In the eight years since Britons voted for Brexit and Americans elected Donald Trump to the presidency, right-wing populism in the West has endured and become ever-stronger. This populist persistence has been fueled in large part by one dominant political issue: immigration.

In the Netherlands, the eccentric firebrand Geert Wilders won a landslide victory last year in an election dominated by issues of asylum law. In Italy, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni leads a right-wing government that is building offshore detention centers and has sought to deter migration across the Mediterranean. The anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats joined their first government in history in 2022. The far-right Alternative for Germany has surged to second in the polls there. In Austria, a politician who pledges not to accept a single asylum application is the frontrunner to be prime minister after elections this autumn. Log onto the website for the Identity and Democracy Group, the furthest-right alliance in the European Parliament, and you will be greeted at the top with a petition link exclaiming: “Protect our Borders!” With elections for the EU Parliament coming up in June, this alliance and other rightist forces could upend the centrist coalition that has steered the EU since its inception.

With stakes this high, liberal and progressive leaders throughout Europe have adapted. Long gone is the 2015 “We can do this!” rhetoric of Angela Merkel, who allowed more than 1.2 million Syrian refugees into Germany and called on her citizens to embrace the newcomers.

Some progressives have transfigured themselves into anti-immigration zealots. The best example is Mette Frederiksen, who has turned Denmark’s Social Democratic Party into the face of Europe’s “anti-immigration left.” With measures to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, send refugee families who have spent years in Denmark back to Syria, and a pledge to take in “zero asylum-seekers” (except for one small U.N. program), Frederiksen has clawed back support from the far right to win two terms in power. Yet her government has been criticized by human rights groups and now faces the threat of an insurgent left wing dissatisfied with her broader rightward shift.

Other center-left forces have foundered on the issue and fallen into the political wilderness. The traditional parties of the Dutch and Italian center-left and center-right have cratered over their inability to articulate an attractive policy to voters. Britain’s Labour Party has been out of power for 14 years, their most recent loss caused by a hemorrhaging of seats in Northern England, where working-class voters have long sought a tougher approach to migration.

Between the perils of political doom and the prospect of hard-heartedness, however, a few liberals have set out on a third course. Led by Donald Tusk and Emmanuel Macron, Polish and French liberals have determined to protect their electoral viability by implementing reasoned restrictions on migration while staying true to liberal principles. An examination of both cases holds lessons for liberals across Europe and the globe.


Last year, Poland was eight years into the rule of the Law and Justice party, known by its Polish acronym PiS, an ultra-conservative political party that tried to eviscerate Poland’s independent judiciary and exerted control over Poland’s public media. PiS came to power at the peak of the European migrant crisis in 2015, with PiS’ leader Jaroslaw Kaczyński declaring that refugees were bringing “cholera to the Greek islands, dysentery to Vienna, various types of parasites.” In power, PiS depicted Middle Eastern migrants as part of an attack on Poland and sought to punish activists who worked to assist migrants.

As PiS lost popularity over other issues – their undermining of the rule of law and rolling back of abortion rights – the party’s leaders turned to immigration as a saving grace. Taking a page from George W. Bush’s reelection campaign, PiS scheduled two referenda to be held simultaneously with elections to the Polish parliament last year. One asked voters if the barrier on Poland’s border with Belarus should be removed (many non-white migrants have come to Poland through Belarus), and another asked if Polish citizens supported “the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, in accordance with the forced relocation mechanism imposed by the European bureaucracy.” PiS bet that by putting fears of unchecked migration into the debate, undecided voters would hand them a third term in power.

Against this backdrop of fear-mongering, Poland’s opposition formulated a new strategy on migration. Early in the campaign, Donald Tusk, leader of Poland’s centrist Civic Coalition, spoke about mass rioting in France, which had fueled PiS’ demagoguery about Muslim migrants. In a video posted to X (formerly Twitter), Tusk pointed out that migration had in fact increased under PiS rule, and charged PiS with hypocrisy and failure. Tusk loudly called out the government: “Why is Kaczyński scapegoating strangers and immigrants while wanting to let hundreds of thousands of them in at the same time? Maybe it’s because he wants an internal conflict and Polish citizens to be afraid because that’s when it’s easier for him to rule.” Tusk was adamant about distinguishing his rhetoric from PiS’ xenophobia, but was clear that he believed unrestricted migration could pose major problems.

This dual critique of PiS’ failed policy and xenophobic rhetoric became a theme of Tusk’s campaign. In the Civic Coalition platform, Tusk promised to secure the Poland-Belarus border and crack down on smuggling, while also pledging to hold PiS officials accountable for corruption and mismanagement of the immigration system. In interviews, Tusk was clear that he admired human rights activists and would immediately end government efforts to target those who assisted migrants. But he also insisted that the Prime Minister, as the one responsible for national security, must take a tougher approach. When PiS charged that Tusk supported an EU plan to force Poland to take in Middle Eastern migrants who had arrived in other European states (the subject of their absurdly worded referendum), Tusk made clear that he would oppose the plan.

Tusk spent much of the campaign playing defense on the migration issue. But things turned upside-down weeks before the election.

In September, it was revealed that under PiS rule, Polish consular services in poorer countries outside Europe had been offering aspiring migrants visas in exchange for bribes. Current estimates suggest that as many as 250,000 entry permits were sold for cash in India, the Philippines, Qatar, the UAE, and other countries. The sitting government was humiliated on the immigration issue. Tusk was vindicated: the opposition’s charges of incompetence and corruption were plain to see. Tusk decried the scheme as the “biggest scandal in 21st-century Poland” and turned the once-perilous immigration issue into an electoral winner.

Poland went to the polls on Oct. 15. Tusk and his allies won a narrow but decisive majority in Poland’s Parliament. In urban areas, Tusk’s Civic Coalition made modest gains over the last election, improving by about 2 percent. In rural areas where PiS’ anti-immigration message had once resonated loudest, Tusk gained 4-5 percent.

Now Prime Minister, Tusk has begun rebuilding Poland’s independent judiciary, holding corrupt officials accountable, and improving relations with the EU – all while honoring his pledge to impose limits on migration. He has promised to end the “xenophobia” and “hostile attitude of authorities towards migrants,” while acknowledging that migration flows must be controlled if Poland is to have sustained, liberal governance.


Emmanuel Macron faced a different challenge: as an incumbent, he did not need to revive a languishing liberal opposition, but instead to prove that liberal government could hold back the populist tide in a sustained way. Since his euphoric victory in 2017, Macron’s government has been challenged by an increasingly powerful far right: in 2022, anger at migration and Macron’s economic policies handed Marine Le Pen 42 percent of the vote in the presidential election and led her rightist National Rally to become the second-largest faction in France’s National Assembly.

Anxieties over the far right’s growing strength have worsened in recent years: term limits will require Macron to step down in 2027, and whoever emerges from the mainstream to succeed him will face Le Pen. Her support has only grown since a June 2023 police shooting that led some French Arabs to riot in major urban areas, and poll results released in December showed pluralities of French Muslims characterizing Hamas’ October 7th attacks on Israel as “resistance against colonization.”

These events put migration and assimilation front and center, and Macron chose to confront them head-on. In early December, Macron tried to pass a compromise immigration bill that would have sped up some deportations while also easing work authorizations for undocumented migrants. The bill suffered a humiliating surprise failure when members of the center-right Les Republicains party joined with the left and far right to oppose it. Speaking bluntly, one member of Les Republicains summed up his party’s opposition by saying: “either it’s a right-wing text or a left-wing text, but it can’t be both at the same time.”

Faced with pundits declaring the “end of Macron’s reign,” and fever-pitch fears over Le Pen’s machinations on the issue, Macron moved right. He returned a week later with a new draft that eased deportations, extended waiting periods for migrants to access welfare, and, most controversially, created quotas based on national origin. Both Le Pen and Les Republicains had no choice but to support the bill: opposition would have been blatantly hypocritical. The bill generated outrage on the left and resignations in Macron’s cabinet. A quarter of his own party abstained or voted no.

Yet Macron’s legislation was not a capitulation to the populists. For one, Macron was open about tackling immigration as a way of disarming the radical right: he claimed it was a necessary effort to “start from reality, to deal with the problems that concern the French.” Macron’s bill acknowledged voter sentiment that the integration of migrants had not fully succeeded. The specific proposals in the bill enjoyed wide public support. Macron was clear-eyed where other liberals had been, perhaps, naïve: even when voter sentiments cross over into distasteful anti-immigrant attitudes, those feelings cannot be perpetually ignored.

Macron also had a cynical play in mind. From the time he introduced the new, tougher bill, members of his own party openly mused that France’s Constitutional Council might shoot down its most punitive elements. Under this scenario, the bill could pass, Macron would earn plaudits for his toughness, the far right would have their demagoguery drained, and the core of France’s liberal migration system would remain intact. In January, this prophecy came true, when the Council knocked down some of the bill’s harshest measures, including national-origin quotas. Mathis Bitton, a political science PhD student at Harvard, told me in an interview, “We could also see Macron as a mastermind: he got what he wanted, the more liberal parts of the bill were adopted, the right-wing additions to the bill were vetoed by the Constitutional Council, and Macron gets to blame the court without doing anything about it.”

Throughout the saga, Macron never embraced the narrative of the far right. While he viewed the bill as a “shield,” and celebrated the broad public support for his measures, he was clear that he had rejected the drastic limits that the National Rally had sought to impose. Indeed, while the media seized on Le Pen’s statement that the bill was an “ideological victory” for her camp, she also deemed it a “very small step” and implied she would go far further if ever elected to the Élysée.

In Bitton’s analysis, Macron’s strategy on migration makes political sense: “His decision was electorally smart – more liberal parties are realizing that without the immigration issue, populists have nothing. If the main cleavages are social issues (where populist are more radical than the electorate) and economics (where populists are believed to be incompetent), liberals win. It’s that simple.” Bitton’s intuitions have numbers to back them up: one recent poll found that while Macron is more trusted than Le Pen to handle foreign policy, the environment, health, and the cost of living, Le Pen held a 27-point advantage among voters when it came to who they trusted to handle the level of migration.

Macron has used the immigration disaster-turned-passage to initiate a broader shakeup. He has elevated younger and more conservative ministers, and pledged support for mandatory national service for teenagers and parental leave expansions to boost the birth rate. Macron has framed these initiatives as conservative – but not populist – reflecting a leader determined to stay true to his moral compass while countering the radical right. Time will tell if this strategy wins the day in future French elections, but it has brought a new momentum to Macron’s presidency.


Despite their vastly different circumstances, Macron and Tusk’s playbook had commonalities: both leaders focused on policy changes over rhetorical flourishes, both attacked, rather than outflanked, their far-right opponents’ xenophobia, and most crucially, both men listened to voters in their country. Sometimes, statesmanship is about taking an unpopular stance that defies popular consensus. But after eight years of mass discontent and with a far right on the precipice of destructive power, liberals cannot justify further inaction and hope that voters will change their minds about migration.

The Tusk-Macron playbook represents a third, better approach for liberals who have fumbled on migration. With elections in the EU and the United States approaching, other liberals have much to learn. No liberal party can win the working-class vote without a strategy for handling immigration. But it is possible to adopt moderate restrictions without compromising liberal values. Countries will be better off with popular, measured restrictions on migration than with far-right demagogues in power or a total capitulation to their anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Liberal politicians in Germany, Austria, the U.K., and across Europe could benefit from learning the lessons of France and Poland. U.S. President Joe Biden might too. It was evident during Biden’s State of the Union speech that Republicans feel immigration is the issue where they hold the clearest advantage with the public. More Americans list immigration as their number-one voting issue than at any time in 43 years, according to a new Gallup poll. Biden’s proposed border bill was a good first step to make Democrats look serious in the public eye – with the bill stalled in Congress, perhaps a close examination of Macron’s adaptive strategies could point him to new executive actions aimed at stemming illegal border crossings.

Liberalism is an idea that has brought Europe its modern prosperity and unity. It thrives most, though, when it appeals to, and does not reject, the intuitions of the citizens it seeks to govern, even while seeking to mold public sentiment in the long term. For too long, on the issue of migration, there has been a dissonance between the needs of populations and the policies of liberal leaders. Emmanuel Macron and Donald Tusk have shown another path, perhaps one that could help preserve liberalism as the reigning system in the Western world.

IMAGE: Migrants are brought into Dover Port in England by Border Force officials after being picked up in the English Channel while trying to make the journey from France in inflatable dinghies on March 4, 2024. Migrants continue to cross the Channel after a seven-year-old girl died after getting into difficulties in French waters over the previous weekend. Approximately 150 people arrived on March 4, although official figures were to come out the following day. Home Office figures show that more than 2,000 migrants had arrived in the UK thus far this year, with difficult weather conditions the likely cause of the relatively low numbers. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)