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The election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States came as a shock to the political establishment on both sides of the Atlantic, just as the Brexit referendum surprised many who underestimated the level of public discontent that lead to the result. 2016 has been a difficult year in many respects, but a common theme has underlined much of the populist backlash against traditional parties and politics in the Western world: migration. The movement of people across borders – whether to flee conflict, seek better opportunities or even simply to reunite with family members – has struck a nerve with large segments of the electorate who are worried about how these newcomers will affect their lives.

Populist right-wing parties are exploiting these fears and exacerbating them in a classic example of political opportunism. These parties have essentially hijacked the migration debate and turned it into something toxic for moderate politicians to discuss publicly in a constructive way. In a climate of fear, simplistic, hard-line rhetoric appears to be generally more convincing than nuanced, complex solutions. Some centre-right and even centre-left politicians across Europe have gone down the path of imitation, adopting a similar tone and some of the same policy positions in an attempt to win back voters.

On the other side of the political spectrum, green and leftist parties have formed a vocal pro-migrant, pro-solidarity opposition that has attracted voters who have become disillusioned with social democratic parties. The centre-left’s ever weaker commitment to social democratic ideology has made it hard to distinguish from the centre-right in many countries, particularly on migration-related issues. This trend has clearly alienated some former social democrats, and has driven them to other parties on the left. Europe’s political landscape is polarising as a result. Austria’s recent presidential election between a far-right and a green candidate is a sign of this polarisation, and similar situations are likely going to be repeated in other elections across Europe.

The growing vacuum in the political centre is problematic for many reasons. It creates a contest of words rather than policies, it favours conflict and hinders compromise. This is particularly destructive at the EU level, where compromise is essential. Polarising the migration debate creates a vicious cycle in which common solutions cannot be agreed, yet which are necessary in order to de-escalate political tensions. Such a conflictual situation may suit fringe parties seeking to grow quickly, but the cost is political paralysis at best, and civil unrest at worst. Refugees and migrants are caught in the middle.

What can be done to reverse this trend? Countering the populists is certainly no easy task, but moderates have more options than they may think. Firstly, they should become more courageous in confronting populists not only with rational arguments but also using emotional language. Moderate politicians should not copy the aggressive tactics used by the far-right, but they should also avoid passively absorbing right-wing accusations. Voters want controversial issues like migrant integration to be discussed openly and directly, not evasively or cloaked in political correctness. In this regard, moderates should be honest about real problems and focus on tangible, realistic solutions while pointing out how populist positions largely amount to empty rhetoric. This must be done carefully though, making every effort to avoid sounding arrogant, condescending or elitist.

Moderate politicians should also refrain from “shooting themselves in the foot” by publicly bashing the EU while privately supporting it, such as former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Public support for the EU is already so low that further stoking anti-EU sentiment seriously threatens its continued existence and is not necessarily an effective political strategy anyway, as Renzi’s downfall shows. Likewise, policymakers should think more carefully about how the public may perceive their decisions – well beyond migration policy. A recent statement by Greece’s creditor institutions (European Commission, ECB, ESM and IMF) calling for the suspension of debt relief measures after the Greek government announced a Christmas bonus for low-income pensioners plays straight into the hands of populists. Even if the bonus violates Greece’s bailout agreement, playing Scrooge right before Christmas undermines efforts to restore public support for the EU.

Time is running out for moderates to win this debate. With Donald Trump in the White House soon, the UK leaving the EU and several countries in Europe on the verge of (or already under) right-wing control, the window of opportunity to reclaim migration is closing fast. It may have already closed in some places. Now more than ever, moderates at all levels must avoid falling into complacency that can have repercussions that go far beyond the way in which migration is managed.

By Marco Funk

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