The “New” European Political Landscape

6 months ago Alger Mag Editor 0

Paralleling Donald Trump’s surprising success in the American election, right-wing populists have made strong electoral gains on the other side of the Atlantic. Right-wing AfD has made significant strides  in German state elections, Marie Le Pen is currently leading the polls for France’s presidential election, and a politician from Austria’s Freedom Party came close to winning the Austrian presidential election. Dutch political observer Tom-Jan Meeus, when discussing the upcoming Dutch election, argued that the liberal Netherlands is “on the brink of turning decisively right” as  the “far-right” Party for Freedom (PVV) is likely going to be the largest party in the parliament after next year’s election. With anti-immigrant populists already part of the government in Norway and Finland, and Denmark’s right wing party providing outside support to the governing coalition in Danish Parliament, the political successes of these parties make it seem like Europe is lurching decisively to the right. Reality, however, is more complicated than that; western and northern Europe more or less is politically in the same place as it was a decade or two ago (perhaps with a declining enthusiasm for globalization). The electoral successes of these political parties is a manifestation of the West’s shift to the right on immigration issues (more on that later). Aside from immigration, the political orientation of western and northern Europe remains relatively constant. Perhaps ‘anti-immigrant’ would be a more precise label than ‘far right.’

 

When Americans think of the far-right, the image conjured up is that of tea party activists. The tea party movement is built of people who are socially and economically conservative. They often oppose gay marriage as much as they detest government spending. However, the supporters of “far-right” parties in Europe (and substantial number of Donald Trump’s supporters) do not prescribe to similar ideologies. These voters might be conservative on some social issues, but economically they are fairly left of center. Take for example the Danish People’s Party (DPP) — the main anti-immigrant party of Denmark. In 2015 Danish General Elections, they scored an impressive victory by winning 21.1% of the vote and becoming the second largest party in the Danish Parliament. DPP is currently providing outside support to the center-right government coalition, which has been taking a harsh stance on immigrants and refugees. Despite that, the relationship between the government and DPP is not smooth and there is a possibility of a snap election in the near future. The cause of the rocky relationship is not social, but economic policy. The conservative ruling coalition wants to cut taxes for the wealthy by five percent, but the “far-right” DPP is against such tax cuts. This disagreement shows that the so-called far right party is not economically conservative.  Upon closer examination, its policies more closely resemble those of the Social Democratic Party (Denmark’s main center-left party) than those of Venstre (the main center- right party). DPP wants to preserve and enlarge the welfare state for native Danes, increase spending on the elderly, and supports protectionist policies in general. These economic policies enabled the party to win plurality of working class votes in the 2015 election. The party won 33.7% of the working class vote (Social Democratic Party, the traditional working class party, only won 26.3% of the working class electorate).

 

The only policy of the party that gives it the far-right label is its immigration policies. The party advocates for tough measures towards immigrants and this has been the driving force behind the country’s aggressive and controversial anti-immigration policies including seizing migrant’s assets, and tightening citizenship requirement. But on other issues, it has simply replaced the center-left party. Therefore, Denmark is not moving to the right on any other major issues, especially economic ones.

 

DPP is not an anomaly among right-wing populists; most right wing populist parties in Europe resemble it. In the Netherlands, Meeus mourns the expected decimation of the left wing parties in the upcoming elections. However, the decline of left wing parties will not mean that the country will be moving to the right on most issues. Party for Freedom (PVV) espouses relatively liberal social policies. For example, the party supports equal rights for LGBT individuals. On economic policies, the party does not necessarily support the small government, pro-business stance of traditional conservative parties. In fact, the party left the government coalition in 2012 because it did not support the austerity policies of the center-right government. Therefore, even if the left gets obliterated in the March 2017 Dutch elections, it would not mean that the country will have moved to the right. PVV will continue to act as a left-wing party on most issues except on immigration policies. Every other major right wing populist party in Europe shares a similar ideology to that of DPP and PVV. They all tend to be very right-wing on immigration, but on social and especially economic issues these parties tend to fairly left leaning, often supporting protectionist trade policies and denouncing globalization.

 

These parties’s stance reflect the stance of (western and northern) European electorate. Most voters in these industrialized countries have not really altered their stance on major social or economic policies. The one policy area where they have decisively shifted to the right happens to be on immigration. High level of continuous immigration from African and Middle East since the end of World War II, coupled with the recent refugee crisis has, rightly or wrongly, led more and more Europeans to support restrictions on immigration. The unsuccessful integration (more on that here  and here) of immigrants has further fueled tensions between native Europeans and their counterparts with immigrant background. Thus the growth of these so called far-right parties has been in response to the growing unease of Europeans regarding the influx of newcomers to their country. These voters have not necessarily shifted their stance on economic or social policy. They are, however, looking to political parties to address the immigration issue. Failure of the traditional parties to address this issue has been the driving factor behind the increasing support for once sidelined political entities (the so called “far-right” parties). One might be tempted to argue that voters supporting these parties might simply be fed up with “political elites” and want some change (like what happened in United States). That might be partially true especially in context of Austria. That fact is probably not true for Germany, Netherlands, and Scandinavian countries where voter satisfaction with mainstream politicians remains relatively high. Therefore these parties are not necessarily “far right” as they are anti-immigrant.
In the past five years, once marginalized right-wing populist parties have been very successful in making electoral gains in western and northern Europe. Once inconceivable, given the fringe nature of their platform in the progressive world of European politics, some of these parties are now closely contending for or are already part of government coalitions. The recent refugee crisis is bound to fuel their support in coming years. Their growing clout in the electoral landscape may seem like Europe is inching further to the right in the political spectrum, but support for “far-right” parties does not necessarily translate into a move towards the right. These parties have been pushing for stringent immigration rules. On other areas of governance, especially economic policy, their electoral success is not going to result in any significant change to the political spectrum in western and northern Europe. For many Europeans, however, this single issue of immigration might be the bottom line for landing  anti-immigrant leaders into office in Stockholm, The Hague, Paris, or Berlin.

by: Kushagra Mahaseth

photo credit: Charles Clegg/ Flickr Creative Commons