“The EU should close its borders to all Muslim migrants”, Geert Wilders stated, after tweeting a picture of Angela Merkel with blood on her hands. He was responding to four violent incidents in Germany over the past weeks, one of which was a terrorist attack by a Syrian refugee. In France, Front National leader Marine le Pen’s approval ratings have risen from 24 to 27 percent after the Nice attack, in which 84 people were killed. In a report by Pew Research published last month, in 8 out of 10 countries surveyed at least half of the population believed incoming refugees increase the likelihood of terrorism in their country. Is this bloody summer the tipping point for public opinion in Europe, and will this change EU policy on refugees?
In France, Front National leader Marine le Pen’s approval ratings have risen from 24 to 27 percent after the Nice attack.
Nativism on the rise
Last month, ECFR published the first comprehensive survey of Europe’s insurgent parties that increasingly appear to be the drivers of change across Europe. Ranging from far left to far right, they include a number of nativist right-wing parties, which are united by a desire to reduce the number of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe. When asked what represented the biggest threat for the EU, 35 parties gave either ‘the refugee crisis’ or ‘terrorism and radical Islam’ as the first choice. Seventeen of them had both in their top two choices or said they were directly linked, even though at that point most of the terrorist violence in Europe had come from European nationals. Seven parties chose Merkel’s ‘refugees welcome’ policy as the first cause of the refugee crisis in Europe, although, crucially, none of these parties were German.
The theoretical underpinnings for this range from the paranoid to the pragmatic. Bulgaria’s Ataka party, which has 11 seats in Bulgaria’s Parliament, believes the United States is masterminding the refugee crisis by funding and training Islamists to penetrate Europe and commit terrorist attacks. Many other parties see violence as inherent to Islam, and think it is impossible to integrate Muslim culture into their country.
Nativist parties in Eastern Europe are fighting to protect something that those in the West have already lost: a population that is largely homogenous in ethnicity and religion. Fear of the unknown appears to be a significant driver of this agenda – the Pew research shows that countries with the largest populations of either refugees or Muslims (or both) tend to have the most favourable views of those groups. But terrorist attacks such as those seen in recent weeks strengthen the anti-immigrant rhetoric because some insurgent parties mistakenly link migration with security. When faced with guns, everyone likes walls.
Terrorist attacks such as those seen in recent weeks strengthen the anti-immigrant rhetoric because some insurgent parties mistakenly link migration with security.
Will it succeed?
Populist parties have a host of tools at their disposal to create change, from direct action to headline-grabbing language. But their most powerful weapon is the referendum. Coming on the back of the Brexit referendum and the Dutch referendum on a free trade agreement with Ukraine, there are now 34 referenda called for by these insurgent parties. Estonia’s Party of People’s Unity, Hungary’s Fidesz and Jobbik, and Poland’s Kukiz’15 have all said they would like to have a referendum on the refugee relocation quotas pushed for by the European Commission. In Hungary, this referendum will actually happen in early October. Victor Orbán’s government is campaigning heavily for a “No” vote to reject the quotas, and is leading the most recent polls with 64 per cent. The Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, Germany’s AFD and Belgium’s Vlaams Belang are also expressing interest in a more general referendum on the legitimacy and content of the EU’s refugee policy.
But in countries where these parties are not in government, it is unlikely that referenda will materialise, especially after the unexpected result of the Brexit referendum showed moderate leaders what a risk it can be. And even if the closed-border parties do get into power, they may not do as much damage as feared. Our research has shown that challenger parties do not just change the system –the system can also change them. For example, after Greece’s Syriza got into government, it toned down its pre-election promises of rapprochement with Russia. The Eurosceptic Finns Party has broadly toed the government line on the EU since joining a governing coalition, and Bulgaria’s Patriotic Front has tempered its nationalistic rhetoric significantly.
The bigger risks are distraction and delays. In election times, national politicians will be less keen to vote on EU proposals that concern resettlement and border issues. When the presentation of the draft EU budget was delayed from May 2016 to after the British referendum, this was widely seen as an effort to not influence the vote negatively. And if governments want to move on quid pro quo deals with transit countries such as Turkey and Libya, they will have to face the opposition at home.
With every terrorist attack in Europe, anti-migration and anti-EU parties will have a larger platform, but the direct impact of this will be limited in the short run. The greatest danger lies not in parties changing policy directly, but stifling the debate and decision-making in their countries and the EU.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.