the impact of the Gilets Jaunes on the migration debate in France, I had reported the latest news, announced by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on 13 December that the issue of immigration had been removed from the oncoming national dialogue. Well, when President Emmanuel Macron gave his speech in response to the Gilets Jaunes on 10 December, he had indeed mentioned it as a supplement to the proposed debate on the theme of democracy and citizenship, but it was not entirely surprising that the Prime Minister had subsequently announced that it was not to be included. After all, it was not an issue that the Gilets Jaunes themselves had been mobilized to address, and everyone did associate the issue with the Front National, or, as it has changed its name, the National Rally.
But then, when President Macron sent out his letter on 13 January 2019 to describe the content and process of the national dialogue that he had announced in his 10 December speech, there it was BACK in the programme. One can certainly surmise from this “in-or-out” messaging there had to have been a lively internal debate about whether or not to include this issue in the national dialogue. The fact that it was included in the 13 January letter has been reported as a “surprise”, but I would argue that it was not really a surprise. Rather, I would describe it as a deliberate but controversial decision about the very nature and purpose of this very unusual national dialogue.
On the other hand, and this has been noted by at least some of the other commentators, it may well be that President Macron has included this issue in order to mobilize a base of support for a pro-immigration stance in the forthcoming elections for the European Parliament. With the Le Pen faction within France putting forward its own anti-immigration list of candidates for the European Parliament in May, this may well be the only way to mobilize a stronger positioning of alternative lists embracing a pro-immigration stance.
So what is this national dialogue? It is, first and foremost, the second phase of the Macron Government’s response to the Gilets Jaunes movement. The first phase was the set of immediate modifications (stopping fuel tax increases, raising minimum wage and pension benefits for low income people, etc.) costing some 10 billion Euros to respond to the concerns raised by the Gilets Jaunes. These accommodations were featured in his 10 December speech and were the focus of an accelerated legislative process before Christmas. The second phase, as also announced by President Macron in his 10 December address, was to launch a three-month national dialogue – open-ended and to be implemented as a neutral forum but structured around four main themes – that would start on 15 January 2019. The idea here is that there would be a “neutral” forum for public input into what matters for taxes, public services, climate change and democracy to make France a better place for all citizens.
Although it is not without controversy (since most of the Gilets Jaunes seem to be unwilling to engage in an actual dialogue with President Macron, regardless of the neutrality of the forum), the machinery has been put in place for a three-month process. While it is not intended to be a direct dialogue with the Gilets Jaunes, one can’t ignore the fact that it was only launched because of their protesting. It includes major sessions between President Macron and large clusters of mayors brought together at a regional level, hundreds of locally organized events, Internet surveys and other events specifically set up for random citizens to be drawn into the process. The 13 January letter identified over 30 questions that President Macron proposes to be addressed on the four main themes, but he also emphasized that the process needed to be open to any other issue that the French people would want to raise.
Implications for French Leadership
My interest in this national dialogue is mostly oriented to looking at its implications for French leadership outside of France – primarily at the EU level but also globally. Of course, there are sympathies for the plight and continuing tenacity of the Gilet Jaunes (now past its TENTH weekly Saturday of protests), but my priority is to appreciate and understand the impact of this domestic turmoil and the unfolding of a national dialogue to respond to this turmoil – beyond France.
The question here is how this national dialogue in France might benefit the opening up of EU and global opportunities for reforms that are needed for globally inclusive welfare. When the US is overwhelmed by a flawed head of state, when the UK is in impasse on Brexit, and when the other members of the European Union are distracted or overwhelmed by populist sentiments in their own national platforms (even including Germany), the hope remains that President Macron’s strategy on the national dialogue will mobilize support for inclusive and enlightened policies, especially on the issue of immigration.
In that context, my personal view on the merits of President Macron’s strategy to include immigration questions in this national debate has changed. In December, I saw it as a risky maneuver. As I wrote then, it opens up the potential for anti-immigration rhetoric to dominate the dialogue and for any pro-referendum debate to be overwhelmed with anti-integrationist issues, much as they have arisen in nearby Switzerland – and, for that matter, in the UK on the Brexit referendum. And sure enough, the media recently did give a lot of attention to a mayor at one of these large-scale dialogues between mayors and President Macron who protested the French policy of granting generous social benefits to migrants – even making some of them better off than French citizens! Oh really? Since then, however, I have come around to the idea that a risky maneuver is indeed what is needed to move the immigration debate into a constructive search for equitable, consensus-driven solutions. As illustrated, furthermore, by how the media described this mayor’s anti-immigrant intervention – as something that the rest of the audience actually “booed”.
The Brexit Debacle
Watching the way that the House of Commons debated and voted on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit Plan was truly entertaining – and widely covered through live broadcasts. The Speaker of the House of Commons, a position that is quite different from the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, played well into the image of a boisterous and raucous parliamentary tradition that is so typically British! The vote on 15 January 2019 against the Prime Minister was an overwhelming 632 to 202 – a historic record, it seems – but then the next day she managed to survive a vote of confidence (323 to 304). More turmoil is expected in the lead-up to the current deadline for the UK’s departure from the EU on 29 March 2019, but one can sympathize with the optimists that a “hard Brexit” is not likely. This is, after all, a democracy. So why not be optimistic?
The development of a plan for departure of the UK from the European Union has been under way for well over two years, triggered by the surprise outcome of a referendum in 2016 in favour of an exit. This in itself is good reason to oppose the use of referendums as a tool for participatory democracy, given that the electorate was indeed very divided. An “either-or” vote on issues like this don’t contribute to consensus, especially when the actual options are more complicated than a yes or no on a particular path. For that reason, and since many of the complications for a British exit from the EU have only become apparent since the referendum was held, it is much better for drastic actions like this one to be worked out in a process of give-and-take, the essence of representative democracy.
Some opponents of the original vote want to see a second referendum. Some actually argue that the first referendum is a binding expression of the popular will and that ignoring it is itself an anti-democratic stance. I find this to be easily dismissed, given the changing circumstances since the vote and the need to develop a more diversified set of options. One has to wonder how a second referendum can be phrased to accommodate the complexities of the situation. In any case, it seems that the UK Parliament does not yet have a majority in favour of doing this. Some MPs, it seems, are still in favour of leaving the EU on 29 March no matter what the terms. Others want to have a new election for the Parliament itself, while others would simply like to see a revised Brexit plan and delay the actual date of departure past 29 March.
While it may well be that the path ultimately chosen will be a second referendum, I remain skeptical of its potential to facilitate a solution that has to take into account so many different variables. To return once again to the immigration question, this seems to be an issue that really needs a European-wide solution (maybe even a global one, but let’s stick here with the European context). The negative vote in 2016 was apparently influenced in large part by the sudden and substantial migration of EAST EUROPEANS into the UK. The current migration debate within the EU has to do with the sudden influx of migrants from OUTSIDE the EU that happened in 2015 and 2016, but it is clear that lots of different kinds of human movements across borders can be disruptive.
In fact, one of the side effects of the public reaction to the current impasse on Brexit is to look for blame at the EU level. Yes, the UK Prime Minister has blundered in many ways, but it now seems to be popular to put some of the blame on the EU as well. Fair enough. The EU is bureaucratically heavy and rigid; the EU has failed to adapt its integrationist mission beyond the comparably well developed West European democracies to a larger mix of old and new Europeans; the Franco-German cabal is no longer in control, and so forth. One can appreciate all of these criticisms, and I am confident that criticisms will increase in the coming months. Oddly enough, I am hopeful that the campaigns for the European Parliament are likely to be invigorated by these criticisms. One can even hope that the Brexit issue will get folded into that electoral setting. Maybe this will lead to a broadened debate on migratory policies both within the EU and external to the EU.
The American Shutdown over a “Wall”
Meanwhile, there is that crazy government shut-down of record proportions under the puerile obstructionism of a faulty US President. Over a wall! What mockery we have seen, at least from those of us from afar who can laugh at the mess. So here is another ongoing but also dramatically changing tumult over human migratory patterns. The scandalous behaviour of using discontent about migratory trends to aggravate the situation rather than to look for new adaptations is maybe symptomatic of a democracy gone haywire. The shift from a Mexican male inflow to a Central American family inflow does merit policy adjustments, but there has long been a schizophrenic response to the 11 million irregular migrants in the US. One can only hope here that 2020 will open up a better dynamic, even as one can also hope that the May 2019 EU parliamentary elections will produce a better dynamic here in Europe.
Globally, too, there are demographic changes evident in human migration that need to be addressed. Climate change is certainly having its effect on involuntary movements, just as political repression has inspired legal frameworks for legitimate refugees who seek asylum for a genuine escape from death and unmerited misery and not just a search for a better life. But then, why not also accommodate that search for a better life? The key, of course, is to make this manageable for both recipient and sending countries – and transit countries, too.
The two global compacts that were adopted for migration and for refugees at the United Nations in 2018 are the starting framework for a lively debate everywhere. It is too bad that the anti-migrant groups, especially here in Europe, have been able to manipulate social media to distort the issues, but that only suggests that freedom of expression and freedom of debate are what all of us need to pursue. And this can indeed be done through the use of social media, as long as one also introduces a regulatory framework to ensure accountability and an environment conducive to compromise, at the same time as one ensures freedom to protest. Thanks to the strategy of President Macron to risk a debate on this issue in the coming months – and to Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the US, one might be inspired to speak out more aggressively on the need for a balance of interests.