Europe News

After Paris, is there a EU backlash against migrants?

A few months ago European leaders opened their arms, albeit reluctantly, to migrants coming into the continent from war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa — but amid heightened concerns over the terrorism, there now appears to be is a growing backlash at the top against the newcomers.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Thursday that the increasing number of refugees coming into the region meant that the European Union (EU) risked the same fate as the Roman Empire — a painful decline and collapse.

People walk on shore after arriving with other migrants and refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos by crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on November 26, 2015.

According to a report in the Financial Times, Rutte, who is the leader of the center-right People's Party for Freedom and Democracy in the Netherlands, said Europe risked the same dramatic collapse as ancient Rome if it did not take control of its borders.

The Roman Empire fell in the mid-5th century due to several factors including over-expansion, attacks from external forces, bad leadership and administration as well as economic and military weakness.

Governments across Europe have come under political, economic and administrative pressure (particularly in southern Europe) due to what Rutte called a "massive influx" of migrants.

"As we all know from the Roman empire, big empires go down if the borders are not well-protected," Rutte said in an interview with international newspapers.

"So we really have an imperative that it is handled."

His comments come as there are fears that Europe's 26-country open border system, known as the Schengen area, could breakdown and precede the fall of the entire union.

Migration matters

Almost 900,000 migrants have arrived in Europe by land and sea so far this year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Many migrants are fleeing civil war in Syria and other conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, often making perilous journeys via the Mediterranean in boats arranged by people traffickers. The journeys all too often have tragic consequences: The IOM reports that over 3,500 migrants are known to have drowned or remain missing this year.

Images of women and children who had drowned attempting to reach Europe in late summer galvanized both public opinion in Europe and the region's leaders to deal with the controversial and uncomfortable issue of migration.

Migrants wait in a holding area across from the Croatian border after walking the last few kilometers from Serbia to Croatia on September 21, 2015.
Europe to relocate 120,000 migrants: Reports

While Europe has seen a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment — seen in the rise over the past decade of parties such as the U.K. Independence Party and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands — public opinion briefly appeared to turn in favor of opening Europe's borders in order to prevent further tragedies.

However, as European leaders met in emergency summits to come up with a unified strategy on where to relocate and house the thousands of migrants, borders were shut, walls were built and Europe — split between countries willing to migrants and those that are not — has been forced to scrutinize its founding principles of pluralism, a respect for human rights and tolerance.

Lurch to the right

Making matters worse, and muddying the public's at-first sympathetic reaction to migrants, was a series of terrorist attacks in Paris earlier this month in which 130 people died.

Reports that some of the suicide bombers who attacked bars, restaurants and a music venue had used the migrant crisis — and the somewhat chaotic processing of migrants in external border countries — as a way to enter Europe without detection has divided public opinion.

It has also prompted politicians, particularly those on the right who oppose immigration, to call for border closures. It has also prompted widespread introspection about integration and the uneasy state of multiculturalism in the West.

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Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Wednesday said multiculturalism had made western democracies vulnerable to Islamist extremists, according to an FT report.

"France is not a supermarket, it's a whole," Sarkozy said to a room of supporters in the small Alsatian town of Schiltigheim. "There is no French identity, no happy identity in a multicultural society."

France faces a strong challenge from the far-right National Front (FN) party in regional elections in early December and Sarkozy is trying to appeal to those right-leaning voters ahead of the polls.

The FN, boosted by concerns about security after the Paris attacks, is leading opinion polls in two regions in the north and southeast and running head-to-head with Sarkozy's party in the east, according to Reuters.

Mujtaba Raman, practice head of Europe at Eurasia Group, said in a note following the Paris attacks that European leaders would now find it harder to rally public opinion behind their open-door policy for migrants.

For one, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, already under pressure from her party for her accommodative stance on immigration, would find it "harder to maintain Germany's open door policy and to forge agreement with other EU states on temporary and permanent refugee burden-sharing," Raman warned.

— By CNBC's Holly Ellyatt, follow her on Twitter @HollyEllyatt.