What on earth is happening to Europe - a region which used to liken itself to a bastion of enlightenment? The narrative of the far right in Europe has become so potent that its lobbying is destabilising coalition governments, as seen this week when the right tried to derail the adoption of the UN Global Compact for Migration.
Foot soldiers of the alt-right movement globally were so mobilised on this issue that social media was inundated with vitriol against a multilateral agreement, the sole purpose of which was to ensure that the human rights of migrants are respected and that migration is managed in a safe and orderly way.
It is horrifying how easily conservative forces were mobilised against a Global Compact on Migration which had enjoyed universal consensus just a year ago, before US President Donald Trump decided to pull out. The Trump administration and its admirers in Europe fanned the flames of paranoia, trying to suggest that its adoption would lead to a fresh wave of migrants if the very phenomenon of migration was portrayed as a positive process.
The far-right group in Germany known as the Alternative for Germany claimed that the Global Compact was really a hidden resettlement plan for economic migrants, using the issue as a rallying cry against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government which threw its support behind it.
In Austria, the extreme right-wing Austrian Freedom Party championed the anti-GCM battle cry, while the political assessment of the government had been to support it. The 32-year-old Austrian Chancellor being in a political alliance with the Austrian Freedom Party felt compelled to renounce the GCM in October, ensuring the stability of his governing coalition. Austria’s renunciation was particularly significant given that Austria is holding the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU, which influenced the public debate in Europe.
As for Belgium, the government was in danger of collapse over the GCM as the far right Belgian movement the New Flemish Alliance also threatened to leave the governing coalition if the government supported the adoption of the GCM in Marrakech. In the end, the New Flemish Alliance withdrew from the governing coalition leaving a minority government in place.
In Italy, the extreme right-wing party Fratelli D’Italia put the anti-GCM issue on the agenda, ultimately forcing the government to withdraw.
Even Switzerland was caught in a similar predicament with the largest party in parliament – the right-wing populist nationalist Swiss Peoples’ Party – condemning outright the GCM. Switzerland had been one of the coordinators of the Global Compact and the Swiss President had said the government would adopt it, but it ultimately capitulated to right-wing pressure. Switzerland withdrew at the last minute saying its parliament needed to vote on the issue and approve the country’s adoption. This led to stinging rebukes from an array of countries which had fought hard for the realisation of the Compact after a tough 18 months of negotiations.
The Eastern European countries, many of which are already governed by right-wing populist governments were firmly against the GCM with Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Latvia and Estonia in opposition. Hungary tried to argue that applying a human rights perspective to border control measures was a dangerous approach, as is perceives migrants as a threat.
But while Europe may be captured by the narrow-mindedness of anti-immigrant nativism, which rejects multilateralism and international institutions, this was not the overall perspective of the UN body politic. 150 out of 193 UN member states were represented at the Marrakech Conference which adopted the GCM this week at either Head of State or senior officials level.
What the overwhelming number of UN member states support is the concept of human security, just as much for migrants as the rest of humanity. By adopting the Global Compact UN member states were declaring their intent to protect the human rights of migrants, address the root causes of migration such as climate change, conflict and poverty, and work towards better governance of migration. For all the hyperbole of the political right-wing forces, the truth is that the GCM is a non-legally binding cooperative framework that builds on previous commitments. While it advocates for the protection of migrants and the provision of services such as health care when necessary, there is no obligation on member states to do so.
The notion that the UN would be able to decide who is let into countries, as the leader of the Canadian conservative party Andrew Scheer tried to suggest, is nothing more than a bold-faced lie. The GCM in no way affects the sovereignty of states, but what it does try to do is to push back the darkness for migrants, 3 300 of whom died trying to reach their destination this year alone.