Europe’s electoral quakes call for shock detectors

Rightward lurches at the polls means migration studies are more essential than ever, says Mette Louise Berg

June 5, 2014

A new generation of scholars will become vital social seismologists, surveying the shifting ground of Europe’s political future

Around Europe, established political parties are reeling. The UK Independence Party – once decried as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” by David Cameron – has given the prime minister a bloody nose by topping the polls in the UK’s European elections, forcing the Conservatives into third place. In France, Marine Le Pen’s far-Right Front National shook off decades of stigma and claimed first place. In both countries, the lurch to the right was seen as a political earthquake, and the issue at its epicentre is immigration.

From an academic perspective, the rightward shift – seen in a number of European Union states to varying degrees – represents both a fascinating development and a worrying one for higher education.

The often nasty rhetoric relating to migrants and minorities that issues forth from figures in the Front National and Ukip can make it hard for some academics to remain detached when assessing the new political order and what it may mean for human lives in Europe and beyond, but the scholar’s first responsibility is to observe and understand.

Analysing the drivers of the Europe-wide hardening of public attitudes to migration will be at the heart of the study of immigration for years to come. It is likely to involve consideration of the roles played by increased European mobility, the global recession, international conflicts, the march of globalisation, the challenges facing European welfare states and the rhetoric deployed by politicians and media alike.

These issues and many more relating to migration are becoming increasingly important areas for study. In the UK, as the issue of immigration and the role of academic input into the debate intensifies, migration studies as a discipline is growing stronger. Courses such as the University of Oxford’s MSc in migration studies and other courses at the University of Sussex, the London School of Economics, University College London, Soas and elsewhere are providing important training grounds for a new generation of scholars, activists and policy specialists. This new generation of scholars are set to become vital social seismologists, surveying the shifting ground of Europe’s political future. An interdisciplinary approach combining economics, sociology, anthropology and politics is necessary to understand a complex web of interactions that create and are created by migration. It will be a critical tool in anticipating further political rumbles and earthquakes, and could furnish useful early warnings that may prevent too much damage being done.

It is particularly important that this new generation makes the voice of the academy clear in the coming years to fend off a disturbing anti-intellectual turn in rhetoric: “experts”, it is argued, are not the solution but a part of the problem, and use the complexity of immigration issues to subvert common sense. This is misguided: immigration is fundamentally complicated and is driven by often conflicting push and pull factors. When simplistic solutions fail to take account of the social and economic trade-offs, there is potential for damage to economies and community relations.

So far we have only heard rumblings about how policymakers will respond to the rightward shift, but it is not hard to imagine that knee-jerk anti-immigration policies designed to address the electoral threat posed by Ukip, the Front National and Greece’s Golden Dawn – or indeed efforts to curtail EU freedom of movement – may soon be rushed through parliaments across Europe, including the European Parliament itself.

This has the potential to affect the international mobility of students and academics, with profound consequences for both the funding of academia and opportunities for research institutes across Europe to hire the staff they need.

The higher education sector sits in a complex place at the heart of the immigration debate; at times informing it, as a frustrated spectator to unevidenced assertions repeated uncritically by the media, and at others as collateral damage in efforts to meet targets. But if we are to help Europe to avoid a slide back to the dark days of xenophobia and prejudice that haunts its past, then the study of migration is vital.

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