Refugee crisis and far-right: What does it mean for European politics?

Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPO) just doubled its votes form 2009 in a state election. In general, is the refugee crisis inevitably going to boost far-right parties across Europe and should mainstream parties be really worried? Read few comments.

Reinhard Heinisch, Professor of Austrian Politics in European Perspective, Department of Political Science, Chair, University of Salzburg

No, the refugee situation is not inevitably going to boost rightwing parties – see Germany where the Merkel government still has around 40% and the AFD is between 5 and 8 %. The FP is benefitting in Austria from a combination of an unpopular government at the national level, a woefully inept, purely reactive, and poorly communicated handling of the refugee issue on top of a series of disasters and disappointments people attribute to elites – nationally and in Brussels. This comes on top of constantly delayed reforms that are intended to make Austria more ready to deal with the challenges of the changing international economic and political environment. The refugee crisis, the Euro-crisis, and a banking crisis (the collapse of Hypo Alpe Adria bank resulting losses of up to 26 billion EUR which Austria might have to cover through the budget) have shaken the confidence of voters in the ability of thos in power. The FP is the only party that seems to address these fears and concerns – often proposing terrible solutions – whereas the government fails to convey any sense of competence, vision, and leadership. When we look at the polls, only 18% of the people were “angry” about the refugees situation but more 50% were “worried” and feel the government is in over its head. That this came out at a regional elections where the economic data are generally good and the people had actually expressed contentment with the local government is a function of recent electoral trends based on shifting partisan loyalties, more and more voters becoming late deciders, voting less based on issues or ideology but on gut feeling/sentiment, and the desire to send “them up there a message”. Interestingly, also the Greens won, (much, much less than the FPÖ) although they had a very clear pro-support refugee position. It seems that voters want clarity, profile, competence, decisiveness – not unlike what US voters hope to find in D. Trump.

The trend will likely be replicated across Europe but with variation and this variation will depend on how the parties in power will be able to address legitimate fears, offer workable solutions, and find ways of communicating difficult truths, and, above all, govern and do not just react to conditions and situations. The Austrian national government was internally divided, permanently contradicted itself, reversed itself several times, and had a “home-made refugee crisis” before the current crisis began in the summer (overflowing, squalid, and poorly managed refugees centers that had to be cleared out in the spring resulting in many people being housed in tent cities all across the country – party in parks and public areas, which came as a shock to many Austrians. The led to a discussion about the government’s poor preparedness and was a boon to the mobilization of the FP long before the current situation.

You have to watch Vienna – the largest Austrian province – because there govt. elections will be held a week from Sunday and the reigning Social Democrats and the FPÖ are neck on neck – in fact the national FP leader himself is the local candidate and hopes to become mayor (it is perhaps somewhat overly optimistic but not inconceivable, the SP usually get between 46 and 50+% of the votes but has plunged to 35%, the FP is at around 32% as of now. Nationally, the FP have been leading the national opinion polls in first place since May (before the refugee crisis) with around 30% versus 23 and 24% for the “major” government parties. Nationals elections are still 2 years away but if they were held today, the FPÖ would be the strongest party.

Matthew Feldman, Reader in Contemporary History, Teesside University

The far-right in Europe has long raises the issue of non-European immigration in their political attacks. Although this has been the case for many years now, there can be no doubt this has become a more populist issue since the summer: from unrest in Calais to thuggishness by Hungarian officials and drowned bodies washing up on Mediterranean shores. One can almost imagine radical right ideologues rubbing their hands with glee at the opportunities. Nor is the issue lost on European policy-makers; in fact, only last week the Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, warned that if Europe cannot “find sustainable solutions, you will see a surge of the extreme right across the European continent.” Early indications suggest that he is right in light of recent national elections in Greece and Austria, where the neo-fascist Golden Dawn, and the FPÖ’s ’new far right’, respectively, have seen increases in their vote share by stoking local fears. While this is not a crisis – at least not yet – it would behoove mainstream political parties in Europe to take close note of developments and act both accordingly and humanely.

Pietro Castelli Gattinara, Research Fellow, European University Institute

I do not think that the refugee crisis will “inevitably” boost the far right across Europe. The far right has been a stable figure in western and eastern party systems since quite a while now, and although it may take advantage of moral panics like the current one, it does not need these in order to exist or to achieve success. Whether the most racist and xenophobic organizations in Europe will ‘benefit’ of the current situation mainly depends on the rest of the party system, on national institutions and on the media system. We have seen that the extreme right and the Front National in France are trying to capitalize on this issue, accusing governing parties at the national and EU level of being responsible, see. The same is happening in Italy where Lega Nord has allied with the openly neofascist organization CasaPound, and frames the issue as a matter of lacking accountability by European and national governments.

Still, governing parties and European institutions are feeding extreme right discourse and popularity. The mainstream left and mainstream right in the EU have been unable to build a long lasting, responsible discourse on international migration and asylum issues: after decades of regular migration inflows and refugee crises, we still don’t know what is the official EU politics on these matters.  Governments in the continent are divided and they have speculated on these issues for their own advantage: they have contributed, alongside the mass media, to securitize public debates, speculating on the fears and insecurity of citizens; they have followed the logic of national interests in the handling of international refugees rather than constructing a stable ‘European’ system to welcome, host and integrate foreign citizens. In so doing, they boosted the nativist and exclusivist rhetoric of the far right; they have left on a few countries at the borders of the EU the burden of first assistance, selection and accommodation of the regular inflow of refugees.

Most of all, mainstream parties have been unable, or unwilling, to recognize that migration and refugee issues are – quite simply – a normal feature of our societies. Every summer Europe is stroke by the arrival of economic migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Despite that, governing parties and the mass media reproduce a discourse in which these inflows are defined as ‘crises’, ‘emergencies’,  ‘exceptional circumstances’ that need ‘exceptional measures’. EU countries are systematically unprepared to tackle similar situations. Governing parties and the EU are responsible for this ‘unpreparedness’. The number of refugees has been particularly high in 2015, but there is nothing particularly exceptional about it; there is nothing that couldn’t have been addressed preventively through the elaboration of a common migration and asylum policy; there is nothing that couldn’t have been foreseen by analyzing the situation in our neighboring countries.

Yet, our governments prefer to be unprepared. They prefer to address refugees as a ‘crisis’ and therefore they provide all the conditions for a successful far right and exclusionist discourse.

Orkan KösemenProject Manager in charge of the Leadership-Programme for Migrant Associations, The Bertelsmann Stiftung

There is no automatic connection between the current refugee situation and the ‎success of right-populist parties in election. It depends more on other domestic reasons: Austria hasnt accepted that many refugees after all (many who could have applied chose to move onward to Germany) and in Germany, where many refugees arrived the right-wing populist parties doesnt seem to benefit (so far) in surveys.

It has more to do with the overall tone of the public debate concerning migration. In Austria (like in France or the UK) the migration debate was mostly led in a negative and fearful manner‎ over the last years, so the refugee situation is just a trigger not the real reason for right-wing populist election success. In Germany the debate was much more civilized and rather positive. Its a bit like a selffulfilling prophecy.

So, to give you a short answer to your question: if mainstream parties tried to push back right-wing populist parties by adopting parts of their demands or positions in the last years, people will vote for the “original” in times when they feel insecure.

 

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