Sep 20, 2018

Europe's right-wing populists are driven by more than immigration

The recent surge of right-wing populist movements in Europe has become a dominant narrative in international media, but the actual election performance of nationalist parties suggests that the scale of their growing influence may be overblown — and that their rise may be rooted in social forces besides migration.

Data: National election commissions and statistical offices. Get the data. Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios
Data: National election commissions and statistical offices. Get the data. Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios

The big picture: An Axios analysis found that in the last two election cycles, right-wing populist parties, as defined by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, experienced gains (>0.05%) in 15 out of the 27 countries that will vote in next year's European Parliament elections. But a number of these parties were already growing prior to the 2015 refugee crisis — often cited as the main factor in the rise of the far-right —  while others lost support after the crisis, despite vowing to cap immigration.

The details: Because EU countries all have distinct voting calendars, the election years referenced in the data stretch anywhere from June 2009 (Luxembourg) to September 2018 (Sweden).

  • The two most dominant right-wing parties in Europe are Hungary's Fidesz-KDNP and Poland's Law and Justice. Their illiberal policies — including, in both cases, a crackdown on the independent judiciary — have made them the only two countries to ever be censured by the European Parliament for undermining democratic values.
  • The party that has made the largest gains is Italy's League, which saw a 13.3% increase in vote share in an election held earlier this year. The party is led by Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, an immigration hardliner who has closed Italy's borders to refugees and called on Europe to share the burden of migration.
  • While the migrant crisis has undoubtedly fueled parties like League, others like Latvia's National Alliance and the Sweden Democrats — which just had their best electoral performance ever — were already growing. Meanwhile, parties like France's National Front and Finland's Finn Party actually performed worse after the migrant crisis had begun.

In an interview with The Globe Post, populism expert Cas Mudde called the refugee crisis "at best a catalyst, not the main cause" of growing nationalism. He said that while no Western democracy is naturally immune to the far-right, its electoral success is instead largely driven by dissatisfaction with mainstream parties and elements of the media that overplay migration failures and underplay successes.

The bottom line: The EU is comprised of 28 (soon to be 27) distinct countries and cultures, and the rise of right-wing populism — while strengthened by broader European crises — is rooted in structures unique to each society.

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