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Settling scores – was the World Cup really a win for European immigration?

Image credit: Gustave Deghilage (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Germany’s long-time star midfielder Mesut Ozil delivered a stark message when he announced his retirement from the national team following this year’s FIFA World Cup.

‘I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,’ he wrote amidst a series of Tweets on 22 July.

Ozil—born in Germany to parents who immigrated from Turkey—was once lauded as a symbol of success in a dynamic and diverse Germany. Yet, his decision to pose for a photograph with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in May attracted harsh criticism. Ozil was also targeted for his performance in Germany’s shockingly early exit from World Cup.

Germany, the defending champion, endured its worst performance in recent history. By contrast, France’s victory at the World Cup was lauded as an ‘inspiration’ and a ‘model’ for a continent vexed by questions about immigration, race and religion.

At a time when Europe faces renewed calls to toughen its stance on border control, the dexterity and teamwork displayed by France’s diverse team was an ‘implicit rebuke to countries that have historically been less open to immigration’.

Yet data released by the European Commission in June showed that Europeans are more worried about immigration than any other social challenge. Public anxiety about immigration exceeds concerns about terrorism and unemployment, illustrating how Europe’s leaders—especially from the far-right—have fuelled concerns that the European Union (EU) is still experiencing a ‘migrant crisis’.

‘We have failed to defend ourselves against the migrant invasion,’ Hungary’s far-right prime minister Viktor Orbán said in June. With these words, Hungary joined Italy and Austria’s tough stance towards immigration.

Italy’s premier Giuseppe Conte received praise from President Donald Trump for the government’s increasingly hard-line approach to immigration.

‘I agree very much with what you are doing with respect to migration, and illegal immigration, and even legal immigration,’ President Trump said on 30 July. He went on to praise Conte’s ‘bold’ leadership in debates with other European leaders.

Italy’s populist government has insisted on changing EU regulations that govern migration into Europe, particularly during the latest Euro Summit of the European Council in late June this year.

Throughout the Summit, Italy ‘played hardball’ with EU member states, refusing to discuss other issues — such as digital innovation — until questions about immigration were resolved.

After gruelling debates, the Council finally agreed to call for further measures to ‘reduce illegal migration and prevent a return to the uncontrolled flows of 2015’.

But measures to contain migration into the EU are not linked to a surge in migrant arrivals.

The number of migrants arriving in Europe is now significantly below 2015 levels. In October 2015, 221,454 migrants arrived in Italy, Greece and Spain by sea, compared to 10,495 in May 2018.

These false accounts of a European Union under siege from migrants perpetuate conditions where immigrants face systemic bias and discrimination.

While they might win at football, immigrants across Europe do not experience a level playing field.

In Belgium, people with parents born outside the EU are 13.2 per cent less likely to get a job better than their parents, compared to those with parents born in Europe. They are 8 per cent less likely in France and 4 per cent less likely in Britain. This exposes a vicious cycle where immigrants are often suspended in low-paid occupations.

The challenge of migrant unemployment is also endemic in the EU. The unemployment rate for non-EU citizens was 18.9 per cent in 2015 compared to 8.9 per cent for EU nationals. Non-EU citizens also experienced the largest increase in unemployment over the 2008–15 period.

France’s diverse team exposed an intersection between sports and politics. It astutely illustrated how acceptance into new communities often requires extraordinary feats, like winning the World Cup.

Caitlin Clifford is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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