The victory of Donald Trump’s bid for US president, and his populist political rhetoric, have significantly revived the aspirations of right-wing political parties in Europe. These parties have now realized the feasibility of garnering public support, and hence votes, merely through sensational and divisive oratory. Despite the disparity in discourse between the populist right and the far-right, as noted by researcher Azmi Bishara1, both groups share the same dogmatic discourse, which is aimed at tapping into people’s communal sensibilities by way of addressing public concerns, and casting blame on immigrants and refugees for rampant unemployment and crime. This is why far-right parties are often called “anti-immigration parties,” given their hostility towards foreigners and diversity, and their relentless opposition to integration into the European Union.
In recent years, Europe has witnessed a wave of far-right movements sweeping many of its societies, including Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, Denmark, France, Austria, Sweden and Britain. Right-wing parties in said countries have succeeded in attracting significant number of voters, with some beginning to re-shape the political landscape in their respective countries.
It is widely held that refugees and migrants are a direct cause for the rise of these political player, whether at the parliamentary, municipal or presidential level, as well as at the level of the European Parliament. What is the far-right, then? Is it going to truly transform political decision-making, particularly with regards to refugees, in the event of its potential electoral victory, especially in Germany and France, both of which anticipate several rounds of elections this year?
The terms “left” and “right” are used to classify political attitudes, ideologies, beliefs, and parties, each representing a pole of the political spectrum. The term “right” refers to conservative forces that reject political and social change and strive to maintain prevailing social orders and hierarchies; conversely, the “left” refers to the forces that often oppose to the political and social status quo. Center forces are considered those which call for gradual reform2.
When the global financial crisis broke out in 2008, traditional parties on the right and left found themselves in a dilemma. Due to the failure of the establishment to contain the crisis, an atmosphere of public malcontent prevailed, at which point racially inflammatory rhetoric began to surface – primarily targeting immigrants, calling for isolationism and the closure of borders. Taking advantage of the despair and frustration of European citizens towards the end of the 2000s, right-wing parties began paving their way to power.
Traditional parties found themselves face-to-face with increasingly powerful far-right parties, ones which have demonstrated popularity and credibility to their public, and proposed themselves as alternatives to conventional political parties.
Religious and Nationalistic Nostalgia
As a result of increased crises and conflicts in the global south, Europe has become a safe haven for refugees fleeing death and horror in their countries of origin. After 2011, following the unfortunate outcomes of the Arab Spring, illegal immigration to Europe witnessed a remarkable surge. EU measures failed to control the flow of new refugees crossing the Mediterranean on what Syrians refer to as “death boats.”
The year 2015 saw a large wave of asylum-seekers, whereby a million and a half refugees were registered. As argued by Carnegie’s study “The Roots of Europe’s Refugee Crisis,” the war in Syria has been a major reason for the influx of refugees into the Old Continent. The study suggests that, globally, one in every five refugees is from Syria.
This situation led to an ideological struggle between the humanitarianism embodied in most European constitutions, which necessitate accommodating refugees fleeing war zones, and the complicated reality of a growing refugee population, combined with a series of unfortunate incidents that took place in many European cities – such as the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, the suicide bombings in Brussels, and the mass sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany, among others.
These incidents have led to pouring all the more fuel on the flames. Fear spread among local European communities, and was directed against Arabs and Muslims, who differ from them in religion, identity and culture. Voters began to lean towards the far-right, identifying with their anti-immigration rhetoric and placing identity-based concerns above all other considerations.
Then ensued several major developments, as Britain voted to leave the EU via popular referendum, and the French National Front party, led by Marine Le Pen, won 25% of the European Parliamentary election vote, defeating the ruling Socialist Party and achieving another victory since the municipal elections of 2015. Furthermore, the Forsa Institute conducted a poll in August of 2016 that notably demonstrated the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party at the expense of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The AfD’s nationwide support has risen from 10% to 12%, according to the poll, achieving its highest support rate in 2016, whereas the support rate for the ruling coalition fell two points to reach 33%.
All of the above clearly indicates an apparent changes in public European mood. Voters are more inclined towards populist discourse and media echo chambers of the far-right. This raises concerns for the future of refugees, particularly Syrian refugees, in regards to harsher regulations by governments or retaliatory actions by extremists. This is especially the case given the security unrest that could promote hostile policies against them, should the far-right emerge victorious in the highly anticipated elections of France and Germany.
Nowadays, one cannot tackle the far-right without having to address Islamophobia3. This tendency is evident all over far-right-wing platforms, which do not hesitate to declare their enmity towards Islam and Muslim immigrants on every occasion. In 2008, several European right-wing parties took a grave new step when they launched an anti-Muslim initiative called Cities against Islamization. Additionally, following Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2014, the anti-Islam Patriotic Europeans Against Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA) organized a rally of some 25,000 participants in the German city of Dresden.
Political scientist Rabah Zeghouni considers that Islamophobia “has become a reality in the West, especially in Europe,” and that it is now “promoted through political and media discourse that has grown acceptable and legitimate, whereby Muslim groups are casually criticized in the name of liberal values such as freedom of expression. It has been so widespread that racism and hate speech against Muslims has been almost normalized socially and politically, and discrimination against Muslims has become an unabashed aspect of the political atmosphere in Europe…”
The fall of Paris and Berlin in the hands of the far-right would constitute the fall of the EU and a potential return to Nazism and fascism. As Le Parisien’s Christophe Bourdoiseau warned the German public: “Take the AfD seriously or you’ll end up like us. For a long time France ignored the Front national – now it’s the nation’s strongest party. Germany should not repeat this mistake in its dealings with the AfD.”
Lest refugees fall prey to the far-right, there must be concerted efforts by human rights organizations, civil society groups and Syrian lobbies in Europe to take up their role in defending democracy and fundamental freedoms guaranteed in the constitutions, including freedom of belief and expression. Perhaps Syrian pressure groups must also consider helping Syrians seek societal and cultural integration within the local European communities, which may mitigate the negative aspects of the potential continuous far-right rise to power.
Scapegoats for Economic Crises
The failure of European policies to tackle the economic crisis of 2008 has severely impacted the livelihoods of broad segments of several European societies. Some researchers argue that these increasingly disenfranchised and unemployed segments have become unable to keep up with economic changes in a post-industrial era of globalization and market openness. Faced with continued inflation and recession, as well as seemingly endless asylum-seeking, they began to lean further and further towards the right.
In October 2015, scholars Manuel Funke, Moritz Schularick and Christoph Trebesch conducted a research titled “Going to Extremes: Politics after Financial Crises, 1870-2014,” in which they argued that “policy uncertainty rises sharply after financial crises.”
The study states that each financial crisis would necessarily lead to higher rates of unemployment and poverty, which often turn society against the traditional political class in favor of the more extreme rhetoric of the far-right. Notably, the study points out that the French areas that voted for the National Front are those affected by greater unemployment and economic contraction.
However, and although the financial crisis has been among the causes behind the rise of the far-right in many European countries, it has also been, to the contrary, a cause behind the rise of the left in both Spain and Greece. The Greek party Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), led by Alexis Tsipras, garnered broad popularity among Greeks who oppose EU-imposed austerity policies. In the meanwhile, the newly formed Podemos party became the third largest party in the Spanish parliament, with 69 out of 350 seats, and with promising prospects in case the conservative parties fail in containing the financial tremors that have been ravaging the Spanish economy.
Accordingly, refugees have been utilized rather as a scapegoat to blame for economic crises. They are portrayed as competing with Europeans for their livelihood. What should be taken into account in this context is that, although the German economy has not been seriously affected by the financial crisis, Germany did witness a resurgent far-right. This suggests that, while there are economic grounds for the populist shift towards the far-right, these are undoubtedly not the sole causes. It is necessary to dig deeper into the roots of the problem, including the widespread feeling among European citizens that their identities are threatened, considering the growing communal ghettos and refugee communities that are constituting a parallel society, or a society within the society at large.
In a humanitarian gesture on the part of Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany suspended deporting asylum-seekers from Syria under the EU Dublin Regulation, which led to an escalated far-right rejection of Merkel’s policies. Significantly, the Hungarian parliament held a referendum calling to oppose any mandatory European Union quotas for accepting relocated asylum seekers, going as far as approving a law allowing for the detention and deportation of all asylum seekers in the country back into neighbouring Serbia.
On the other hand, the EU remains determined in pushing back waves of illegal immigration. It has already offered Niger, one of the most important asylum-seekers stations on the African road to Europe, a sum of €610 million to counter illegal immigration. Similar offers were negotiated with Senegal, Ethiopia and Mali, as well as Afghanistan, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.
Additionally, the EU has also resorted to vessel monitoring and launching drones to collect information on illegal trips between African and European shores. It has also tripled the budget of Operation Triton, which is aimed at controlling European borders. Unofficially speaking, economic development aid the EU grants to neighboring non-EU member states, within the framework of European Neighborhood Policy, is conditional to ensuring border security and commitment to receiving back illegal immigrants.
It is particularly worthy here to note that several European countries have only approved a meagre number of immigration applications submitted through their embassies and consulates, leaving the rest of applicants to face the sea to their shores, as if they indirectly encourage pursuing illegal immigration routes.
While political skirmishes continue to take place between far-right and traditional right-wing parties, a large number of refugees remain stranded at the Greek borders, suffering and awaiting the unknown. As per its agreement with the EU, Turkey had closed its land borders in the face of Syrians, leaving them vulnerable to Gendarmerie bullets if they dare to attempt to cross. What is surprising is that Western countries, which often brag about their commitment to human rights covenants, are endorsing inhumane policies, and abandoning refugees to either die in the sea or to languish in the camps of Serbia and Greece – where a severe cold snap is also following them with death and suffering.
All of this begs the question about the destiny of refugees under potentially tougher EU measures. In this context, lawyer Ghazwan Karanfol, head of the Free Syrian Lawyers Assembly, commented:
“States such as Germany and France, which are characterized by a democratic legacy of consolidated values of rule of law and human rights, cannot transgress their refugee-related legal obligations, which are part of an international legal system to which those countries had contributed and committed themselves. However, as a matter of fact, the crisis of illegal immigration and the human masses flocking to Europe will necessarily push these countries to revise their position on this issue. They are not likely to evade the laws to which they had committed, but they may restrict the access of refugees to them, either by imposing stricter procedures for the rights to protection or asylum, or by repealing some advantages in order to render their own states less desirable to asylum-seekers. Such legislation may receive popular support, given the financial pressures posed by the refugees on the public budgets of these countries, as well the terror that has struck several countries such as France, Belgium and Germany…”
Finally, despite recurrent calls by the far-right to expel refugees, and despite tireless attempts by the EU to prevent their influx, many European citizens have welcomed refugees, and thousands of them took to the streets in solidarity with them and in rejection of radical, isolationist nationalism, as happened in London, Madrid, Berlin and Copenhagen. Additionally, the Forsa Institute revisited German public opinion in October 2016 and showed that the current German government, led by the pro-refugee Merkel, can securely obtain 45% of votes in the 2017 election.
The Austrian election in late 2016, in which the far-right the Freedom party’s Norbert Hofer lost to the Greens’ Alexander Van der Bellen, indicates that major political currents in Europe still believe in the liberal order and democratic approach to politics. Despite increasingly strict government procedures, and potentially violent popular reprisals against them, refugees follow these good gestures and continue to cling to hope for a more dignified life in Europe.
- 1. Bishara differentiates between demagogues and ideologues, since traditional right-wing movements are elitist in nature, and they posit ideas that are often too sophisticated for the masses to entirely comprehend, whereas populist right-wing movements care little for ideas and instead focus on triggering the sensations of the masses and attracting marginalized groups. According to Bishara, Trump is not a right-wing ideologue, but rather a populist whose discourse happens to be right-leaning.
- 2. These three terms first appeared during the French Revolution of 1789, when members of the French National Assembly sat according to their respective political positions: monarchists, who represented the nobility and the clergy, and who were in favor of conservative politics, sat to the right of the president’s chair, while those who were in support of radical reforms sat to his left. Later, new political groups emerged and new nomenclatures were assigned to them, such as far-right, far-left, center-right and center-left. Ultra-nationalists forces are classified under the far-right, and traditional communist parties are considered to be far-left. The center-left refers to social democratic parties and the center-right to liberal and conservative parties.
- 3. In his book Islamophobia and the Rise of the Far-Right in Europe: A Socio-Cultural Approach, Rabah Zeghouni defines Islamophobia as as an intellectual phenomenon that is growing rampant in European societies and becoming a stand-alone ideology. It is based on a reductionist and stereotypical view of Muslims, particularly those living in the West, as a closed-minded and undereducated community that believes in reactionary, violent and hateful values, and rejects rationality and human rights.