June 4, 2024

Enforce Borders to Save Ukraine

Asylum seekers walk for their asylum interview appointment with US authorities at the El Chaparral crossing port in Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico. One third of illegal migrant interceptions on the US side of the border in 2023 were Mexicans according to the UN International Organization for Migration.
Asylum seekers walk for their asylum interview appointment with US authorities at the El Chaparral crossing port in Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico. One third of illegal migrant interceptions on the US side of the border in 2023 were Mexicans according to the UN International Organization for Migration.

The discussions leading up to the European Parliament and the US Presidential elections focus on how to contain the rise of far-right parties to prevent the erosion of the support for Ukraine within the EU and NATO. However, addressing the symptoms of far-right empowerment without its causes is unlikely to solve the problem. Support for Ukraine is indirectly linked to another very pertinent issue, namely that of irregular immigration.

Voters on both sides of the Atlantic are increasingly attracted to nationalists who promise more effective border control than what the established parties can deliver. Irregular immigration is becoming such a potent driver of the far-right rise that it can no longer be ignored in the making of western foreign policy. The reality is that it is getting increasingly difficult to maintain consensus on Ukraine and cohesion within the EU and NATO when electorates cast their votes for the far-right parties because they believe immigration has gotten out of control. Western leaders’ failure to control their nations’ borders may be the single most empowering force behind the far-right movements.

The Last Straw

In the United States, voters are attracted to Donald Trump in great part because they see him as the only credible choice to contain the yearly multi-million illegal crossings on the southern border. American voters rank immigration as the most important problem facing their country. During his first term, Trump significantly reduced irregular migration into the United States. With his promise to initiate large-scale deportation of illegal immigrants, he is presenting himself as a clear alternative to incumbent President Joe Biden as unwilling to or incapable of enforcing the existing migration laws. Trump’s message resonates successfully with the American electorate and may secure him a second term in office.

Trump carries with him not only a promise to control migration but also more radical ideas to revise the United States’ international commitments since the end of World War II. As President, he treated the EU as a trade foe of the United States and withdrew from parts of the United Nations. Maintaining his anti-globalist agenda, Trump remains ambiguous about the US commitment to NATO and recently encouraged Russia to do “whatever the hell” it wants against under-spending Allies. He seems bent on entering office much more prepared and ruthless than during his first term when the durable impact on US foreign policy was questionable.

It is a cause for worry that Trump, for several months, leveraged his influence within the Republican Party in the US Congress to block arms deliveries to Ukraine while Russia was gaining the upper hand on the battlefield. The delay in US arms deliveries (and the Europeans’ insufficient compensation) may be a serious contributing factor to Russia’s ability to make breakthroughs at the frontline in the coming months. Irregular immigration could be the last straw that gives Trump a second term in the White House, and Ukraine may be paying the price with the uncertainty about continued arms supplies from the United States.

The Great Scepticism

Across Europe, irregular immigration approaching the levels of the 2015-16 crisis fuels an unprecedented rise of far-right parties similar to the tendency on the other side of the Atlantic. The AfD (Alternative for Germany), which is running with a marked anti-immigration message, is polling at around 20 percent of the vote, including strong support among young voters. The AfD is in some parts an illiberal and in large parts a Russia-friendly party. Germany is the second-biggest supporter of Ukraine in military aid after the United States; further AfD empowerment may undermine its support.

In France, the National Rally is leading the polls at about 30 percent, and Marine Le Pen currently seems to be the favourite candidate leading up to the presidential elections in 2027. The National Rally is similarly running on an anti-immigration agenda and nourishes great scepticism toward the EU and NATO. Le Pen previously befriended Russian President Vladimir Putin and took a controversial loan from Russia; although Russia’s full-scale invasion has made the relationship more difficult, the National Rally abstains from decisions to support Ukraine and rejects its future membership in both the EU and NATO.

In the Netherlands, the Freedom Party under the leadership of Geert Wilders secured an astonishing 23.5 percent of the votes in the 2023 parliamentary election. Running on a strong anti-immigration (particularly anti-Moslem) platform, Wilders is also known for his controversial stance on Russia and opposition to military deliveries to and EU membership for Ukraine. In Belgium, the anti-immigration Flemish Interest party, which is critical of economic sanctions and Belgian military aid to Ukraine, is leading the polls at 25 percent ahead of the national elections in June. In Austria, the Freedom Party, which has said it is against EU support and membership for Ukraine, as well as sanctions against Russia, is leading the polls at around 30 percent with elections upcoming in the autumn. In Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland, opposition to migrants, and particularly the mandatory redistribution of asylum seekers through the EU, strengthened the hold on power of illiberal and/or Russia-friendly governments.

Tough Choices Ahead

Irregular migration has become such an important driver of the far-right parties and leaders that it leaves the western countries at a critical juncture. If they fail to bring about a public perception of control, they will experience further far-right empowerment that erodes their commitment to the EU, NATO, and Ukraine. Most of the rising political far-right do not seek only stronger border control but also a normalisation of relations with Russia and a weakened EU. It should be remembered that concerns about immigration were an essential factor also in the Brexit vote in 2016.

The strategy of the political establishments (including most experts) to contain the political far right, or to shame them into marginalisation, does not seem to bring stability back to the western political systems. Voters apparently see objective reasons related to migration that make them turn to anti-establishment alternatives in such high numbers. This is the main cause that needs to be addressed. Established political parties seeking to maintain the basic consensus on continued support for Ukraine (and to remain in power themselves) should calibrate immigration to what their populations are willing to stomach.

Tough policy choices lie ahead in adapting to a reality with ever-growing demands to migrate to the more prosperous and safer western countries. The population growth south of Mexico, in the Middle East, and in Africa, as well as continued hardship in these places, suggests the challenge will remain for at least a generation. Western countries need to reconcile their sovereign right to control who enters their territories with the humanitarian concerns that remain one of their essential values. The key challenge is how to help refugees in real need of protection while deterring irregular migrants.

The common goal

The solution is not, in the first place, stricter immigration and asylum laws but rather consistent enforcement of existing ones. The aim should be to reduce the ‘pull factor’ for irregular migrants to try their luck. Potential migrants must be made to believe that the chance of crossing borders illegally is low while the chance of deportation high. Migration policy starts to lose meaning without effective returns, a problem the United States and the EU have struggled with for decades, and which they are now trying to solve through expedited procedures and deals with third countries for repatriation or the outsourcing of asylum applications. Moreover, western countries must provide sufficient guarantees that asylum is temporary, linked to the core requirement for protection, and not a gateway for the eventual right to settle down permanently, which is what the electorates reject.

Western reconciliation and recommitment to the EU, NATO, and Ukraine is possible, provided that the current age of mass migration is not allowed to nourish political ecosystems that pits ‘the people’ against ‘the elite.’ Now, as during the Cold War, western societies are more vulnerable to Russian influence campaigns to weaken their capacity for collective action. Reducing irregular migration should be the common goal that most people can agree on, and which could prevent further far-right empowerment that would paralyse western resolve to save Ukraine from Russian aggression. Nowhere is it more urgent than in the United States, whose military aid is indispensable for Ukraine’s ability to defend against expected renewed Russian offensives in the summer.

This article was written for ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

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