U.S. President Donald Trump’s first weeks in office were marked by drastic measures to prevent migrants and refugees from entering the United States. He temporarily banned citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from traveling to the country, suspended the arrival of all refugees, and stopped a resettlement program for Syrian refugees. And he ordered the building of a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, supposedly to stem the inflow of irregular migrants from the south.

These measures shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. The new president’s executive orders were fully in line with his campaign rhetoric. Anger toward immigrants and fear of radical Islam were a large part of the story that brought him to office. Strong action against these alleged threats was what his supporters expected.

Stefan Lehne
Lehne is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the post–Lisbon Treaty development of the European Union’s foreign policy, with a specific focus on relations between the EU and member states.
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European politicians who were quick to castigate Trump’s illiberal measures conveniently closed their eyes to the fact that many European governments have also adopted more and more restrictive policies on immigration and asylum over recent months. In Europe, just as in the United States, rightist populist groups are scapegoating migrants and refugees for every ill in society. Populists’ demands to deter immigrants and, in particular, their rejection of Muslims coming to Europe resonate with growing parts of the population. In an increasingly toxic climate, hate speech and attacks against migrants are on the increase.

If current trends continue, Europe might well follow Trump’s anti-immigration line. However, in the world’s most successful immigration society, Trump’s policies are likely to be a temporary aberration. The United States is better at integrating migrants and better positioned to control who comes in. In Europe, xenophobia and Islamophobia pose far greater risks. They might destabilize societies that already have large, insufficiently integrated minority communities. They will hamper efforts to stabilize Europe’s turbulent neighborhood. And they might put the survival of the European Union at risk.

Return of the Demons

Psychological studies have shown that mistrust of foreigners is deeply rooted in human consciousness. Protecting the identity, territory, and interests of a clan or tribe by keeping foreigners out made sense in evolutionary terms. Over the course of history, as societies became more complex and open, this rejection of strangers gradually receded. But progress toward greater tolerance of immigrants was frequently interrupted by relapses into xenophobia and violence.

Still, the insight of the Age of Enlightenment that all humans, regardless of race or religion, have rights and freedoms made its way around the world and eventually became codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which complemented the respect of these rights with the duty to protect people fleeing persecution, marked a further huge step forward.

But beneath broad formal support for these historic achievements, the ancient legacy of mistrust and hostility toward foreigners survives in large parts of society. In situations of economic stress or of security concerns, populist demagogues can easily wake xenophobic demons and unleash them against modern civilizational standards.

This is now the challenge on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, the new president depicts immigrants in general and Muslims in particular as the greatest threat to American society. In Europe, rightist populist parties wish to build a Fortress Europe and pull up the drawbridge. There are important differences between anti-immigration politics in the United States and in the EU, but there are also notable parallels, and there is a strong interrelationship between what happens in the United States and in Europe.

Parallels and Differences Between the United States and Europe

As a classic immigration-based nation, the United States has a larger number of residents born outside the country (13.1 percent of the population) than do European states (on average 10.4 percent). U.S. immigration occurred in waves. The current upsurge, which began in 1965, has been marked by rising numbers of immigrants from Latin America and Asia. Since 1990, over 1 million migrants have entered the United States every year. As a country of immigrants, the United States is generally considered more successful than European nations at integrating newcomers. This is particularly true with regard to the roughly 3.2 million Muslims, who in terms of jobs, education, and cultural adaptation belong to the most successful communities in the United States.

Geography is a decisive factor in determining migration flows. With few land borders and—those from Cuba and Haiti aside—out of reach of boat people, the United States enjoys greater control over who enters its territory than do most other countries. U.S. migration policy has for many years focused primarily on massive irregular immigration across the long border with Mexico. Trump’s wall project is both a symbol of the long-standing wish to end this flow and an extremely expensive but not altogether unrealistic method to achieve this.

Europe has long been a net exporter of people. Between 1820 and 1914, over 50 million Europeans emigrated to the United States, Canada, or South America. Large-scale immigration to Europe is a relatively recent phenomenon. Starting in the early 1950s, European colonial powers dismantled their empires and, in the process, received large numbers of people from their former colonies. Central and Northern European countries, which didn’t have colonies, recruited guest workers for their factories.

When the period of rapid economic growth ended in the early 1970s, many European governments turned to restrictive policies toward immigration. This process was uneven, with postcolonial states like Belgium, France, and the UK remaining open longer than others. In reality, however, economic interests, family reunifications, and administrative inertia combined to facilitate considerable additional immigration almost everywhere in Europe. The growing disjunction between tough messaging and practical leniency contributed to a perception of policy failure and prepared the ground for the rise of populists.

Europe’s geography makes control over immigration more difficult than in the United States. The EU’s passport-free Schengen Area has an external land border of 4,970 miles and a vast sea border. Through restrictive visa policies and sanctions against airlines, fence building on some stretches of the EU’s external border, and arrangements with transit countries, European states try to control who comes in—but close economic ties, huge demographic and income imbalances with neighboring regions, and a growing people-smuggling industry prevent a level of control comparable with that of the United States.

This difference also finds expression in the asymmetric impact of refugee flows. In 2015, the EU received more than 1.3 million refugees, almost all of whom entered the EU territory irregularly. By contrast, most refugees arrive in the United States through resettlement from their regions of origin (69,933 in 2015). The number of people granted asylum after entering U.S. territory is usually much smaller (25,199 in 2013).

Attitudes Toward Immigration

In the United States, public opinion on immigration has long been sharply divided. Polarization on this issue has blocked serious reform of the relevant legislation for years. According to a 2015 survey by Pew Research, 51 percent of the U.S. population felt that immigrants strengthened the country because of their talent and hard work, whereas 41 percent believed that they constituted a burden on society.

Similar studies in Europe have revealed differences between attitudes to migration from other EU countries and views on immigration from outside the union. Intra-EU migration was seen positively by 61 percent and negatively by 33 percent of Europeans, with only Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Italy, and Latvia having a predominantly negative attitude. Migration from outside the EU, by contrast, was perceived negatively by 56 percent of respondents and positively by 37 percent. A positive attitude prevailed only in Sweden and Spain.

Europeans see immigration from mainly Muslim countries as particularly problematic. According to a recent Chatham House study conducted across ten EU countries, 55 percent of respondents tended to agree that all such immigration should be stopped, 20 percent disagreed, and 25 percent neither agreed nor disagreed.

The hostile attitude toward Muslims goes together with vast overestimates of the numbers of Muslims already present in both the United States and Europe. The actual Muslim population is estimated at about 3.3 million in the United States and at 13 million in the EU. According to an Ipsos MORI poll in September 2016, French people believed the number of Muslims to be four times the real figure, and UK citizens overestimated their presence by a factor of three. Meanwhile, people in the United States believed 15 percent of the population was Muslim, whereas the actual level is 1 percent.

In the United States, negative attitudes toward Muslims are to some extent a legacy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Europe, such views are partly a response to the sudden arrival of large numbers of refugees in Europe in 2015–2016. Together with an upsurge of radical Islamic terrorism, this sudden mass inflow had a thoroughly destabilizing effect on Europe’s collective psyche.

Both issues dominated traditional and social media as well as the political discourse. Initially divided between a Willkommenskultur, or welcoming culture, reflected in civil-society engagement in support of refugees, on the one hand, and concerns about security and abuses of social services, on the other, the public mood quickly swayed toward the negative end of the spectrum. The sense of loss of control over the inflow of people from different cultural and religious backgrounds boosted the appeal of populist rightist parties and prompted mainstream politicians to adopt increasingly restrictive policies.

The link between immigration and security has featured prominently in U.S. discourse ever since 9/11 and led to tougher visa and immigration rules. In his campaign, Trump blamed immigrants for crime, drugs, and terrorism without offering much evidence. In fact, few attacks by Islamic terrorists have taken place in the United States since 2001, and none was committed by immigrants.

In the absence of evidence back home, Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, which culminated at one point in a promise to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, draws inspiration from events in Europe. In EU countries too, most of the recent terrorist attacks were carried out by European citizens. If one considers the large number of European citizens who have gone to the Middle East to join the jihad, Europe exports many more terrorists than it imports. However, some of the culprits in the terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, and various cities in Germany were linked to the refugee flows. Trump uses these cases and sometimes pure fiction, such as an imagined terrorist attack in Sweden on February 18, to justify his exclusionary policies. But this constant association of terrorism with immigration also resonates strongly in Europe, where populist rightist parties have long made the same point.

Schengenland Without a Capital

Of course, the fact that the United States is a state whereas the EU is not leads to fundamental differences in the handling of immigration and asylum. U.S. policymaking may be hampered by political divisions and institutional blockages, but there is a clear federal responsibility for dealing with this issue. In Europe, the EU has created a common state-like space by guaranteeing the free movement of EU citizens and establishing an area of passport-free travel while leaving most powers regarding immigration and refugee flows at the level of the individual member states.

The economic logic driving these projects—a desire to complete and strengthen the EU’s internal market—obscured their far-reaching political implications. By opening their borders, EU member states abandoned the long-established sovereign right to control who enters and leaves their territories. In various action plans and policy programs, national capitals acknowledged the need to complement these moves with common rules to make the Schengen zone safe and sustainable. But when it came to implementing these plans, a wish to maintain maximum national control reasserted itself, resulting in weak and patchy legislation and an insufficient institutional infrastructure.

The 2015–2016 refugee crisis revealed how fragile the EU’s arrangements were. Under the stress of the crisis, some member states fell back into dealing with the challenge through national actions such as imposing border controls and building fences. The result was a partial suspension of the Schengen system. After overcoming its initial divisions, the EU eventually agreed on the urgent priority of reducing the numbers of arrivals. This led to the closure of the Western Balkan migration route, the March 2016 EU-Turkey agreement on reducing inflows from Turkey to Greece, and a number of other steps to strengthen control over the EU’s external border.

However, apart from some advances on exchanging data and strengthening the policy of returning migrants to their countries of origin, the EU made little progress on the crucial internal agenda, particularly regarding burden sharing and a more integrated approach to migration. The same politicians who want to clamp down on immigration are usually also the greatest skeptics regarding European integration. They first prevent the EU from developing more effective collective instruments then blame the EU for betraying the security of Europeans and instead promote national means to keep people out. Rather than pulling member states together, the crisis has further weakened the solidarity among them. And as a consequence, the challenge of managing migration, which would require strong collective efforts, ends up dividing the member states and weakening European integration.

Interlocking Vicious Circles

The United States will survive Trumpian policies on immigration and Muslims. Certainly, the negative consequences of having a populist in the White House should not be underestimated. People who are unjustly excluded or expelled will suffer greatly, and the polarization of American society will get worse before it gets better. But as court decisions blocking Trump’s executive orders have shown, there are checks and balances in place. Many cities refuse to implement the new deportation policies. A vibrant civil society has a high capacity of resistance, and the U.S. political system has a proven capability of self-correction.

More importantly, immigration is an intrinsic part of the identity of American society. The U.S. economy and education system and the high mobility of the country’s population facilitate the successful integration of new arrivals. And geography gives the U.S. authorities a lot of control over who comes in and who goes out.

Europe lacks many of these elements of resilience and is thus more vulnerable to the destructive forces of populist anti-immigration campaigns. The European economy is less dynamic than America’s. Europe’s elaborate and costly welfare states and relatively rigid labor markets make it more difficult for the continent to absorb high levels of immigration. A more rapidly aging society is resistant to change and fearful of losing its accustomed stability. All this inhibits the social integration of newcomers and has already led to the emergence of large groups of economically deprived and politically alienated migrants at the margins of the social and cultural mainstream.

To compensate for demographic decline, Europe needs immigration. But given the constraints sketched out above, European countries would need much more active and ambitious policies to make it a success. Developing a comprehensive approach to manage migration responsibly and ensure that incoming people are integrated well should be a top priority of European governments. But the stress of the 2015–2016 crisis has boosted populist rightist movements, which in turn are driving mainstream politicians toward anti-immigration policies. As governments become more nationalistic and solidarity among member states diminishes, collective action on the EU level—an essential component of successful migration management—has become more difficult.

At the moment, deterring more people from coming to Europe and returning those who have arrived illegally appear to be the only real priorities in many member states. However, Europe is surrounded by heavily populated regions to which it is bound by a dense network of economic and societal ties. Strengthening control over the EU’s external border is a legitimate and necessary objective. But immigration into Europe will never be stopped or reversed to a degree that will satisfy populist rightist parties. Migration pressure will continue. Periods of relative calm will be followed by periods of significant inflows. Seeking simply to stop further immigration will only generate unrealistic expectations and provoke an even more serious populist backlash.

Europe urgently needs to focus on helping restore stability in its turbulent neighborhood. This requires active diplomacy, massive economic investment, and a readiness for genuine partnership. Cooperation on migration management is an important element of this partnership, but it would be shortsighted to subordinate all other policies to this aim.

Moreover, initiating an orderly process for the resettlement of refugees, setting up safe reception centers in transit countries, implementing efficient arrangement for returns, and improving border and coastal controls all presuppose goodwill and a fair balancing of the interests of both sides. A European mind-set based on a war of civilizations and the notion of Fortress Europe is the opposite of the kind of engagement that neighboring regions need. Rather than easing the turmoil, such an approach would increase hostility and undermine stability further, possibly resulting in even greater migration pressures.

An exclusive focus on deterring further asylum seekers would also make the successful integration of those already in Europe more difficult. The wish to prevent and sanction abuses of asylum procedures has triggered a race to the bottom in terms of protection standards and reception conditions. Many member states have cut financial assistance, curtailed freedom of movement, and made access to social services and the labor market more difficult. Making the lives of asylum seekers unattractive might deter some people from coming to Europe, but the same policies greatly impede the chances of successfully integrating those who are already there. There is little point in European host countries preaching the necessity of adjusting to their values and ways of life when the same governments are making it ever more difficult for immigrants to lead normal lives.

The terrible risk of the spreading anti-immigration feeling is that it can easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who claim that Muslims and Africans have no place in Europe and who blame immigrants for crime and terrorism create a social and political climate that hampers the integration of migrants already in Europe. Negative attitudes toward nonnative residents contribute to their alienation, separate them from their host societies, and radicalize a number of them. And as problems with immigrant communities increase, hostility toward them will be ramped up in a vicious circle. This rise of xenophobia will not only affect relations with minorities and migrants. It will also invade the entire political and social space and poison all aspects of public life. It will divide communities, spread intolerance, foment tensions, and often trigger violence.

How to Break the Cycle

Mobilizing against these tendencies while there is still a chance should be seen not as a mere humanitarian concern but as the urgent self-defense of a decent and open society. Contrary to the populist polemics, the real struggle to preserve the achievements of Judeo-Christian civilization consists precisely in resisting xenophobia and Islamophobia.

European political leaders therefore need to embrace Europe’s ethnic and religious diversity. Hate speech and aggression toward migrants and refugees must be firmly rejected. However, tolerance is not enough. If newcomers feel welcome, they will find their place in society much more easily. Political elites need to make the case that a rapidly aging and demographically declining continent requires the inflow of young people and has much to benefit from their energy and ideas.

Leaders will only gain public support for these views, however, if they manage migration responsibly and shocks such as the 2015–2016 refugee crisis are not repeated. This presupposes not only more control over the EU’s external border, effective arrangement with countries of transit and origin, and responsible returns policies but also better legal pathways for migration and programs for the orderly resettlement of refugees.

European governments need to acknowledge that unlike the United States or Canada, European societies are not naturally configured to facilitate immigration. To make it a success requires much more active governmental involvement, in particular massive investment in education and training. It will also mean reviewing long-established practices designed to protect the interests of existing stakeholders. Structural reforms are indispensable for successfully integrating large numbers of immigrants.

Political elites have to resist current tendencies toward renationalization. Trump’s America First policy is irresponsible; a Belgium, France, or Germany First policy would just be foolish. Attempting to handle migration through national means alone would result in fragmented and incoherent policies that pit EU member states against each other. Instead, EU member states should move toward stronger common rules on asylum and immigration, better collective action to engage with neighboring regions, greater solidarity on burden sharing, and more robust and effective institutions.

Migration is likely to top the EU’s agenda for many years. No other challenge poses similar risks to the survival of liberal European democracies and of European integration. But if handled correctly, immigration also offers great potential for the success of an open and dynamic Europe in a globalized world. The stakes couldn’t be higher.