The week prior to Thanksgiving saw two surprising interventions in the global immigration debate, both by Democrats and former secretaries of state. John Kerry and Hillary Clinton said it was time for Europe to get its migration issues under control.
Two more elite representatives of the neoliberal establishment would be hard to find. Do their words reflect a turn in establishment thinking? Perhaps. The candor that occasionally slips from the mouths of more or less retired politicians? Probably. Unintended phrasing? Unlikely, as the two are pros who weigh their words carefully. In any case, the main press organ of the establishment, The New York Times, moved quickly to squelch any idea that these expressions were significant. Nevertheless, they might be.
It began when Kerry, speaking at a Guardian Live event in London, was lambasting President Donald Trump (appropriately in my view) for his climate change ignorance. He then interjected, “Europe is already crushed under this transformation that is taking place due to migration. Angela Merkel is weakened. Italian politics is significantly impacted. Well imagine what happens if water dries up and you cannot produce food in Northern Africa….” My first reaction was that Kerry wouldn’t have spoken this way—“already crushed”—unless expressing such sentiments had become acceptable and even unexceptional among the Davos set he frequents. Of course, the elaborations he gave, that the migrant surge had been bad for Merkel and Italian politics, weren’t exactly compelling. But I doubt he would have said what he said by accident.
A few days later, Clinton said almost the same thing. Clinton is more scripted than Kerry, so this surely wasn’t a random observation. In an interview also with the Guardian, she said, “Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the fire” of Brexit and populist parties threatening liberal governments in Europe.
While praising Merkel’s generosity to migrant asylum claimants, Clinton added that it was “fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message: ‘we are not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support’ because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.”
Of course, both figures spoke as if the main problem was the populist reaction to the migrant surge rather than the surge itself, though Kerry did not try to mask his worry about a climate change future in which people from a Nigeria with a population of half a billion began to surge northward. And Clinton, facing a storm of dissent from her own camp (I first learned of her comments when I saw my Twitter feed flooded with left-wing snark accusing her of racism), backtracked nominally, saying she opposed Trump’s family separation policies and supported “immigration laws enforced with fairness and respect for human rights.”
The establishment rebuke, delivered by several people quoted in the Times, was that Clinton’s message was unnecessary and redundant: Western governments had already taken the necessary measures. Merkel had begun working with Turkey to stem migration, Italy had worked with Libya to cut its migrant flow by 70 percent, and so forth. There was no problem any more—move on. All this is true, but the conclusion is misleading. The migrant flows into Europe are less than they were in 2015 (when roughly a million and a half people entered in a couple of months), but they are still high and still a primary focus of public concern.
Virtually every day in the European press, there are reports of boats of migrants arriving from Africa. Spain brought ashore 894 people on Thanksgiving Thursday, when we also learned of migrant-laden boats leaving France for England.
A day later, it was reported that the northern French city of Nantes had initiated a requirement that men and women use different sidewalks on one of its main thoroughfares to prevent sexual aggression, a development inconceivable in the France that existed before mass migration. Polls regularly show that immigration is at or near the top of the list of concerns for European voters. Contrary to The New York Times and the establishment’s pro-immigration think tanks, Europe’s migrant crisis is not resolved, not even close.
What has changed is that sentiment that Europe must do something radically different about immigration is considerably more widespread than right-wing populist parties are. Two journalists from Le Monde recently published a book length investigation into the Islamization of Seine-St.-Denis, the close-in suburb of Paris. When a group of French schoolteachers and administrators broached this subject 15 years ago (in a book called Les Territoires Perdus de la République), their work encountered a kind of establishment media boycott. Now some of its points are being revived by journalists who work at the very center of the French establishment.
Two authors from the think tank Le Millénaire, close to the center-right Les Républicains party, recently published a proposal calling for  a “Copernican Revolution” in the way Europe regards immigration. Their core component was a “merciless battle” against illegal immigration. The authors urged that France seek agreements with third countries for retention centers for migrants, modeled on Australia’s use of the territory of Nauru.
The idea is to get migrants, including those claiming asylum, off of French territory. Write the authors:
This is a win-win solution for France (the illegal migrant is expelled) and for the third country (the retention center would be a source of employment and a reason for financial aid) and wouldn’t require the consent of the migrant’s home country.
Furthermore, the migrant would be perfectly safe, protecting France from ideological judgments of the European Justice Court. Such a policy would be powerfully dissuasive, (as the Australian policy has demonstrated, by lowering both the number of asylum claimants and deaths at sea) and the costs would be temporary, as once such a system was in place, no one would seek to illegally enter our territory.
The authors conclude that controlling illegal immigration is the only way to ensure the legal immigration that the French economy needs.
This kind of policy discourse, whose goal is to unshackle France from the various asylum protocols that make it painstakingly difficult to deport anyone who has reached French soil, is new in France but one can expect variations of it throughout Europe.
Ten years ago, French politicians in the establishment right liked to talk tough about migration at election time. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy suggested using power firehoses on rioters in the French suburbs, while Jacques Chirac once opined about “the noise and the smell” of immigrants with many wives receiving social benefits. But they never did much of anything. Now, right-of-center policy analysts are discussing in cold technocratic terms what they might actually do. Reading their proposals, with their fairly transparent disdain for the international refugee protocols that discourage deportation, brings to mind an American sentiment expressed by Lincoln and others. “The Constitution is not a suicide pact,” and neither are these migration protocols.
I’m not suggesting that Kerry and Clinton are in agreement—they obviously are not. But I think it is likely that they hear European voices, not from the so-called populist right but from centrist politicians of the sort they speak regularly with, that consider the migrant crisis an existential threat. Kerry’s and Clinton’s words are a possible sign that Europe’s elites have developed the will to snatch survival from the jaws of shattering civilizational defeat.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars.