This second decade of the 21st Century has experienced an increasing popularity of the far-right parties throughout all European countries.
Front National with Marine le Pen in France, Lega Nord (or Lega, as it now recognizes itself) with Matteo Salvini in Italy, Vox with Santiago Abascal Conde in Spain, Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid) with Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, etc. Most of these parties share the same story: started out with political aggregation at regional level, gathering votes from municipalities or provinces, to then spark out towards the national battlefield. Thanks to their smart vision, targeting the right problems at the right times, they were able to face national and decades-strong standing parties like the Republicans’ party in France, or Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). In Italy the far-right party Lega reached a political consensus of 34% at the 2019 European Parliamentary elections, with a double-digit margin to the Democratic Party and Five Star Movement. In the 2018 national election, only 1 years before, they were able to capture lower margins, with 17% share, while in the European election of 2014 barely reaching 6% of the national consensus. An extraordinary rise. However, they do not share only history, their views and answers to the current socio-economic problems seem to be related. Reactionary views, nationalists’ tendencies and rejection of the established social order are just a few of the many communalities of what are called far-right parties. Nevertheless, there is one last feature which has emerged to be a major topic of discussion within their manifestos and rallies’ rhetoric: anti-immigration sentiment, coming from an ideology of ethno-nationalism.
It is this last common feature that led many scholars to conduct an in-depth analysis of their electoral support, trying to understand the nature of the drivers of their late success. What is the strategic approach adopted by the European far-right parties to tackle the multiple socio-economic issues faced by our society in this beginning of the century?
Figure 1 retrievable from econstor
In the meantime, the socio-economic balance was threatened by a phenomenon which will never grow old for our society, immigration shocks. The same period of time has in fact seen a new phenomenon hitting the European stability, the significant immigrant inflows (Figure 1). Especially coming from the non-western countries (Africa and Asia in particular). Europe, since the implementation of the Schengen Agreement in 1985 has experienced a continuous intra-flow of labour force, thereof European citizens, among the 27 member states. Nevertheless, the Union quickly adapted to this first inner wave of immigration. The first struggles for the Western member states arose with the European enlargements of the 2000s, when significant groups of people moved out of their poor former-Soviet countries in search of better opportunities. However, the big test (which is still under process) came only in recent years with the continuous inflow of, mainly, asylum-seekers leaving their home countries devastated by war, famines and dictatorial regimes, in particular Africa and Asia. This phenomenon, certainly underestimated by national governments and addressed by poorly managed responses by both national and European immigration policies, left plenty of room for corrosive speculation. The European far-right parties saw the perfect opportunity to gear up their electoral campaigns. For the sole purpose of popularity, notwithstanding the casualties and deprived lives all the illegal migration routes were taking away, these parties found in the phenomenon the scape goat for this 21st century misery. From opportunity, it transformed into reality, to then turn into relevant political consensus. Playing the cat-and-mouse game has paid off.
One thing is however noticing the time-correlation between the rise of immigration flows and the alike rise of far-right parties, another is instead to explore this relationship looking at the actual numbers, which never lie. Can the data show us a significant and positive relationship between the number of immigrants in a particular region and the electoral support for the anti-immigration parties? And what factors bring European citizens to see this group of people escaping war and famines as a threat to their national and local stability? And what will later drag them to vote for those parties fomenting an anti-immigration sentiment?
To study this phenomenon, it is good practice to divide the argument into two sections, first we’ll analyse the macro level, a wider analysis of the problem, and then we’ll turn to the micro level. This latter study allows the analysis of all possible confounders that would otherwise provide obstacles in the breakdown of the causal relationship between the two variables of interest.
In all European countries a simple examination of the data leads to the conclusion that indeed the correlation between the rise in the share of immigrants in a country’s territory and the national vote for the far-right parties exists and is significant. A rise of the former leads to a consequent rise of the latter. It is here interesting to share the macro-explanation given by the Portuguese researcher Rodrigo da Silva in his paper “A Portuguese Exception to Right-Wing Populism”. Through what seems a straightforward mathematical contraposition, the author justifies the lack of an extreme right-wing party on the Portuguese political spectrum due to the low immigration rates Portugal has been facing. And this, continues de Silva, paired with low levels of Euroscepticism and a lack of political space to develop, constitute a unique balance for blocking the rise of right-wing populism in Portugal.
Even though macro-numbers seem to play in favour of our hypothesis it is necessary here to zoom in and see what happens in local communities. In fact, the micro-level analysis allows scholars to have a deeper understanding of the relationship. The majority of these analyses provide in fact strong evidence of a positive relationship between an increment in the number of immigrants in a given location (i.e. provinces, municipalities, neighbourhoods) and an increase in the electoral support for far-right parties. Nevertheless, and we can here enjoy the benefits offered by a deeper analysis, in some particular countries this relationship is even found to be negative. Jakub Lonsky, a former Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oxford’s COMPAS Centre, found an interesting and surprising result studying Finnish municipalities. In his study “Does Immigration Decrease Far-Right Popularity? Evidence from Finnish Municipalities” he finds astonishing results in Finland, where the vote for the far-right Finns Party is actually negatively related to the share of immigrants at a local level. He finds that a 1 percentage point increase in the share of foreign citizens in a municipality decreases the Finns Party’s (the Finnish far-right party) vote by 3.4 percentage points. And even more surprisingly, the lost votes are captured by the two pro-immigration Finnish parties. However, he continues, this effect is only present where the natives experience a significant initial exposure to immigrants. This last peculiarity is explained by the Intergroup Contact Theory formalized by the social psychologist Gordon Allport in 1954. Intergroup contact under appropriate conditions can effectively reduce the prejudice between majority (natives) and minority (immigrants) group members.
Apart from this Finnish outlier, all other European countries, taken at local levels, show a significant and positive impact of immigration on the anti-immigration vote. A clear, but rarely studied, explanation of this causal link emerged from a study of the Dutch municipalities. The two researchers Dinas E. and van Spanje J., through their article “Crime Story: The role of crime and immigration in the anti-immigration vote” show how the aforementioned relation is interplayed by the crime factor. Studying surveys in several Dutch neighborhoods gave this study the statistical power to conclude that a higher crime rate leads to a higher vote for the Dutch far-right party LPF, and this relation is even stronger for those individuals who are ‘tough on crime’. A final explanation, shared by many economists and sociologists trying to give us a clearer picture of the immigration phenomenon, is the role this factor plays within the labour market. In economies like Italy and Spain, where the job market has been struggling since the 2008 financial crisis, this problem is even perceived as worse than what it really is. Uniformly around European countries, in areas with high levels of unemployment, especially the low-skilled labour force feels threatened by the arrival of new potential competitors in the job market. In the end, left unheard by traditional parties, this fear leads them to support anti-immigration parties, which offer illusive plans to tackle the complicated problem of immigration (On top of having no self-limitation in spreading words of hate towards this group of people).
Numbers, Numbers and Again Numbers. Now What?
Numbers do not lie, and they can reveal and teach us several things. Here, the analysis of the data shows a clear relationship. During this last decade far-right parties have been grasping ever higher shares of political consensus, and this happened at the expenses of the poor believers of a better home to grow a life and a family. The problem the European Union faces in front of these rising far-right parties is their diffused Euroscepticism sentiment, which mines the stability of the multilateral trust between the 27 states. This does not mean that the EU decisions should not be posed under a systematic critique by its own citizens and national parties. But this critical opposition must be carried for constructive purposes rather than destructive ones. This is why it is of paramount importance for countries to understand how these parties, moved by extreme visions, prosper. But more importantly, it is important for a democracy such as the EU to understand what its people want.
No one denies the fact that the continuous immigration shock Europe is experiencing is indeed a problem to socio-economic stability. It is however possible, through a highly coordinated teamwork between national authorities and the European Union, to create positive conditions for both the native citizens and the new arrived immigrants to prosper together. The Finnish example shows that the “appropriate conditions” Allport talked about in his Contact Theory can and do lead to a successful integration of minority groups within local communities. This happens through well-designed redistribution and integration policy, which must consider both the economic and the human side of the intervention. Afterwards, I am confident stating that the immigration problem will not be felt as an urgent threat by the national electorates. Therefore, the fa-right parties will no longer constitute a threat to the political stability of the Union. And after all, the European countries can finally go back (or start over) into the planning of constructive and long-visioned policies for the cohesive future of the European Union.
Cover picture: The Italian coastguard rescues two of the 156 survivors of the October 3 tragedy off Lampedusa Island. Lampedusa, the closest Italian island to Africa, has become a destination for tens of thousands of refugees seeking to reach Western Europe. Title: “A Cry for Those in Peril on the Sea” by Photo Unit is licensed under (CC BY-NC 2.0).