How the Far Right Has Reshaped the Refugee Debate in Europe
Across Europe, parties on the far right are experiencing renewed vigor, fueled by economic uncertainty, cynicism toward the European Union, and anger over an ongoing crisis that has brought more than 1.5 million refugees and migrants to the West since 2015.
By last October, there were right-wing nationalist members of parliament in 24 European countries. In Germany, the EU’s largest country, the Alternative for Germany party became the first far-right group in more than six decades to win seats in parliament, with co-leader Alexander Gauland vowing after the election to fight “an invasion of foreigners.”
These parties have helped reshape the immigration debate in Europe. In countries like Hungary, razor-wire border fences have gone up to keep refugees and migrants out. Elsewhere on the continent, there’s been an upsurge of protests against refugees. In Poland, for example, an independence day celebration of around 60,000 people this past November was marred by thousands of far-right nationalists waving banners of “White Europe,” and chanting slogans of “No to Islam.”
According to Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia and a leading expert on far-right politics in Europe, Europe’s far right has used the refugee crisis to its advantage — channeling decades-old stereotypes about immigrants to rally support for their cause. These parties didn’t create anti-immigrant stereotypes, he says. Rather, they feed on them to influence the conversation.
Ahead of FRONTLINE’s Jan. 23 premiere of Exodus: The Journey Continues, we spoke with Mudde about the rise of Europe’s radical right, the refugee crisis, and why he considers the current political situation a “crisis of liberal democracy.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What are the defining tenets of Europe’s far-right movement?
The vast majority of the parties that are relevant are parties that are best called “radical right.” That means that they accept the basics of democracy — that the people elect their leaders — but they have major problems with some of the liberal protections of democracy. Most notably, minority rights. And so, they combine nativism, authoritarianism and populism.
Nativism means that they want their country. They believe that their state is the state of one specific nation and that everyone else constitutes a threat. So, in Germany, there is this slogan that says, “Germany for the Germans, foreigners out.” And that is pretty much the core of nativism.
Authoritarianism doesn’t mean anti-democracy, but means that you believe that the state should enforce strict order and that you perceive almost every social issue as an authority issue. So, when you look at drugs, you don’t see a health crisis, you see an authority crisis. And so you think that you can solve that by stricter punishment and more police in the streets, and by instilling more discipline into children.
Populism is the view that society consists of two homogenous and antagonistic groups, the pure people on the one hand and the corrupt elite on the other, and that politics should follow the so-called general will of the people.
Nativism really is the core. It is largely because of the immigration issue that the populism comes in, because they feel that the elite has betrayed them by letting the immigrants in.
How would you describe the movement’s overarching message on immigration?
Well, they see immigration as a threat. And so that is important. They see it as a threat to the culture of a country, but also to the security of the country. The bulk of immigration into Europe comes from Muslim-dominant countries. So, immigrants are almost always kind of equated with Muslims. And that means that the threat is in part a cultural threat of others, and in part linked to the terrorism debate. Pretty much what the radical right wants is no immigration.
Why has this been such a powerful message for them?
There are a lot of things there. First of all, the history of immigration in Europe is different than in the U.S. In most countries that saw immigration, they saw immigration through what was called the guest worker program. Which meant that people from initially the south of Europe — and later the Mediterranean broader — came to work in factories, and then they went back home. The idea was always that this was temporary, and in the end they would go back.
In the end though, many of them stayed and brought their families. And this was never really openly discussed. So, a lot of people feel that immigration was sneaked in. Europe has a very different discourse around immigration. Immigration is not seen as the core of the nation or an enrichment. It is at best tolerated, if it can be profitable for the home nation.
And then there are of course some economic arguments, but also cultural arguments. Many neighborhoods have changed. So there is just the shock of things changing and people feeling like they lose their country. And there is the 9/11 aspect of the link to terror. And Europe has seen various terror attacks, which are almost always in the media linked to first Islam and second immigration.
And these right-wing groups latched onto that shock and fear?
Yes. And it’s important that they don’t really create that atmosphere. In many cases, they profit from that atmosphere, but the atmosphere was first made by mainstream media. And if you look at tabloids, but also TV and general coverage in the media, then your average story about Muslims is negative. It is about forced marriages, it is about terrorism, it is about crime, it is about sexism. It rarely is a story about a young man who gets out of a bad situation because of his faith, even though we have many stories of them. When you have such a success story, these people tend to be referred to as Dutch or German. But when it’s a gang that robs people or that rapes girls, then it is Moroccans. Or Muslims.
That’s interesting, because it seems like when we hear about the radical right, there’s an impression that they’ve given rise to many of these attitudes. You’re saying they were already there.
Yes. It’s also very much related to the feeling that the established parties don’t control the situation. It’s not only about the refugee part, it’s also about the crisis part. During 2015, the general discourse was we are in a crisis, which means the mainstream parties can’t deal with this. And so, at that point in time, the whole issue of refugees and immigration is perceived as negative, as threatening, and then by saying “crisis,” we say it’s out of control and the ones in charge can’t deal with it. So, logically, you’re looking for alternatives. And then the radical right comes into play, because they have been saying that this is a problem for decades. And they say they can solve it by just having very strict borders again. Now, many people probably know that that doesn’t probably work, but what they do know for sure is what they currently have doesn’t work.
How successful have they been? Are they mostly just a fringe element, or have they made it into the mainstream?
They have been successful because in many countries they are either coalition partners, like in Austria and to a certain extent Switzerland and Denmark; they are in government, like Hungary and to a certain extent Poland; or they are considered as options, as was the case for a while at least in the Netherlands and some other countries.
They’re mostly successful in stopping things. They don’t define how Europe sees itself, or how countries see themselves. So, their views are not fully implemented, but their views do affect the views of the mainstream.
Simply stated, they wouldn’t want to have any immigrants coming in, and yet they’re still coming in. They would like pretty much Islam not to be recognized as a religion, and it’s still recognized as a religion. So, they’re still much a reactionary force that responds to what is done by the mainstream. But they have been very successful in setting the agenda, and not just in deciding what we talk about but how we talk about it.
In terms of how Europe talks about the crisis, how is the conversation today different from past refugee crises?
If you look at the response to the refugee crisis [and] you compare that to the previous refugee crisis, which was ’91, ’92 with Bosnians, the discourse is different. In the early 90s, it was at best a problem of logistics — there were too many coming in a too short period of time, but overall we wanted to help. And refugees were seen as positive, as vulnerable and who need help.
[In 2015], the overall discourse about the refugee crisis was one of problem and threat. And refugees have to be kept away. And that is a fundamental difference. That is where it has become much more negative. Refugees to a large extent are now just seen as immigrants, who have always been seen more negatively. Whereas before they were a separate category. Most people did have sympathy for [them] and many European countries were pretty generous towards refugees.
What has this all meant for attitudes towards Muslims more broadly in Europe?
Obviously, this affects local Muslim populations, even if we talk only about those outside of [Europe]. If we talk about Muslims as intolerant, as backward, as potential terrorists, than any Muslim who is born and raised in the West will still think that’s how they look at me too.
The position of Islam is fundamentally problematic within Europe. But Islam is European. Leaving aside the history of Islam, today we have millions of born-and-raised Europeans who are Muslims. They are the second, third, fourth generation by now. To consider them as guests, to consider them as something external, is highly problematic. It by and large will always give the message to Muslim Dutch, Muslim Germans, that they are not fully part of the country. And it is sad to see that even today. There are very few politicians who openly dare to say Islam is part of Europe.
Since the crisis began, we’ve seen more protests, and in countries like Austria and Hungary, borders have tightened or altogether closed. Is it safe to say that parties on the far right are prompting these actions?
Yes, but had they not been there, I think they would have done the same. We have to understand that radical-right parties are successful because there are a lot of people who share those ideas. And so, in the theoretical model where there hadn’t been any radical-right parties, we would still have the same media who would have said that the Muslims are coming and that there’s a link to terrorism. And people would have gotten upset and would have pressured their parties to do something about it. I think where the radical right played a role is that they just kept it even more on the agenda, and made particularly mainstream right-wing parties even more worried about losing votes to them if they wouldn’t respond quick and harsh. They are a catalyst, I think, more than a cause.
What does all this mean for the future of liberal democracy in Europe?
What we are seeing today is not so much the rise of the radical right or the rise of populism, it is the crisis of liberal democracy. And the point is that these parties have emerged because people feel resentment and frustration about the existing parties. Most liberal democratic parties no longer have a convincing ideology, a convincing discourse, and as a consequence, they are perceived as not capable of handling challenges, be it multiculturalism, be it European integration, be it terrorism. That is where the crisis of liberal democracy is.
And so even if the radical right would disappear, we don’t really save liberal democracy because a large portion of our population would still hold values that are not liberal democratic and will still feel that the established parties are not competent at governing. So, in the future, I don’t see the radical right in government everywhere. What I see is a trend towards radical right parties being more often in government, having a stronger representation. They used to be much smaller. Now they are getting to be the bigger party in government, and they are governing more and more with parties that look closer like them. Which means they have more effect.
We’ve obviously seen our own resurgence of many of these same beliefs in the United States. How has Europe’s nativist, populist movement paralleled what’s happening here?
Well, in the narrow sense of the movement, there are not so many links. The radical right forces here, they are first and foremost American organizations with very few ties to Europe. Much of their nativism stands in a very long tradition of American nativism, going back at the very least to the mid-19th century. It is a bit different because there is a different enemy: Mexicans. It also feeds into, of course, the specific history of racism and African Americans that Europe doesn’t have.
The strongest ties are actually within the Islamophobic community, because that argument is very similar. They have the same view because Islamophobia is not just about the Muslims inside of your country, it’s also against so-called “global Islam.” But I find it pretty stunning how prominent and salient Islamophobia is in a country like the United States, which has such a tiny Muslim population, which is not the case with the Muslim population in Europe.