In 2015, some 1.5 million refugees came to Europe, of which nearly 1 million came to Germany alone. Even though most refugees came from countries that have been (civil) war zones for several years, if not decades, the sheer numbers took European countries by surprise and unleashed a political backlash that went well beyond the by-now “usual” anti-immigration xenophobia. In fact, it has led to a fundamental struggle over the essence of Europe in general, and of the European Union in particular.
While the Great Recession further slowed the process of European integration, with individual countries prioritizing their own economies and trying to limit public frustration over the various “bailouts” of crisis-ridden countries, particularly in the South, the European status quo has not been majorly affected by it. When the left populist premier of Greece, Alexis Tsipras, tried to push for a softening of the austerity policies in early 2015, the EU, under the leadership of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, called his bluff and Tsipras buckled. But when the right populist premier of Hungary, Viktor Orban, challenged the EU on its response to the refugee crisis, the status quo quickly started to crumble.
The refugee crisis has created a perfect storm for the populist radical right in Europe. It combines their three main issues — immigration, political incompetence (or even corruption) and security — that are at the heart of their ideological agenda, a combination of nativism, authoritarianism and populism. Fueled by sensationalist media, the uncontrolled arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees triggers nativist anxieties among the population, which are linked to issues of security — through crime and terrorism, leading to a demand for authoritarian responses. Moreover, in the European context, these issues are directly related to the EU, a unique supranational structure, which has abolished physical borders between many member states — within the so-called Schengen area. Consequently, populist radical right parties use the nativist anxieties and authoritarian responses to criticize the national and European politicians, who are accused of standing in the way of “common-sense” solutions, such as the closing of national borders to all (Muslim) refugees.
Although the number of refugees dropped by nearly 80 percent in 2016, a consequence of the so-called Turkey Deal — which pays the increasingly autocratic Turkish government billions of euros to essentially regulate the inflow of refugees into the EU — the political and public debates in most European countries still are dominated by the same three issues: immigration, political incompetence and security. The surprise outcomes of the British EU referendum and the U.S. presidential election have kept these issues at the center of the debate. It is in this political context that a host of European countries will go to the polls this year.
The first country to hold national elections is the Netherlands, which perfectly fits the dominant narrative of a fragile status quo embattled by an insurgent populism. Although the country has a proportional, rather than a U.S.-style winner-takes-all, electoral system, the national and international media cover the elections as a struggle between conservative premier Mark Rutte and populist radical right firebrand Geert Wilders. If the latter becomes the most popular politician in the country, as polls predict today, the frame for the French presidential elections, the next month, will all be about “the populist moment” and how populist radical right leader Marine Le Pen could become “ France’s Trump.” This frame is even applied to the German parliamentary elections, slated for September, even though the local populist radical right party, Alternative for Germany, has just one-third of the support of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.
The problem with this narrative, of course, is that it simplifies European politics and inflates the importance of the populist radical right challenge. It artificially extends the shadow of the refugee crisis, implying the situation has barely changed since 2015, even if the number of refugees is much closer to where it has been for much of the previous decade. Therefore, it is crucial to change this frame and emphasize that the clear majority of people still support liberal democratic parties, that politics should be about a broad spectrum of issues and that “the people” have many different voices.
If we don’t, we might create the very situation we so rightly fear: an increasingly illiberal democratic Europe.
Cas Mudde is an associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia in Atlanta. Mudde will speak at the Bangor Public Library at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16. His lecture, sponsored by the Scholars Strategy Network, is entitled “From the Margin to the Mainstream: The Transformation of the Radical Right.”