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Europe’s Shift to the Far Right and its Impact on Immigration

ROME and AMSTERDAM, Jan 2 2024 (IPS) - The recent elections in the Netherlands signals the increasing power of the far right in Europe. The populist party of Geert Wilders, the Party for Freedom, won a decisive, albeit unexpected, victory taking 37 seats out the 150 seat in parliament. Wilders will likely be the head of the next Government. His policies include stopping all immigration into the Netherlands, holding a referendum on leaving the EU, and banning mosques and the Quran.

Daud Khan

Welder’s victory is part of a general shift to the far-right in Europe. It follows that of Giorgia Meloni in Italy who has been heading a coalition, headed by the strongly anti-immigrant Brother of Italy, for over a year. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has been increasing its power at both national and regional level. In France there is already talk of the far-right, anti-immigrant leader, Marie Le Pen being the next president.

So what explains the success of far-right, anti-immigrant parties in countries that have a long history of being relatively liberal and inclusive. And, more importantly what will happen now that they are in power, or are increasingly influential.

A key factor in their rise to power is their ability to peddle the narrative that the problems of the Common People are largely due to immigrants, and to an ill-defined political and economic Elite that is only interested in maintaining their power and profits.

According to the populist right, Europe is being overrun by people of a different skin color, with different language or accents, and with a different culture or religion. These foreign people are taking our jobs and businesses, depriving us of housing and acting as a drain on the welfare system. They are also responsible for most of the crimes, in particular theft, drugs and violence against women.

This narrative had strong appeal in economically deprived areas, among the lesser educated, and among workers who has lost jobs due to the globalization, automation and outsourcing. These people form the core support group of the right wing populist parties. However, their recent successes have been largely due to their appeal to the middle classes that makes up the bulk of the population in Europe.

Leila Yasmine Khan

This middle class is increasingly fearful and apprehensive with regard to the future. The reasons include growing inequality and stagnant real wages; economic difficulties due to rising prices and high interest rates; anxieties about the impact of climate change, automation and AI; and uncertainties about the future due to rising international tensions and the fragmentation of global supply chains that had brought trillions of dollars of cheap consumer good into Europe. Many people in Europe now believe that the next generation may have a lower standard than this one.

This middle class has been disillusioned with the traditional parties of the left and of the right. They see little real difference between the two and are looking for what they consider real change. Initially the choice fell to parties that were new, but not too radical – parties such as Emmanuelle Macron’s En Marche! Party, or the Five Star Movement in Italy. However, as perceived problems deepened, the choice has shifted to the more radical right.

But now that the far-right parties have power and influence, what should one expect they will do particularly with regard to immigration which was a major aspect of their appeal. Will they really try to fulfill their election promises to stop or reduce immigration. The scope for maneuver is limited.

Due to slower population growth, there are fewer people of working age in most of Europe. Moreover, they tend to avoid jobs that imply long hours and hard physical effort, such as unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in agriculture, industry, construction and logistics. There is also little interest in jobs that require unsocial hours, such as home help, cleaning, care for the elderly and nursing. Immigrants are essential to fill these gaps.

In addition, immigrants are increasingly propping up the welfare state in most western European countries. Notwithstanding the rhetoric about “scroungers” on the welfare state, immigrants are net contributors to state coffers – they generally pay more in taxes than they draw in benefits. And, as low reproductive rates continue and populations continue to age, Governments expenditures on pensions and health care will rise. The tax contribution of immigrants will be critical to fund this.

For these reasons it is simply not possible to stop immigration or to send immigrants back. Given the limited space for maneuver, anti-immigrant parties will most likely not make any serious attempt to get rid of immigrants or even to reduce immigration. They may soften or even backtrack on their positions on immigration. Maybe they will come up with qualifiers such as “we are only against illegal immigrants; only immigrants involved in criminal activities will be expelled; and actually, all honest, hardworking immigrants are welcome”.

However, explicitly backtracking may be politically risky. It is more likely that these right wing parties will continue with their anti-immigrant rhetoric. This would serve several purposes. It will instill uncertainty and fear in the minds of immigrants; ensure that they do not organize and ask for higher wages or benefits; and that they stay in the shadows and not try to occupy political space.

These actions will very much appeal to unemployed workers and the apprehensive middle classes who voted in the right wing parties. More critically, it will also appeal to “big business” who are now caught between a tight domestic labor markets and rising costs.

If correct, does this mean that the swing to the far-right in Europe is here to stay? It would be such a pity as it would mean that one of the bastions of liberal values will transform into a classist society with a low wage sub-proletariat who have few rights and privileges.

Daud Khan a retired UN staff based in Rome. He has degrees in economics from the LSE and Oxford – where he was a Rhodes Scholar; and a degree in Environmental Management from the Imperial College of Science and Technology.

Leila Yasmine Khan is an independent writer and editor based in the Netherlands. She has Master’s degrees in Philosophy and in Argumentation and Rhetoric from the University of Amsterdam, as well as a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy from the University of Rome (Roma Tre). She assisted in the preparation on this article.

IPS UN Bureau


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