It’s not generally thought of as a bastion of the far right, but in October, Switzerland became the latest European country to see a surge in popularity of right-wing parties. The anti-immigration Swiss People’s Party (SVP) won Switzerland’s parliamentary election, gaining 11 more seats in the National Council, to give it 65 out of the 200 slots available. Switzerland-watchers say the victory of the SVP, which won nearly 30 percent of the vote, said to be a record in the confederation, has been fueled by the massive influx of migrants to Europe.
The rise of populism across the continent is not a new phenomenon. Populist parties from France and Britain to Denmark and Greece have been gaining ground for years, as frustration mounted over anemic economic growth and diktats from what many perceive to be an unaccountable European Union machinery in Brussels. But the trend has accelerated this year with the unprecedented wave of migrants escaping war-torn nations such as Syria and Afghanistan. The fact that the bulk of these migrants hail from Muslim countries, coupled with the recent coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and injured over 350, have also heightened fears of Islamic fundamentalism creeping into the continent.
As countries grapple with how to handle the massive influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers — even going so far as to suggest closing Europe’s famously open borders — right-wing parties have increasingly found resonance in the political mainstream, sidelining their centrist rivals.
France has already vowed to severely tighten border controls in the wake of the Nov. 13 commando-style assault on several popular sites in Paris attributed to Islamic State militants, including one assailant who allegedly traveled to Europe on a falsified Syrian passport via Greece. The possible links between the terrorist attack — the worst in Europe since the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people — and the broader migrant crisis threaten to harden countries’ resolve to turn away refugees and asylum seekers.
After the carnage, the leader of France’s right-wing Front National (FN) party, Marine Le Pen held a press conference in which she proclaimed that “France and the French are no longer safe.” She called for an immediate halt to the acceptance of any migrants and stripping French citizenship from those with dual citizenship — declaring that “our fears and warnings about the possible presence of jihadists among migrants” had been validated.
Even before the bloodbath in Paris marked a sharp escalation in the fight against the Islamic State and illegal migration, populists had become a potent political force. France’s FN won 22 percent of the vote in local elections earlier in the year, establishing the party as the third-biggest player on the French political stage.
Those kind of populist electoral successes have been repeated throughout Europe in recent months. In Hungary, where a wall has gone up to keep out migrants from the Middle East and Africa, the far-right Jobbik party holds the third-most seats in parliament.
In Poland, the conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) swept to victory in parliamentary elections at the end of October. PiS won 37.6 percent of the vote, taking enough seats in the lower house of parliament to become the first party since the fall of communism in 1989 to win a majority and not need to forge an alliance with another party to be able to legislate.
The party has pledged a return to conservative Catholic values and more state intervention to prop up the economy and bolster social programs. In addition, after the Paris attacks, the PiS said it would reverse a pledge made under the previous liberal government to take in 7,000 migrants.
Meanwhile, in the global diplomacy hub of Vienna, Austria, the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) garnered just over 30 percent of the local vote in October — not enough to prevent the Social Democrats from winning but a result that showed considerable support for the FPÖ plan to build a fence on the border to keep migrants out and preserve Austrian culture and religion.
Months earlier, in June, as the migrant crisis in Europe was reaching a crescendo, France’s Front National (FN) and the Dutch anti-immigrant Party for Freedom (PVV) announced they were forming a new far-right political bloc in the European Parliament.
EU blocs enjoy more speaking time during plenary sessions, more staff and more funding. The newly formed Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) consists of 36 members (out of a total of 751 in the EU), mostly from FN, the PVV, as well as representatives from Austria, Belgium, Italy, Britain, Poland and Romania.
According to the independent online EUobserver, the ENF will receive €1.09 million a year in EU funds. Its leaders, FN’s Marine Le Pen and PVV’s Marcel de Graaff, will be able to attend the European Parliament’s conference of presidents, which decides the agenda for the parliament. The ENF will also be able to name MEPs to monitor the legislative process and to participate in negotiations, called trilogues, between parliament, the European Commission and member states to finalize new laws.
The enhanced standing will also give Le Pen a platform on which to denounce what she calls the “unbridled globalization” that has chipped away at Europe’s sovereignty.
While the agendas of Europe’s myriad populist parties vary, and their influence is still dwarfed by mainstream center-left and center-right parties, the anti-Brussels backlash may be a permanent fixture on the continent. “Fractious, amateurish and often over-reliant on a charismatic leader, some populist parties may melt away once they try their hand at governance,” the Economist opined in May. “But others have shown staying power. Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom is now part of the political furniture in the Netherlands, after a spell propping up a minority cabinet between 2010 and 2012.”
In addition to their inherent anti-establishment, Euroskeptic appeal, the magazine notes that these parties represent a malleable, reflexive response to grievances that range from bailouts to immigration. “Indeed, Europe’s populist successes often function as a kind of Rorschach test for observers. For anti-austerians they are what you get when you squeeze economies beyond the breaking point. For social conservatives they are the fruit of untrammelled immigration. For liberal reformers they are the inevitable result of sclerotic economies that fail to grow or create jobs. And so on.”
Justin Vaïsse, director of policy planning at the French Foreign Ministry, speaking at the Brookings Institution earlier this year, said populist parties capitalize on the alienation that many citizens feel toward the ruling elite, as well as globalization in general. They attract “people who feel they have been robbed or displaced by immigrants” and “want to recover the national sovereignty of their country against the encroachments of Europe.”
Fears that globalization is eroding traditional social safety nets, and the accompanying rise of the right in Europe, have been exacerbated by the recent migrant crisis. The fact that the arrival of large numbers of migrants from the Middle East and Africa coincided with the financial crisis that hit Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain, and the lingering after-effects of the 2008 global economic crisis, didn’t help the migrants’ case. Many people in Europe complain that their country is being asked to absorb migrants while born-and-bred citizens are making do with less in the face of rising unemployment and budget cuts.
The insecurities have exposed a darker underbelly of the populist tsunami: the resurgence of neo-Nazi factions in countries such as Greece and even Germany, where the country’s generous embrace of refugees may be wearing thin.
Berlin has been a humanitarian leader in the crisis, pledging to take in 800,000 asylum applicants by year’s end (though it could possibly receive far more than that). But as a flood of as many as 10,000 migrants a day pour into overwhelmed German cities, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s popularity has taken a hit while right-wing movements such as Pegida and the Alternative for Germany party enjoy newfound relevance. While some German officials have urged her to scale back the country’s liberal immigration policy, Merkel has pointed out that many of the refugees are fleeing the same Islamic fanatics who launched the Paris attacks.
The anti-immigrant backlash, in fact, has sparked its own backlash. Germany was shocked when a pro-refugee candidate in Cologne’s mayoral race was stabbed in the neck by an apparently xenophobic radical (the candidate recovered from her injuries and later won the race). Tens of thousands of Germans have turned out to offer blankets and other aid to refugees and participate in counter protests at anti-immigration rallies.
Yet while the country’s Nazi past has suppressed many fringe groups, a growing number of Germans have expressed concern that they’re not able to accommodate the recent swell of migrants.
“Germans have been very welcoming to the migrants, but there is another side, unfortunately, with people rallying against having more refugees, and Nazis rallying in the streets to prevent Germany from accepting asylum seekers,” said Sezen Coşkun, the Berlin-born-and-raised daughter of Turkish-Syrian immigrants and co-founder of the group Typisch Deutsch (Typical German), which seeks to change the way Germans and others perceive the typical German citizen.
Anti-immigrant groups are playing on the fears of ordinary Germans — and Poles and Swiss and any other nationalities threatened by the influx — when they stage these rallies and meetings, Coşkun said. “In Turkish, you would say, ‘We’re giving them bubblegum to chew,’” she said, meaning that the tide of migrants is adding fuel to the far right’s fire.
As in Germany, this tide is also testing the open-door policy of Sweden, which took in 85,000 mainly Muslim migrants from the Middle East and the Horn of Africa in 2014. That same year, the neo-Nazi Swedish Democrats won 13 percent of the vote and became the third-largest party in parliament. While the liberal Scandinavian bastion has taken in the largest number of asylum seekers per-capita of any European nation, many Swedes complain that Muslim immigrants have failed to assimilate to their new country’s values and traditions.
Neighboring Denmark and Norway have taken the opposite approach to asylum seekers as Sweden has, openly discouraging them from applying. The anti-immigrant, Euroskeptic Danish People’s Party leapt from just over 12 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections in 2011 to 21 percent in June of this year. Just four months earlier, a Danish-born man of Muslim immigrant descent went on a rampage in Copenhagen, killing a 55-year-old film director at a debate on Islam and freedom of expression in a café and, later, a guard outside a synagogue.
While the migrant crisis has sparked fears of Islamic radicalization and recruitment, Europe has not been immune to homegrown terrorist attacks. In Norway in 2011, a lone wolf gunman — an outspoken opponent of Islam and immigration — killed over 75 people. While the attack stunned the world, it did little to dampen long-term support for populist parties in Norway.
Meanwhile, in Finland, the nationalist Finns Party won the second-largest number of seats in parliament earlier this year.
Michael Haltzel, a visiting senior fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki, told The Washington Diplomat that it’s not so much anti-immigrant sentiment that is spurring the rise of the far right in Europe, but the “dramatic acceleration” in the influx of migrants.
“The right wing was there already and had significant support in many countries in Europe. This has given them an added opportunity” to build on that support, Haltzel said.
Many Europeans have steadily been losing faith in the project of European unity, particularly in the face of stagnating economic growth, mass youth unemployment and widening inequality. The migrant crisis and Islamic-inspired terrorist attacks have only compounded these fears. Jonathan Laurence, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, pointed out the rise of populist parties in countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece, which are bearing the brunt of the migrant inflows. They are “manning the moat of fortress Europe,” he said, but feel abandoned by the ineffectual and disjointed response of the bureaucracy in Brussels.
Conversely, some experts such as France’s Dominique Moisi argue that EU unity is the solution and “the problem is that what the EU needs — more integration — is precisely what Europeans have become unwilling to support.”
Indeed, even Greeks, who have railed against EU-led austerity measures, overwhelmingly favor remaining in the bloc rather than exiting the eurozone. Far-right parties have marginal relevance in southern Europe and elsewhere, and most have not gained actual governing power.
David O’Sullivan, the EU’s ambassador to the U.S., speaking to Foreign Policy last month, said the sharp rise in populist rhetoric following the Paris massacre needs to be balanced with European values of openness. “We must push back on those in our societies who are tempted to exploit these situations to take us back to those dark days of extreme nationalism and hatred.”
Voters have not only rebuffed right-wing sentiment in some countries, but lawmakers from more established center-right and leftist parties have also vowed to make the ride for the far right a rough one.
A day after the Europe of Nations and Freedom bloc was set up in the European Parliament, the head of the Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), Gabriele Zimmer, called for “resolute actions against the backward-looking, nationalist and anti-social policies of the extreme right.”
Zimmer added a Bernie Sanders-like tone to her message, saying part of what is fueling the rise of the right is the EU’s focus on the interests of banks and corporations, not the people.
“Only a democratic EU dedicated to growth, employment and fair living standards can counter the appeal of these racist parties masquerading as defenders of the rights of ordinary citizens,” Zimmer said.
Sanders, the Vermont senator who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, backs comprehensive immigration reform in the United States that he says would help 11 million undocumented immigrants emerge from the shadows and contribute to the economy. “We are a nation of immigrants. I am the son of an immigrant myself. Their story, my story, our story is a story of America,” he has said.
America may be a melting pot of immigrants, but their presence has stoked controversy. Indeed, the jump in migrants and concomitant rise in right-wing policies is not unique to Europe. Across the pond, illegal immigration from Mexico and Latin America has long propelled populist sentiment in the U.S.
When tens of thousands of children, mainly from Central American nations plagued by gang violence, crossed the southern U.S. border between October 2013 and August 2014, U.S. author and political commentator Jerome Corsi wrote on the teaparty.org website that President Barack Obama had invited the “flood of unaccompanied minors from Central America to cross the border to manufacture a crisis.”
Such sharp, and opportunistic, rhetoric obscures the nuances of a complex issue. Obama, for instance, has beefed up border security and deported a record number of immigrants in 2013, drawing the ire of his own party. Illegal immigration also naturally dipped following the economic recession in 2008.
But the issue continues to appeal to a large base of conservative voters worried that illegal immigrants are straining social services, stealing jobs and driving up crime.
Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has pushed a plan that would build a wall around the southern border (and make Mexico pay for it), dramatically strengthen enforcement, scale up deportations, end birthright citizenship and tighten visa programs, among other measures.
Fox News political commentator Juan Williams said in an opinion piece on the Hill website that Trump’s plan won praise from several congressional members of the tea party, considered the extreme right of America’s conservative party.
But, Williams noted, the tea party’s stance on immigration runs contrary to feelings held by the average American on the matter.
“Roughly three-quarters of all Americans — both Republicans and Democrats — favor allowing illegal immigrants to earn citizenship. Gallup polling in July had only 19 percent of Americans calling for mass deportation,” Williams wrote.
The disconnect between popular opinion and appeasing a narrower political base reflects a larger problem that Republicans face: Trump has struck a chord among conservatives, but his mainstream appeal remains questionable.
“Trump is pulling the GOP to the right on immigration by galvanizing support among tea party voters. At the moment, that is good news for the tea party caucus in Congress. But once this moment fades, it will be good news for all in favor of having more Democrats in the Senate and a Democrat winning the White House in 2016,” Williams concluded.
About the Author
Karin Zeitvogel (@Zeitvogel) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat. Anna Gawel is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.