In May the EU will host elections for its parliament, and the far right looks set to make considerable gains. This raises significant concerns for some of the most vulnerable in European society – migrants, refugees, and minority groups.
Alice Weidel, leader of the Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD), has referred to migrants as “cultural aliens,” who are “flooding” Germany. In 2016, the party’s former leader Frauke Petry suggested that border police should shoot migrants and refugees who attempt to enter the country illegally. The party has run election adverts promoting “Islam-free schools” and party officials have called for the banning of minarets, burkhas, and mosque calls to prayer.
Come May, the AfD is predicted to double its seats in the European Parliament.
Piergiorgio Stiffoni, a former Italian Lega Nord senator, has stated that “immigrants are not [his] brothers, the colour of their skin is different,” adding, “it is a pity that the ovens of the crematorium of Santa Bona are not ready.” Giorgio Bettio, a Lega Nord councillor in Treviso, had this to say on immigrants: “we should use the same methods with immigrants as the SS: punish 10 of them for every wrong done to one of our citizens.”
Lega Nord is expected to increase its number of MEPs from five to 28.
Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister, has called refugees coming to Europe “Muslim invaders.” He has made explicit his views on their presence, arguing that “multiculturalism is only an illusion,” and that he does not want “significantly sized minorities” living within his nation – “we want to keep Hungary as Hungary.” He has portrayed anti-migrant policies as a necessity in preventing “gangs hunting down our women and daughters.”
His party, Fidesz, is polling at 51.48% and is expected to win 12 of Hungary’s 21 seats in the European Parliament.
These parties are unlikely to take over the EU after the May elections. As things stand, polling indicates that the far right will fall short of the crucial 33% mark; according to the European Council on Foreign Relations, this is the point past which they would be able to exert significant policy influence. At the same time, whilst leaders such as Lega Nord’s Matteo Salvini have called for the far right to unite and work to “change the rules of Europe,” differences of opinion and policy have thus far presented an obstacle to such unity.
Yet it is not merely in gaining control of the European Parliament that the far right can have influence. In whipping up anti-immigrant, xenophobic sentiment, they can – and have – caused serious harm to some of the most vulnerable people in society. These parties perpetuate a rhetoric in which migrants, refugees, and minority groups are an ‘other’ – not a valid segment of European society, but an intruder that threatens the harmony of our existing, white-Christian, order. And this is a rhetoric that has very real consequences. Europol reports that the number of right wing extremists arrested in Europe nearly doubled from 2016 to 2017, whilst hate crime is on the rise across the continent. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights notes that from 2016 to 2017, incidences of such crime grew by 42% in Italy, by 120% in Germany, and by over 600% in Hungary. By far the predominant share of this type of crime in each country’s case was classified as “racism and xenophobia.” The promotion of a narrative whereby migrants, refugees, and minorities with unique cultural features cannot possibly belong in European society, and are in fact “invaders”, inevitably ends up here – with these vulnerable groups facing real consequences and real harm at the hands of those who buy into such stories.
It is not only extremist individuals who fall prey to such rhetoric, and herein lies the second route by which the far right may exert their influence on Europe, even without a parliamentary majority. That is, there is a risk that mainstream European parties will begin to adopt the very same narratives. As these parties see their popularity decline and that of the far right begin to rise, they see a message that is connecting with voters, and one that they can use for their own political gain. Indeed, we can already see signs of this occurring across Europe. Angela Merkel’s German government, often the driving force of the EU in recent years, has seen officials call for a “conservative revolution” to counteract the rightwards drift of voters. Such a ‘revolution’ can best be understood as the abandonment of social liberalism in favour of the kind of reactionary social stances held by the European far right.
The European People’s Party (EPP), the largest group in the European Parliament, is itself being dragged rightwards by these forces. It has thus far avoided removing Viktor Orban’s Fidesz from its ranks, despite the kind of rhetoric he produces, discussed above; it contains Austria’s Österreichische Volkspartei, a party that governs in coalition with the far right; and Spain’s Partido Popular remain part of the group – a party whose leader epitomises the mainstream’s rightward drift, calling for a renewal of the conservative right, lest fringe movements emerge to represent citizens who feel forgotten. Of course, in doing so he adopts this fringe’s rhetoric, speaking of the threat “millions of Africans” pose to Spain, and of the need to adopt more stringent anti-immigration policies.
This transformation of the European centre is an overt aim of the far right. They realise they do not possess the numbers to completely control Europe, and thus wish to transform its policies through promotion of their rhetoric. Viktor Orban has explicitly called for the EPP to be renewed on his terms, threatening mainstream parties with a “pan-European anti-immigration formation” if this does not occur. It is worrying that it appears the mainstream is beginning to bow to such pressure.
So, whilst the far right may not come to dominate the European Parliament following the May elections, its rhetoric remains a prominent threat – both in influencing extremist individuals, and in pulling the European centre to the right. What then can be done by those that wish to counter the far right’s demonisation of migrants, refugees, and minorities?
It is of paramount importance that mainstream parties resist adopting the far right’s narrative. They cannot lend credibility to a discourse that promotes stigmatisation of vulnerable groups, and increases the likelihood of their being harmed. They may face pressure in the form of the growing popularity of far right parties, but they cannot assume such harmful rhetoric merely through fear of losing votes. Yet they must not stop here. To merely reject the far right’s message may lead to more voters flocking to parties promoting xenophobia and racism. That is, these narratives don’t exist in a vacuum. For whatever reason, the portrayal of immigrants, refugees, and minority groups as an invading ‘other’ has struck a chord with certain groups of voters in Europe. So this message cannot just be ignored, it must be condemned – and an alternative must be provided.
Those in Europe who wish to defend migrants and refugees must first make a positive case for them. As the World Bank reports, immigration has positive effects both for the migrant and the receiving country: “almost every empirical study finds that increased labour mobility leads to large gains for the immigrants and positive overall gains for the destination country.” In fact, the OECD Observer reports that given the EU’s ageing population, in the coming decades it appears likely that many member states will require an increase in incoming migrants and asylum seekers if they wish to maintain their current standards of living.
Such a message may not be enough. After all, many of those most vehemently opposed to immigration either do not care for the economic benefits, or have no personal interaction with immigrants in the first place – basing their opposition to it purely on the rhetoric they consume from the far right. As Constanze Stelzenmüller, a Brookings Institution fellow, claims, in the 2018 German federal election, “there was a direct correlation with lack of actual refugees and votes for the AfD.” That is, those who voted for the party campaigning about the damage refugees and migrants were doing to Germany actually had the least interaction with these individuals.
So Europe cannot stop at condemning and demonstrating the falsity of the far right’s message; it must present an alternative. The support for the far right exists despite the fact immigration is a net positive, and many of its followers have no interaction with the groups they label “invaders.” But it must exist for a reason.
Of course, some of this support may comprise of extremists, but a large portion are disenfranchised voters, who feel the only parties that represent them are those on the far right. Here, the mainstream of European politics must do more. Whilst it cannot give in to the anti-migrant discourse, it can listen to these voters’ concerns. If they are opposed to immigration due to their perceived low wages, or pensions, then politicians must do more to make a more equitable society, via income redistribution for instance. This is but one example.
Concerns surrounding immigration cannot be solely attributed to xenophobia or racism – this is too simplistic. Real economic or other issues lie behind them. It is merely the narrative of the ‘other,’ the “invader,” provided by the far right, that offers a focal point for such concerns.
If we wish to protect migrants, refugees, and minorities, we must not only deny and disprove the far right’s narrative, but address its supporters’ concerns through the provision of an alternative. Of course, this is no easy task, but the solution can never be the persecution, hate, or stigmatisation of some of our societies’ most vulnerable individuals.
In May, it is likely the far right will gain seats in the European Parliament, yet ultimately fall short of gaining significant legislative power. The fight, however, will not stop there.