Migration to Europe remains one of the most highly contested issues in Polish society, also on this account making it vulnerable to undue influence and manipulation. On the eve of the EP elections, it is worthwhile to reflect on the example of Greece and consider if a few lessons could not be drawn, thereby making the Polish democracy a bit more resilient.

Migration is bound to play an important role in the debate preceding elections to the European Parliament. It is, next to the environment, one of the top issues that young people across the EU highlight as close to their hearts. Migration has also proven to serve as a very efficient tool of political competition domestically.

Finally, migration to Europe is a real and tangible issue that no one can neglect; even if the implications are not spread evenly across the EU. For this reason, migration is also one of the key imperatives that the newly elected European Parliament, and so the European Commission, will have to address.

What shapes the political debate?

Over 1 million migrants and refugees arrived in Europe since 2015, of which more than about 73,000 are in Greece (ca. 15,000 on Greek islands, ca. 57,000 in mainland). The number of arrivals may have dropped since 2015 and 2016, yet, as statistics show, until May the number of accounted arrivals was a bit more than 11,000. The dynamics of arrivals depict a slight increase while the land route via north Turkey has become more frequently used than before.

A tacit consensus emerged on the Greek political scene that migration will not be used as a resource of political competition.

The resultant debate on migration and its implications remains focused, largely, on technical aspects of the day-to-day migration management. In contrast, Poland – a country that did not comply with provisions of the EU Relocation Mechanism for migration – has established itself as one of the key tenets of political discourse that divides Polish politics and society. How to explain the difference?

Anna Visvizi

The key factor explaining why migration is not employed in Greece in an instrumental way is that no political actor that considers itself a serious political player would do that. Failure to comply with this tacit consensus would discredit any political actor and would propel mechanisms leading to that actor’s containment on the political scene, as exemplified by the case of Golden Dawn.

Importantly, the mainstream Greek media comply with this implicit consensus and do not fuel the debate beyond straight forward information about migration.

Why migration is not a topic in Greece?

It is certainly not to suggest that migration is absent from the Greek political discourse. This would be impossible considering that migrants have become a part of the landscape of Greek cities, countryside and islands. But migration is viewed differently in Greece than in Poland. Why?

  • The amount of human tragedy that unfolded in Greece in connection to the influx of migrants and refugees via the Mediterranean route and the enormous rescue and shelter effort that the Greek society extended to the incoming individuals, limit the scope of haphazard and light-hearted references to migration; likewise, they do not allow its direct instrumental use.
  • As a result, migration is viewed as an unavoidable phenomenon. It is discussed mainly through the lens of technical challenges that the management of increased, irregular, mixed migration flows generate. Greece’s obligations towards ensuring effective management of population influx within the framework of the Schengen Agreement, international humanitarian law, refugee law and the emerging EU migration regime constitute important tenets that define the debate.
  • Throughout 2015-2016, arguments picking on shortcomings related to the delivery of these commitments were occasionally employed to criticise the SYRIZA government. Importantly, migration itself never served as the resource of political competition. Moreover, arguments of that kind would form only a part of larger argumentative schemes employed by SYRIZA’s opponents to blame it on a different account.
  • Over the past 40 years, Greece has received several waves of migration, the largest one stemming from Albania in the early 1990s, yet migration from Central and Eastern Europe continued in the 80s and the 90s.
  • Finally, in Greece, which has been ridden by the implications of the 2010 sovereign-debt crisis, other issues set the tone and content of political discourse, and preclude employing migration instrumentally either in domestic or EU-level discourses. 

The case of Poland

The past few years have shown that the parliamentary discourse in Poland was not devoid of discursive interventions in which migration was linked to threats to safety and security. This — typical to several other countries in the EU — reference to a migration-terrorism nexus was then reproduced by media outlets which were either uncritical or openly supportive of anti-migrant attitudes.

Migration has also been used instrumentally by certain actors on the Polish political scene to assert a stance towards the EU and its policies, and hence to attain very specific, but irrelevant to migration, domestic policy purposes and objectives.

Poland is not a stranger when it comes to accepting and welcoming refugees and migrants, including from Chechnya, Ukraine, Vietnam and other countries. The tragic developments in Ukraine and the resulting wave of migration showed that Polish society can express its empathy and solidarity with people in need.

Similarly, at the level of policy making, decisions were taken to facilitate the influx of Ukrainians to Poland as the war in Ukraine raged. And yet, fuelled by alarming media accounts, the perceived weight of otherness associated with migrants and refugees seemed incomprehensible and unbearable to large parts of Polish society, public intellectuals and the political establishment.

Migration in the European Parliament

Today, as the elections to the European Parliament are approaching – and where the very idea and ideals underpinning the European integration process are being tested and contested – it is imperative to reflect on what we can learn from the Greek lessons.

At the level of political communication, it is of the utmost importance that greater emphasis is placed on migration as an unavoidable phenomenon that concerns all of us. Therefore, more effort needs to be invested in developing discourses that speak to peoples’ objective and subjective concerns that irregular migration trigger.

Only by presenting a non-romanticised picture of migration, i.e. as a social phenomenon with implications for both the receiving and the incoming populations will we be able to improve our society’s resilience to demagogy and populism converging around anti-migrant attitudes.

It is imperative to emulate examples of successful projects aimed at shaping young peoples’ awareness of and attitudes to migration. At the level of party politics and communication, it is necessary that all actors engaged on the Polish political scene get together and engage in true dialogue on migration.

While participating in a true dialogue on migration, it is equally important to consider the strategies of containment and silencing, successfully employed in Greece, and against this backdrop identify specific strategies that might work in the Polish context.

On the eve of the elections to the European Parliament, in a year commemorating the 15th anniversary of Poland’s membership in the EU, and the 30th anniversary of the Round Table talks, the necessity of keeping Polish democracy resilient is more crucial than ever.


This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight.

Anna Visvizi, Ph.D., Independent Researcher, Former Head of Research at the Institute of East-Central Europe (IESW), Lublin

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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