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Is Immigration Fueling the Rise of Nativism in Europe?

Posted: May 11, 2012

Far-right parties across Europe are gaining momentum, as witnessed by their recent successes at the ballot box in Greece and France. While immigration is thought to be a major factor fueling the parties’ rise, a recent report by the Migration Policy Institute finds that although there is clearly a relationship, the connection is not as straightforward as is often assumed.

During times of economic crisis immigrants are often scapegoated as the cause of all problems, from crime to unemployment. Far-right parties, in particular, make attacking immigrants the core of their program. None more so than the Greek Golden Dawn, an unabashed neo-Nazi party, which even goes so far as to enforce its election slogan “Let’s rid this country from the filth” by attacking immigrants in the streets. Yet, while this is an extreme case, and most far-right parties do not use violence, anti-immigrant sentiments are rampant throughout Europe and they are not only reserved for the far right.

In the recent French presidential elections, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front gained a record 17.9 percent of the vote. She had called for the reinstatement of border controls within the European Union and had promised to cut back immigration by 90 percent. Mainstream right-wing French president Nicolas Sarkozy tried to gain re-election by winning over her voters, saying that there were too many foreigners in France and that he would decrease immigration by 50 percent.

What explains this outburst of anti-immigrant politics? Is Europe hit by a new wave of mass immigration? No! In many European countries the number of immigrants has actually fallen since the economic crisis started in 2008. In general, levels of immigration do not really explain the electoral success of far-right parties. But in time of economic crisis and record levels of unemployment – youth unemployment is around 50 percent in Greece – arguments that immigrants take away the jobs of natives do find more support.

Still, despite the more favorable breeding ground, with majorities of the European public concerned about immigration, far-right parties have gained very different levels of success across the continent. Against success stories in Austria and Italy, where far-right parties have been part of the national government, stand as many examples of relatively or complete failure, such as in Germany and the United Kingdom. To be successful, far-right parties need a charismatic leader and well-organized party. But they also need to be able to exploit the immigration issue, which means that they should not have serious competition from other parties on the issue. In 2007 Sarkozy won the French presidency by promising to be tough on crime and immigration and was faced with a far-right party led by an old extremist leader (Jean-Marie Le Pen). This year people judged him on what he had – and had not -- done in the past years, and preferred a rejuvenated far-right with an attractive new leader (Marine Le Pen).

Many commentators have warned that the current economic crisis will lead to a rise of the radical right; just as it brought Hitler to power in the 1930s. They point to the recent successes in France and Greece and predict that these are only the beginning. But while far-right parties have done overall slightly better in elections since the crisis started in 2008, many remain irrelevant, and currently only one country, Switzerland, has a far-right party in government. The reason is that during an economic crisis the political focus shifts to socio-economic issues like the economy and unemployment, and far-right parties have few ideas or legitimacy on these issues. Hence, it is unlikely that the radical right will make huge gains in the near future.

That said, as soon as the crisis is considered over, a return to socio-cultural issues is likely, and immigration and Islam will undoubtedly become popular again. Whether this will lead to a massive gain of political influence of the radical right is largely dependent upon the question of whether the mainstream left-wing and right-wing parties are finally able to develop their own vision on these topics. Unfortunately, so far this doesn’t look to be the case.

Cas Mudde is Hampton and Esther Boswell Distinguished University Professor of Political Science at DePauw University in Indiana and is the author of The Relationship Between Immigration and Nativism in Europe and North America, which can be downloaded for free at: www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/Immigration-Nativism.pdf.

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