Stan Grant: Immigration is rewriting politics across the West

Stan Grant: Immigration is rewriting politics across the West

Stan Grant: Immigration is rewriting politics across the West

Updated 6 February 2018, 14:00 AEDT

Immigration is the new political battlefield; it is violent and it is overturning the established political order, shifting Western politics to the right, writes Stan Grant.

Immigration is the new political battlefield; it is violent and it is overturning the established political order.

The weekend attack in Italy, where a gunman shot a group of African immigrants is another reminder how flammable this crisis has become.

Political commentator and journalist Fareed Zakaria says it is part of the blowback to globalisation and open borders.

Couple that with economic stasis and people are feeling marooned.

Writing in the journal Foreign Affairs, Zakaria says politics is mobilising around culture and values. There is an older generation who view immigration as an assault on their civilisation.

Open borders have already cost them their livelihoods with free trade shipping jobs overseas; now it feels like open borders are stealing their country.

Politics shifts to the right

This anger is being felt at the ballot box. Two leaders tell the story: Angela Merkel and Viktor Orban.

Ms Merkel has paid a big price for her willkommenskultur — a culture of welcoming.

Her decision to open the country to immigrants fleeing war and political turbulence in the Middle East has left her weakened.

Since the general elections four months ago she has failed to form a coalition.

Disaffection opened the door for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AFD) party, which is now the third-largest political party in the country.

Recent surveys show that Ms Merkel's support has plummeted, polls show half the country want her to resign.

Contrast that with Hungary's Prime Minister, Mr Orban.

His hard-line border control has strengthened his grip on power.

Elections are looming and he could win a constitutional majority with more than 50 per cent of the vote.

In 2015 as thousands of migrants lined the Hungarian border, Mr Orban declared a state of crisis: he unleashed a crackdown on anyone seeking to cross; toughening laws, increasing penalties including jail time and empowering police.

Mr Orban has tapped into what increasing numbers of Europeans see as an existential threat: hordes of immigrants passing through open borders, changing the nature of societies, bringing culture and religion that resists integration or assimilation.

Terrorism bolsters fear

They can also bring the threat of terror and violence.

This is not about immigration writ large: this is about Muslims.

France has been the Petri dish for the politics of fear and rejection.

The French have endured devastating terrorist attacks: the attack on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015 that left 12 people dead and months later the coordinated series of bombings and shootings stretching from Stade de France to the Bataclan theatre killing 130 people.

It mattered little if the attackers were French-born or foreigners; they were the same religion as those immigrants fanning across the continent.

Who would not be afraid?

Anti-Muslim/immigrant feeling drove up the popularity of the right-wing populist party National Front.

Party leader Marine Le Pen made it to the second round of last year's presidential election, winning a third of the popular vote before conceding to Emmanuel Macron.

What of democracy?

The immigration threat has permeated French culture; after the 2015 attacks the novel Submission, written by provocative author Michel Houellebecq, captured the mood, depicting a future where France was ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood: women were veiled and universities censored.

This was the fictional version of what political commentator Douglas Murray describes in his book The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam.

He opens with the stark warning: "Europe is committing suicide".

Murray traces this slow, certain decline to the policy of successive European governments to pursue "mass immigration without public approval".

Journalist Sasha Polakow-Suransky traverses the same terrain in his new book Go Back to Where You Came From; he says the very future of liberal democracy is on the line.

Polakow-Suransky says both sides of the political chasm are wrong: those who see immigration as an "alien invasion", and those on the left who believe there is no problem.

Unlike Murray, Polakow-Suransky says the real threat is not the immigrants themselves but the political reaction that exploits fear, denounces judges, strips citizens of their nationality and undermines constitutional freedoms:

"...many of the world's most advanced democracies are effectively hitting the self-destruct button rather than take on new passengers".

Australia — the far-right's inspiration

Australia has landed in the middle of this European political schism.

Polakow-Suransky says: "Australia's immigration policy has become a beacon for Europe's new right."

Former prime minister Tony Abbott waded into the debate with his 2015 Thatcher Memorial Lecture, telling those who would open Europe's borders they were committing a "catastrophic error".

Mr Abbott conceded a hard-line approach may gnaw at our consciences, "yet it is the only way to prevent a tide of humanity surging through Europe and quite possibly changing it forever".

Australia's policy of stopping the boats, offshore detention, has been expensive — Polakow-Suransky puts it at close to $10 billion between 2013-16 — vigorously opposed, but also broadly politically popular.

The antennae of our politicians are finely tuned to the concerns of the public: the recent comments about "African crime gangs" in Victoria echoes a narrative heard from the United States to Europe.

Immigration defining world politics

Nothing catalyses the politics of our age globally more than the issue of immigration.

It is about values and culture; it is about sovereignty: the place of the nation state in the globalised world.

Immigration has been pivotal to the election of Donald Trump, the Brexit decision and the resurgence of the European right.

In Australia it also has the power to change governments.

As Polakow-Suransky writes, this debate is "poised to transform the political landscape of Western democracies."

Matter of Fact with Stan Grant is on the ABC News Channel at 9pm, Monday to Thursday.