Different European Party Systems Affect the Migrant Crisis

 /  June 10, 2017, 8:27 a.m.


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We tend to see two different types of political systems in democratic countries: two-party and multi-party systems. This distinction is especially evident in the European Union, where nations like Italy have historically had multi-party systems, while countries like Spain have had two-party systems. The differences between the two systems have profound influences on immigration policy, with multi-party systems having more compromise but less stability.

Two-party systems rally and unify diverse groups of people behind policies, since anyone who is politically affiliated will usually stand by their party. This alignment also brings stability to the democratic processes of voting and debate. However, it also discourages efficient political action in time-sensitive situations because partisanship can make compromise difficult during moments of domestic or foreign crisis. Conversely, multi-party systems lack the political gridlock that characterizes two-party systems, which allows more ideas to surface throughout the parties. Because a variety of parties are competing for power, compromise between different groups is indispensable in order to pass legislation or create coalitions. Minority political voices therefore have the chance to present their opinions in the government. But while involvement is encouraged, parties are often precariously situated because of the lack of power they have in such a diversified system. In the European Union specifically, parties in multiparty systems are easily swayed by the broader supranational organization to adopt certain policies.

Italy has benefited greatly from having a multi-party system, as this has allowed the country to respond to the influx of migrants coming from the Middle East and Africa with faster policy proposals. It has passed legislation that would never have even been considered in a gridlocked two-party system. For example, the Turco-Napolitano Law allowed for many migrants to enter the country without any plans for work, which reduced illegal immigration by providing more viable and legal ways into the country. This type of law could not have been passed in a system where one party is pro-immigration and one is against. However, problems have still arisen because of Italy’s positive engagement with the migrant crisis. As xenophobia spread throughout the European Union during this time, other countries, like Hungary, put up even more blockades against migrants crossing in from Italy. This put even more pressure on an already struggling Italian political system and raised support for populist parties, like Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, that destabilize Italy further.

Besides neglecting the cross-border tensions that occur when one country passes proactive immigration policy and others don’t, the EU hurts multi-party countries like Italy through economic leverage as well. Italy receives very little help from the EU as it struggles to balance the waves of migrants that pass through the country due to its geographic proximity to the Mediterranean. Migration crises hurt multi-party countries because they create even more instability in nations that are already insecure. Italy, pretty much on its own, has had to prioritize focus on border control over integration methods and has in return received criticism from other EU countries, but no assistance. Thus, in the EU, multi-party systems have more trouble creating their own legislation and remaining stable politically.

Like Italy, Spain has a multi-party system that represents a variety of political beliefs. But since the transition period from Francisco Franco’s oppressive dictatorship to democracy, two parties—the left-leaning Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and the moderate right-leaning People’s Party (PP)—have emerged as the dominant forces in Spanish politics. Together, they currently have the majority of seats in the Spanish congress. As a result, it is nearly impossible for other coalitions to form outside of these two parties and enact policies in line with their views. The benefit of this setup, namely, the ruling party’s ability to use its majority to pass legislation without having to compromise, is also Spain’s greatest enemy, since the desire for the ruling party to remain in power and pursue its own agenda supersedes its desire to craft multi-partisan policies that address a variety of interests.

Although the PSOE and the PP technically have a majority in congress together, the ideological difference between the two parties is huge—the PSOE envisions a government with lenient immigration policies while the PP has a much more conservative approach. In a speech last October, Mariano Rajoy, who is the current prime minister of Spain and leader of the PP, said that “the challenge of illegal immigration must be tackled from its roots and from the underlying causes at the source.” Rajoy does not view legal migrants as the problem; rather, he wants to work with countries in Africa to prevent migration in the first place. During his terms as prime minister, he has cooperated with countries such as Senegal, Morocco, and Mauritania to establish maritime patrols, radar systems, and sophisticated communication systems that notify the Spanish coast guard when rafts carrying migrants leave the African coast. Spain also has raised the pay of local police to disincentivize them from accepting bribes from illegal immigrants.

Given that the PP has 137 of the 350 seats in the Spanish congress, it is relatively easy for it to pass immigration policy—especially since the party is more interested in working with countries from which migrants depart in order to prevent illegal immigration than in deporting migrants who are already in Spain. However, regional and municipal governments—such as Cataluñia and cities like Madrid—tend to have higher concentrations of left-leaning parties. Therefore, there is a tension between the federal administration and local governments in Spain. Madrid has pledged over 10 million euros to resettlement programs and has partnered with other neighboring cities to stand in solidarity with migrants and call for more lenient policies—a move that directly contradicts the PP’s political trajectory.

As the European Union struggles to confront the migration crisis, it is important to evaluate the political environments of countries like Spain and Italy to see what is conducive to the enactment of effective and multi-partisan policy that does not promote xenophobia and discrimination. While Spain’s two-party system benefits from the fact that the PP’s coalition tends to line up on immigration policies, the potential for faction and gridlock is significant. Contrastingly, the Italian system forces parties to compromise and work together to enact policy—a feature that is both its most effective and most destabilizing asset in the context of immigration reform. If countries with two-party systems work to decrease gridlock and countries with multiparty systems re-evaluate their legislative priorities, a symbiotic relationship can develop that will relieve the weaknesses of both. Through centralized and collaborative initiatives in the EU, Spain’s stable system can provide the support needed to organize Italy’s borders and Italy’s productive system can promote the passage of more pro-immigration legislation in Spain. This would help to resolve the migration crisis—and to build a more unified European Union.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.


Antonia Stefanescu & Angela Seeger