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Thursday 3 June 2021

Is emigration a blow to liberal democracy?

A webinar on this subject was held by SEESOX and COMPAS on 27 May. The main speaker was Ivan Krastev, Chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia and Permanent Fellow, Institute of Human Sciences, IWM Vienna. Discussants were Maria Koinova (University of Warwick) and Othon Anastasakis (St Antony’s College, University of Oxford). Jessie Barton Hronesova, also of Oxford, chaired.

Krastev described the background and context. In Central and Eastern Europe, there was, broadly speaking, a fear of immigration; but the real trauma was emigration and population loss. The countries were shrinking demographically. Surveys showed that Poland was shrinking by 15%, BiH by 29%, Bulgaria by 40%. These declines were unprecedented in the absence of war and natural disasters. One economic effect was shortages in labour markets. COVID -19 revealed the devastation caused in the health sector, with the loss of medical professionals to countries where they were better paid.  This also meant the loss of money invested eg in the education of medical professionals, and the invisible transfer of money from the periphery to the centre. Governments were unsure how to react.  Strong nationalist rhetoric was employed, like the Berlin Wall, to stop the exodus of people.  There was also a major generational imbalance, with the young especially likely to leave: and a political effect, with the tendency of pro-EU voters to leave. The very fact of going abroad and making a living outside a country was seen as a success; just as under Communist rule moving from country to city was seen as a move-up. Illiberal governments, eg in Hungary and Poland, were not closing their countries to foreigners, rather welcoming them as guest workers; but were not giving them political rights, thus divorcing labour markets from politics and the nation.

Maria Koinova looked at the transnational dimensions, and the circularity of emigration/migration processes. Remittances were huge and showed that emigrants still felt part of the country they had physically left. Very important EU principles, eg on protections for minority rights, did not transform traditional ideas about identity or diversity. There was a paradox of liberalism: economic liberalism relied on labour markets , but there was a fear of identity loss and the loss of jobs to migrants,

Othon Anastasakis examined the use and connotations of various terms: migration, crisis, majority etc. SEESOX research had shown a striking development: those who emigrated tended to be viewed negatively initially; but then more favourably as they mutated into diasporas. Greek voters living abroad had the right to vote in Greek elections: and this was greatly facilitated by a law in 2019. In Hungary, Orban had made it easier for Hungarians in the “near abroad” to vote in national elections than those in the West: presumably because the latter were less likely to vote for him. Jessie commented that it looked as if Hungary was seeking ways to wanting to lose the liberal elite.

After these presentations, and in the Q&A session, Ivan Krastev added the following points:

  • In the 20th century, states travelled more than people: people could remain in the same place but found themselves in different states
  • fear of over-population had transcended into fear of depopulation
  • 40% of the population of Vienna were foreigners without the right to vote in Austrian elections
  • Quoting Brecht he said that, although most governments wanted people to return, it was mainly those likely to vote for them ie that they were trying to elect the people
  • Polish opposition to Muslim immigration came mainly from Poles living in London: there were so few Muslims in Poland that Poles lacked knowledge and experience
  • Illiberal regimes were quite open to incoming labour, but on the basis that they could be selective and control the politics.

David Madden (Distinguished Friend of St Antony's)

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