C Shannon

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Last week, I was in a bus terminal while waiting to catch my ride into the city. I looked down and at my feet was a one of those free newspapers that often become litter. The cover of the paper read something like “BC (British Columbia) government earmarks $1B for refugees.”

Much to my surprise, the accommodation of refugees has become a popular issue in many countries, including my own. My cynicism built up from watching national leaders act over my life was delightfully rebuked by the general lack of xenophobia, which too often haunts Europe, in the mainstream public media.

That is when something interesting happened. I was immediately reminded of the theory I developed for my Master’s Thesis (The effect of public opinion on European foreign policy: decision making in interventions and humanitarianism) to explain when certain decisions were motivated by populism, in a broad sense of the word. You see, the leader of the Liberal party, a traditionally (though not currently) strong party in Canadian federal politics, Justin Trudeau called for a meeting between the parties to decide the Canadian stance on refugees.

This is fine and good, except Justin Trudeau has no capacity to make government policy. He inherited the leadership after a disastrous election saw the Liberal party lose 55% of its seats. The Conservative party currently holds a majority government and the current cabinet reflect this with every cabinet position held by a member of the Conservative party.

The reason why Trudeau is acting like he is in a position to demand policy decisions from the premiership and why the Conservatives need to govern by consent of the other major political parties, to borrow from my thesis, is because he is “(appealing) to a sovereign for additional power.” In this case, the sovereign is the collective Canadian peoples. This observation is made more obvious by the fact that Canada is currently gearing up for a general election.

My analysis is based on the below statement from my thesis:

“Power seems to be the most rational argument for populistic actions. Within this consideration, two division make themselves evident: the acquisition of power and the preservation of power. In the former, assuming a political system is a closed circuit, the only way to gain power would be to gain it from other actors in the system. If this is so, then hoping for political rivals to surrender power willingly might be naïve. There might be other ways to obtain power from others, such as shrewd negotiations, but the surest way to force a political opponents hand is to appeal to what is legitimate or, in other words, the sovereign.”

Trudeau, concerned about his ability to wrest power from his political rivals is making a commotion about refugees in order to appeal to the electorate by showing that his concerns are in line with the popular concern. When this fails, as it likely will, Trudeau will be able to point to Prime Minister’s Harper as the reason this effort to cooperation on a major international issue beyond party lines fell apart; despite not having any real legitimacy to contribute to government policy (beyond advisory and critical feedback) in the first place. This is the same tactic often deployed by the European Parliament to increase its standing with the wider European public.

This tactic is proving effective, or rather, we may infer that supporters of the Conservative government are worried based on the defence they’ve mounted of the current government’s reluctance to accept large numbers of Syrians at a time following quickly upon the heels of bill C-51. They make excuses to justify the hmm-ing and hawing of the government on the issue while the NDP (New Democratic Party– effectively Canada’s Social Democrats) and Liberals hammer on the Prime Minister. These excuses are ultimately ineffectual and try to occupy the middle of the road, where there is no middle to occupy. To delay humanitarian aid is to waste resources. One ought to act quickly and decisively or not at all.

I would conjecture that European pro-refugee politicians are operating under similar motivations, hoping to ride the wave of popular support for the issue to increase their own mandates. From my observation, the European opposition has likewise been fielding as flimsy counter-arguments as their Canadian counter-parts.

Helping Refugees is not a good policy decision. There are many drawbacks and little concrete benefits to helping displaced populations, outside of moral terms. It is then genuinely surprising to see so many governments adopting pro-refugee policies. For his part, President Junker has long been supportive of a European solution and it isn’t surprising to see Germany to follow suit, even if Eastern partners have been less forthcoming with their aid.

Like many factors in the political world, humanitarianism isn’t a popular issue until it is. Though it warms my heart to see such wide acceptance, I would remind people to remain sceptical about those who say what you want to hear. Some may be pushing entrenched and practical-minded governments to adopt more compassionate lines out of their own moral character, but politics is, at its heart, about power. People will use our idealism to further their own power. I’m not saying this in support of sitting governments or their opposition. Just a reminder that even on issues as helping people without benefit, the world of politics is painted in shades of grey.

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