The EU migration crisis and the 'public interest' debate

Published 17.05.2019 00:06
Updated 17.05.2019 01:53

The European migration crisis is now at the center of discussion in the EU institutions and member states. The phenomena of migration into European countries and the pro-immigration policies of the EU have not gone down well with member states like Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and so forth. Many claim that this issue has led to an East-West divide within the EU; however, the migration crisis has come as an opportunity for populist parties and leaders, who are leaving no stone unturned in exploiting this situation. Viktor Orban of Hungary, leading from the front, has pulled up his socks against the EU. The Europeans who once propagated the ideas of globalization are now taking a jibe at it and are not holding back in making anti-cosmopolitan claims, with the fear that immigration policies might disturb their demographic structures.

While each party is looking at this debate from different perspectives, some defend the member states demand against the EU, while some are backing the policies of the EU as being in the greater interest. However, this debate becomes more interesting when looked upon with the lenses of public interest. Modern democracies often rely upon the phrase "public interest" to justify their rule and policies. But one cannot deny that this concept is much contested in the area of political theory.

The matter of anti-immigration

International politics as such is based on the concept of "national Interest." We have been learning that nation states in a given system strive for their national interest. Therefore, what is the national interest and who defines it? Who is a part of it and whom does it benefit? These questions normally arise. In liberal democracies, one expects that the public interest should be reflected in the national interest, which would be an ideal condition.

However, even then, there are questions about what public interest is and who defines it. This is a prominent debate in political theory, which can be reflected and applied to many issues.

The West is witnessing growing sentiments of the people against the refugees, what Krastev once termed as the "Clash of Solidarity" and not a lack of solidarity. Those with anti-immigration flags cite convincing reasons for their defense. Indeed, one cannot overlook domestic conditions in the course of being a cosmopolitan – there has to be a balance. But the question is, do we consider the public interest while making such claims. If yes, then who do we consider to be the public in this debate? Is our conception of public broad enough to accommodate this perspective?

Western liberal democracies are seen as examples of protecting and preserving democratic values. Opposition to immigration policies reflects the narrow conception of public interest that the masses are increasingly adopting and populist parties are increasingly exploiting. Political elites in Europe have a role to play in this regard. There is a need for a deliberation on whether we stand by our democratic values or bow down to the narrow populist claims.

The public interest debate has few variations. One of which is what we call "shared private interests." This is often confused with public interests by the political elites and by observers of international politics. If a collective group shares a common interest, it is not necessarily public interest. Therefore, it is not in the public interest to oppose immigration policy based on some shared private interests, which are held by a collective group. It more importantly goes against the ideals of democracy.

The other variation here is that there are so called "felt or subjective interests" which can be termed as private interests. Sociologists term them as "revealed preferences." Which individuals assert or reveal to be their interest. And there is the other factor known as "real or genuine interests" which are not subjective and most of the time individuals are ignorant of these interests.

The anti-immigration claim or demand can be an example of subjective interests which individuals assert to be the public interest and in their best interest. However, it may vary from person to person as it is subjective. There is also a possibility that it may not vary and a large group has the same interest; in which case it thus falls under the category of shared private interests. Which again are not and cannot be considered as the public interest.

Modern liberal democracies give much importance to the masses and their interests; however, if the interests of one are conflicting with another it can no longer be termed as public interest and that is the time when political elites play a major role. Either they balance the situation for an inclusive solution or they exploit it for the better of one and worsen things for the other.

Another aspect of this debate is, whether the masses are the best judges of their own interests and that of the others? The proponents of real interests argue that the masses at times do not know what is good for them and for the others. Liberal beliefs about human nature say that humans act in a selfish manner, for his or her own benefit or in their own interest. Therefore, is it wise to decide about migration and related issues, merely based on public interest? If things were to be decided by the masses themselves, then what is the role of the modern state in domestic politics? Such questions arise very strongly out of these debates about public interest.

The EU's role

The embracing and acceptance of globalization by Europe, as by others in the world, was a statement to be inclusive not only in economics but in other aspects as well. The global village was clearly not only an economic idea. In that sense there is enough food for thought in this regard, as far as the refugee crisis is concerned. Public interest likewise should undergo significant changes in a globalized world and should be more inclusive in matters of crisis.

European citizens are ignorant of what the diversity achieved through immigration can bring to their societies. A regulated and accommodating approach can work wonders for refugees on one hand and of course for Europe as a region on the other. There is a strong need for governments and political elites to consolidate public opinion in favor of immigration policies, using the very same values of democracy which are used for polarizing this opinion.

* Ph.D. student in political science and international relations, Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University

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