LONDON: A generation of political consultants was raised on the irritating slogan “it’s the economy, stupid”. But immigration now rivals economics as the driving force in western politics.
In economic terms, it makes sense for rich, ageing countries like the UK and the US to draw in new workers and citizens from poorer, younger neighbouring countries.
But the election of Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit were both fuelled by fears of uncontrolled migration, with Mr Trump promising to "build the wall" along the Mexican border, and the Brexiters vowing to "take back control" of borders from the European Union.
This is clearly not just an Anglo-American phenomenon.
IMMIGRATION FEARS DRIVE POPULISM
In Germany, the decline in Angela Merkel’s political fortunes was closely tied to the chancellor’s decision to admit more than one million refugees and migrants into Germany in 2015.
In Hungary, Viktor Orban, the face of central European populism, has just won re-election after a campaign based on whipping up fears about immigration. Austria’s anti-migrant Freedom Party is now in government and Italy’s anti-migrant League is well placed to follow suit.
In France, the National Front made it to the final round of the presidential election. And in Sweden, the far-right Sweden Democrats are polling at around 20 per cent, ahead of elections in September.
In Italy, the League’s rise has been driven by the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean on to Italian shores.
Over the past four years, some 600,000 would-be migrants have arrived in a country of just over 60 million people.
That flow has been curtailed a little over the past year. But, in the coming decades, the pressures are only likely to increase because of the demographic and economic pressures in Africa.
The largest source of would-be migrants making the perilous sea crossing into Italy is Nigeria — a country whose population has risen from 45 million in 1960 to 187 million today and is projected to hit 410 million by 2050. The European Commission has projected that the population of Nigeria alone could be bigger than that of the whole EU27 (European Union without the UK) by 2060.
Overall, the population of Africa is expected to increase by around one billion people over the next 30 years. By contrast, without immigration, the population of the EU would shrink markedly — and it is also ageing.
ANTI-MIGRANT MOVEMENTS ARE CONNECTED
The demographic pressures are not quite as pronounced in the Americas. But the poverty and violence that is prompting many Central Americans to attempt the hazardous journey to the US will not be easily eradicated.
As migratory pressures build over the next decades, they will provide ample ammunition for politicians like Mr Trump and Orban, who promise western voters that they can keep the incomers out.
Anti-migrant movements on either side of the Atlantic are already connected.
Steve Bannon, Mr Trump’s chief political strategist in the 2016 election, was close to the Brexit campaign and has hailed Mr Orban as a “hero”. Mr Bannon was also in Italy for the Italian election to hail the League’s success.
What Mr Bannon, Mr Orban and Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League, have in common is the belief that they are fighting to save “western civilisation” from being overwhelmed by uncontrolled immigration — particularly from the Muslim world.
Liberals dismiss these ideas as racist scaremongering. But they clearly resonate with large numbers of voters.
However, the political forces on western politicians do not act in just one direction. Human-rights groups and lawyers will continue to pressure western governments to treat migrants decently and to respect international law.
Politicians who go too far in their efforts to control immigration can be forced from office — as Britain’s former home secretary Amber Rudd discovered this month.
The same voters can harbour contrary instincts: Mixing hostility to immigrants in the abstract with a compassionate reaction to the stories of individuals.
In their efforts to navigate these cross-currents of public opinion, the “solution” that many politicians are drifting towards is to attempt to keep migrants away — while shielding voters from the distressing details.
Even a politician with clear liberal instincts like Ms Merkel has decided that she cannot risk another uncontrolled influx of migrants. Her government has tried to bottle up would-be migrants, well away from German borders.
There are over three million Syrian refugees inside Turkey — but they are being kept there, after a deal between the Turkish and German governments.
Meanwhile, Turkey itself has sealed its border with Syria. As a result, there are thought to be some one million internally displaced people, along with another 1.5 million residents, walled up inside Syria near the Turkish border.
These people are trapped in a war zone and will be in considerable danger as the Syrian army moves to retake Idlib province in the coming months.
These are the unpleasant choices that western politicians are making, as they respond to the political demands to keep migration down. And these are unlikely just to be short-term expedients.
Population trends suggest that migration will continue to drive western politics over the next generation. Unless centrist politicians in the US and Europe can come up with new ways of dealing with the issue, the movement towards rightwing populism is likely to accelerate.
© 2018 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. Please do not copy and paste FT articles and redistribute by email or post to the web.