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Communication Breakdown in Austria - How Far-Right Fringe Groups Hijacked the Narrative on the Global Compact for Migration

Published 1 November 2018 / By Klaudia Wegschaider

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Introduction

Yesterday Austria announced its withdrawal from the UN Global Compact for Migration (GCM), thus joining the United States and Hungary. The decision was met with little surprise. It followed an announcement in early October that Austria would reconsider its continued participation in the GCM process. And it followed weeks of efforts by the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) and other far-right actors to discredit the GCM.

As the Austrian decision gained media attention, many outside the world of migration policy wondered what the Global Compact for Migration is. This post is both for newcomers and long-time observers. For the newcomers, I explain how the GCM came about and why it is significant. Long-time observers may want to skip to the section discussing the context and implications of the Austrian decision to withdraw.

What is the UN Global Compact for Migration?

The short answer is that it is a non-binding agreement on migration at the UN level. The lengthy intergovernmental negotiations concluded in July, which means that the text of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration is already available. The text lays out 23 objectives covering a wide array of policies, including objectives on addressing the drivers of migration, better data gathering, border management, enhanced regular pathways and more. In December, states will adopt the GCM in Marrakesh, right after the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD).

The long answer is that the Global Compact for Migration encompasses more than the final text. The process leading up to the agreement is just as noteworthy. The negotiations between states and with close participation of civil society actors stretched over eighteen months. At several thematic sessions, states, non-governmental organisations, researchers, grassroots organisations, and think tanks came together in New York, Vienna, and Geneva. In the sessions, actors mostly read out their condensed two- or three-minute statements. But intense discussions happened during panels, outside, at side-events, and during breaks. And parallel to the global proceedings, there were regional and, in some cases, also national consultations. It was thus also a process of learning and coalition-forming.

Why did Austria decide to leave the Global Compact for Migration?

The official Austrian critique of the Global Compact for Migration rests on two points. First, it argues that the GCM would eventually be a legally binding document. Second, the GCM is portrayed to diminish states’ national sovereignty. Neither of these statements holds true. Already in the preamble, it clearly says that it is “a non-legally binding, cooperative framework” and that it “upholds the sovereignty of States.” And during the lengthy negotiations, states overwhelmingly emphasized their sovereignty. The decision to leave therefore appears to be much more about short-term domestic politics than about the above-stated concerns.

Already during the parliamentary election in 2017, the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) and the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) outdid each other with anti-immigration rhetoric. Now that they form the current governing coalition, they have passed increasingly restrictive migration and integration policies. Their recent measures stretch from budget cuts for language courses parallel to restricting welfare based on language skills. In light of this, the Austrian decision is not surprising.

But until recently, the Global Compact for Migration had not been a point of contention for the Freedom Party. In fact, the Austrian foreign ministry – currently headed by a minister affiliated with the FPÖ – took part in the negotiations. The timing of this withdrawal therefore merits attention. Some weeks ago, fringe groups on the far-right started to mobilize against the GCM. With online petitions, posters, and a protest in front of the UN headquarters in Vienna. The websites contain close to no information on the GCM. Instead, they make the baseless assertion that it would lead to “limitless migration” and repeat the alarmist imagery that Nigel Farage used for his “Breaking Point” banner ahead of the Brexit referendum. At the helm of this disinformation campaign is Martin Sellner, leader of the far-right Identitarian movement.

Shortly after, the Austrian Freedom Party also started to publicly criticize the Global Compact for Migration in widely read Austrian tabloids. During the evening news on the day of the official withdrawal, Armin Wolf confronted FPÖ Vice-Chancellor Strache with the question why the FPÖ had only begun its criticism after far-right fringe group activism had started. Strache denied any connection in the timing. Meanwhile, Martin Sellner celebrated the success of the initiative. Instead, Strache argued that it took time to reach a judgment on the final product. However, the text had been in its final shape for months.

What can be learned from this?

To be clear, one should not be tempted to overstate the significance of fringe actors. But one also should not leave the debate in the wider public about the Global Compact for Migration in their hands. The GCM negotiation process has been inclusive to those actors wishing to participate and all previous drafts of the agreement had been available online. The efforts were thus comparatively transparent. But, nonetheless, the communication with the wider public was not proactive.

In the months that I had been involved with the GCM process, I was repeatedly surprised how many people within the world of migration and integration were unaware of the negotiations, even less so the wider public. And while it is not necessary to indulge in the technicalities of such a lengthy process, it meant that many people in Austria heard about the GCM only when far-right groups brought it to the fore. In the absence of wider public engagement, there was no counter-movement to challenge the misinformation that was spreading.

What are the implications of this decision? And what is next?

There is already talk of other countries following the path of Austria, Hungary, and the US. But instead of getting stuck in speculations about who else may withdraw, efforts should concentrate on the majority that upholds the Global Compact for Migration. This incident provides an opportunity to start a conversation beyond those tightly involved in migration policy.

And it is important to remember that December will just be the beginning, not the end. Ahead lies a long road of implementation. Then, inclusiveness – especially of those directly affected by the GCM – and proactive communication will remain crucial.

Klaudia Wegschaider is a doctoral student in Politics at the University of Oxford. Her research lies at the intersection of migration and democracy, with a focus on voting rights. After completing her MSc in Migration Studies, she worked for two years on migration policy in a German think tank.