Europe’s new populists are frightening – but they won’t last


Picture of Daunis Auers
Daunis Auers

Daunis Auers is Research Director of the Certus think tank, and Jean Monnet Professor at the University of Latvia

Fuelled by mounting public concern at the fast-growing number of asylum-seekers and migrants crossing Europe’s borders, the second half of 2015 saw a surge in support for illiberal parties, politicians and policies.

The refugee crisis has been an opportunity to showcase the xenophobia and nativism that is central to illiberalism. Political parties on both the right and the left, and at all points of Europe’s geographic compass, seized the crisis as a chance to build political support. Among many examples, Slovakia’s left-wing prime minister Robert Fico allegedly called migration the ‘ritual slaughter’ of Europe’s nations, while two Alternative für Deutschland MEPs called for police to shoot at refugees entering Germany illegally.

Recent opinion polls show that the radical-right populist Sweden Democrats, who polled 13% in the 2014 parliamentary election, would now win 20% of the vote, just a few percentage points behind the centre-right Moderates and the Social Democrats that have long dominated Swedish politics. The Netherlands’ Geert Wilders – who has called for Islamic male refugees to be locked in camps to prevent a ‘sexual jihad’ – has seen his anti-Islamic Freedom Party surge to 29% support. As well as the publicity offered by the Brexit referendum campaign, fears about rising immigration also gave the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and its leader Nigel Farage a new lease of life after the party’s disappointing election results last May.

The refugee crisis was an opportunity to showcase xenophobia and nativism

Fears about the impact of refugees on Poland’s culture helped the Law and Justice party to power in last October’s election. Poland’s new government was welcomed into office by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who dedicated part of his Independence Day speech to lauding Poland’s new illiberal leaders, telling them that ‘we are with you, and we send this message to Brussels: more respect to the Polish people, more respect to Poland!’ Poland’s new leaders followed the Hungarian model immediately, with constitutional amendments limiting the independence of both the courts and the media. After the terrorist attacks in Brussels in late March, the Polish government also announced that it was reversing its initial agreement to take in 7,000 refugees as a part of the EU’s relocation plan.

Similar, albeit milder, limits to democratic freedoms are being deliberated elsewhere. In Latvia, the parliament has debated controversial amendments to the Criminal Code that would make public discussion of changes to the Latvian constitutional order a criminal offense with a prison sentence of up to five years.

This illiberal turn is not a new phenomenon – in 2007, Eurozine debated the rise of ‘Illiberal Europe’. But back then, illiberalism was largely limited to the new east-central European member states of the European Union. Now, though, driven by the refugee crisis, illiberalism has expanded further afield. Indeed, Donald Trump’s campaign for the US presidency has been powered by unexpectedly broad public support for illiberal language and policies such as promises to build a wall between Mexico and the US, and threats to ban Muslims from entering the country.

Europe’s illiberal parties have been around for several decades pilfering votes from the left and the right

Is this the end of the liberal democratic consensus that has shaped Europe since 1945? Liberal democracy has protected individual liberties such as the freedoms of speech, assembly and religion. It is underpinned by the laws and norms adopted by key European institutions such as the Council of Europe and Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). But these liberal values are not a necessary or a core part of democracy. States could be less liberal but remain democratic, as leaders like Orbán advocate. Such a consolidation of illiberalism, though, is unlikely for three reasons.

First, Europe’s illiberal parties have been around for several decades but remain relatively small. Their default position is opposition rather than government. They have become an established part of the party systems of many European states by pilfering votes from both parties of the left and the right through their appeal to the economic losers of globalisation – typically working-class men in post-industrial towns – as well as those left bewildered and alienated by the broad cultural shift towards secularism and tolerance of diversity. Except for some central European states, even where support for illiberals has swelled – as it has in the Netherlands – on the back of the refugee crisis, it is still some way short of a majority.

Second, there are significant differences between illiberal politicians in the east and west. Hungary and Poland are generally pro-EU, while Britain’s UKIP exists to be pro-Brexit and Marine Le Pen would withdraw France from not just the EU but also NATO. There are also significant east-west differences in attitudes to drugs, gay rights and other values issues. Illiberals are, well, illiberal – they find it difficult to cooperate with others. Hence, the long-standing problems in forming a stable illiberal – or radical-right populist – party group in the European Parliament. A broad pan-European coalition or movement of anti-refugee parties is unlikely.

Finally, the migrant issue will eventually fade. As the flow of refugees slows down – whether this year or next – the public fear and rage of ‘the other’ that has fuelled illiberal parties and attitudes will diminish. Mainstream parties of the left and right will roll-back the illiberal language they partially stole from the political fringes, and European politics will return to its liberal democratic default. This refugee crisis is an episode of European politics, not the beginning of a return to the institutionalised illiberal politics of the inter-war era.

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