By Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza and Markus Heinrich
With eurosceptic Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer coming to within just 0.3 percent of the vote of being the President of Austria, it would not be an exaggeration to claim that Europe has reached a watershed. No longer fringe groups of hardliners, no longer a handful of dissenters in the back rows of national parliaments; the far-right is once again a credible political force in Europe. The fact that this watershed result occurred in Austria, a country whose not-too-distant past is a stark reminder of where this road can lead, illustrates just how far to the right contemporary Europe has slipped.
While arguably the far-right’s biggest success to date has come in Austria, far-right movements across Europe are experiencing a Renaissance. Already growing considerably in recent years as they feed off widespread frustration with economic stagnation and mass unemployment, the migrant crisis has propelled these groups to new heights. If the trend continues, the prospect of a far-right party coming to power in one or several European countries in the foreseeable future is no longer unrealistic.
A Europe-wide Phenomenon
Economic instability, populist politicians, and a massive wave of refugees are steadily changing the face of politics in Europe and pushing countries towards the far-right. While the rise of right-wing parties has been a cyclical process in Europe, as they tend to flourish during economic downturns and fade away during periods of growth, their current resurgence in countries long considered politically stable is nonetheless troubling. Sweden is an example of this: for decades, it has had one of the most generous asylum policies on the continent and soon after the migrant crisis began, took in nearly 75,000 migrants. This was an example of tolerance and openness in a Europe torn by diverging approaches to the issue of migration. However, recent polls have shown that the Swedish Democrats who have neo-Nazi ties are slowly gaining popularity among voters. In France, the National Front has seen its support skyrocket in recent years; in Greece the Golden Dawn has recently arisen as a strong political party as a result of the severe austerity measures and the influx of migrants; this is replicated in Hungary with the Jobbik, Germany’s National Democratic Party, the Dutch Party Freedom, Italy’s Lega Nord, Austria’s Freedom Party, the United Kingdom’s (UK) Independence Party, and many others.
These right-wing parties represent a wide policy spectrum: from populist and nationalist to far-right neo-fascist and neo-Nazi groups. What they have in common is their rise coincides with fears aroused across Europe by the recent wave of migrants. Both old and new parties have used the issue of migration as an opening to capitalize on rising fears of voters that might otherwise never consider supporting them. Far-right political parties frequently couch their criticisms of migrants in terms of economic pragmatism and how this huge influx of people is suffocating local and national economies, a message which is proving potent right across Europe.
The Fences Go Up
When the Schengen Agreement was signed in 1985 granting free movement to people across European borders, many hoped for a new era of deeper integration and cooperation among states. While this remained true for decades, new pressures have led to many European countries erecting fences in order to mitigate the effects of the migrant crisis.
The official European response to the crisis is for member states to pull together and provide shelter for those fleeing war or persecution, but in reality most member states have failed to take their quotas of refugees and nearly a dozen countries have started erecting fences, seeing it as a simple, straightforward and quick solution to the problem. Fences are generally legal and, as argued by Hungary and Greece, states have the right to control their borders.
The huge influx of migrants travelling across European borders has led to serious tensions among European leaders and the slow erosion of the Schengen Area. One of the most surprising announcements came from Germany in September last year. Germany has traditionally been seen as the country in favor of cooperation and acceptance of migrant quotas, but after a massive number of refugees stretched its system to the breaking point, it was announced that the country would re-introduce border controls with Austria. Not only did this come as a shock but also triggered a domino effect in the region. Austria soon announced it would start border checks with Slovenia and later announced the construction of a fence across the border. Slovakia also started imposing border checks with Hungary, one of the most outspoken anti-immigrant countries, who also started building fences with non-Schengen countries as well. Non-Schengen Macedonia has introduced some of the strictest entrance conditions resulting in migrants being stranded in Greece. One of the latest border controls to be set up has been between France and Belgium and, as the Schengen free movement agreement continues to crumble, the far-right is using its failure as a recruiting tool.
Though not all populist and far-right groups can be considered the same, and the degree of how “right” they are varies, what they have in common is that they are firmly rooted in nationalist sentiment, and, by extension, propagate eurosceptic views and agendas. Euroscepticism has reached a point where the UK, a core European Union (EU) member, is having a referendum on whether or not to remain in the EU. Those campaigning for a so-called “Brexit” cite migration as one of the key issues and point to the migrant crisis as proof that the establishment is incapable of addressing it and that the EU is the problem.
That the referendum is even taking place is largely due to the Conservative government of David Cameron coming under increasing pressure from anti-EU parties such as the UK Independence Party or UKIP, whose support has greatly increased in recent years as its message is finding resonance with growing number of people who are disillusioned with the EU due to immigration as well as notions of national identity and sovereignty. With the “remain” and “leave” camps neck-and-neck in most opinion polls, a UK vote to leave the EU is a distinct possibility. Should this occur, shockwaves from it and its precedent could, in a worst case scenario, lead other member states to follow suit and thus to the eventual breakup of the EU.
That the UK is so evenly divided over Brexit despite the fact that the UK economy is outperforming most of Europe, the City of London has surpassed New York as the world’s biggest financial centre and that most economist argue leaving the EU would hurt the UK economy, demonstrates that it is not economic issues which are increasing the popularity of the far-right, but mostly issues of sovereignty and the desire to control national borders to stem immigration.
Though the euro crisis has undoubtedly strengthened the far-right, it is visceral reactions to immigration and the migrant crisis which could finally push Europe over the edge.
Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza is a political columnist and PhD candidate who has spoken at numerous international conferences on issues relating to international affairs. Her publications include:
“Brain Drain: Social and Political Consequences for Latin American Countries”, Grafía, Universidad Autónoma de Colombia, Vol.10, No.2 (2013)
“Fuga de Talentos: Consecuencias Sociales y Políticas en Países en Desarrollo en America Latina”, inL Chen, A Saladino Garcia, H Chen, La Nueva Nao : De Formosa a America Latina. Bicentario del Nombramiento de Simon Bolivar como Libertador, Universidad de Tamkang, China ISBN 978-986-5982-34-8 (2013).
“Colonial Legacies in Contemporary Latin America”, Revista Academus,Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro/Instituto de Investigaciones Multidisciplinarias, Vol. 6, No. 10 (2014)
Markus Heinrich holds a Master’s degree in international relations who has written on a variety of European and international political and security issues. His publications include:
“The Eurofighter Typhoon Programme: Economic Implications of Collaborative Defence Manufacturing,” Defence Studies, Volume 15, Issue 4, 2015.
“IllusiveTtransparency in the EU: Defence Industry Influence in Brussels.” Open Democracy, February 2015.
“One War, Many Reasons: the US Invasion of Iraq,” E-International Relations, March 2015.