Nationalism and Populism: how they affect migration talks.

By Diogo T. dos Santos

ECEPAA has recently been at the high-quality conference “Nationalism and Populism: The Future of Europe?” held at the University of Kent in Brussels. The speakers and panelists that composed such a meeting had an outstanding intellectual exchange and considerable levels of both input and output. That was possible for two reasons: diverse fields of activity and diversified perspectives from both the panelists and audience, who generated thought-provoking questions for discussion.

The topics on nationalism and populism have been posed as crucial to the future of the European politics and also as a reason for division between member states, which has consequences in more specific fields (for instance, that of migration policy reform). The panels focused on potential difficulties to be faced by European governments with regards to migration, security and defense, and the role of media.

As a keynote given by Dr. Richard Sakwa, some very interesting remarks were pointed out, and an overview of the current global context that is related to nationalism and populism was given with some very convenient observations. One of them, for example, was the misuse of the so-called “crisis in Europe” as a reference to what is currently occurring in Europe. As a matter of fact, according to Sakwa, such a crisis is indeed taking place in certain parts of Europe, though the “crisis” is actually for the refugees themselves and other specific regions across the globe.

“[…] the ‘crisis’ is actually for the refugees themselves […]”

Regarding the notions of populism, more specifically, Sakwa mentioned it as being sometimes regarded as an instrument of political renewal (referring to recent “updates” of the political agenda and discussion), as though it were seen as “the authentic voice of democracy,” of the people; whereas it has also, paradoxically, been referred to as “anti-pluralist” and not considering people’s voice as important. As a matter of course, this given notion is that of a general view when confronted with what the world is living nowadays with the rise of many populist and nationalist governments (either left- or right-wing).

How does is affect migration discussions?

The first panel of the conference “Securitisation of the Migrant: At the Border & Beyond” brings particular attention to ECEPAA. It had the participation of Gulwali Passarlay, spokesperson for refugees and asylum seekers, Pia Klemp, human-rights activist, Kumut Imesh*, who has been active in supporting and assisting migrants and is currently living in France as a refugee, and Marianna Karakoulaki, humanitarian reporter.

A very heartbreaking but true information mentioned during that discussions is that about half of the refugees and displaced people in the world are children. It was asserted that migration itself is not a security matter; rather, security talks and decisions are based on “fear” and on the fact that migration might “bother” a specific community. Those factors might be the motives which lead an individual hold a position that is in accordance with a populist and, potentially, nationalist parties’ discourse and propaganda.

Are governments creating policies and environments that foster both its citizens and newcomers to integrate and assimilate each other’s customary practices and beliefs?

As far as the discussion went on, it was agreed that populist political propaganda becomes very opportunistic by posing past economic and/or social challenges a country was having before as if their causes were strictly related to refugees, asylum seekers.

Another interesting thing pointed out was that the definition of the word “refugee” is still not well comprehended by the majority. Besides the distorted notion populist candidates give, the media is also the one to blame for communicating a distorted meaning of the term to the public, hence conducting people to imprecise conclusions and incoherent associations. Certain people, then, are not as engaged in the happenings and are easily influenced by populist rhetoric**.

“[…] the media is also the one to blame for communicating a distorted meaning of the term to the public […]”

If there is a struggle or a clash between different cultures, is it not better to approach these issues via intercultural means rather than multicultural ones?

There are questions that should not fade away in face of what history has showed us and of what society is witnessing right now.

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*Kumut Imesh has taken part in a documentary in which he attempts to retrace and retake the same paths he walked through in his journey to Europe. You can watch the documentary for free at:

**During the discussion, the speaker referred to “right-wing” politicians. However, as the author of this article and in the light of my own understanding and opinion, I claim that the same influential effect can be noted under any political or ideological orientation.

All notes were taken from the presentations and exchange of ideas done at the conference.