The Italian election which took place earlier this month brought on yet another painful blow to supporters to the EU. The Eurosceptic populist parties the Five Star Movement and the Lega Nord, dominated the ballot box gaining a combined 330 seats. The Italian election is only the most recent in a long string of disasters to plague the EU.
In the short span of less than 2 years, the UK has left the EU, Marie Le Pen and Geert Wilders were both only narrowly defeated in their respective elections, the far right Alternative für Deutschland party has gained seats in the German Bundestag, and the Italian Parliament has been overtaken by Eurosceptic populist parties.
This shift towards the populist right has done more than simply destabilize the EU, it has put the very existence of EU at risk. Although few of these rising populists would openly advocate for their nations to pull out of the EU they openly challenge the fundamental values which form the foundation of the EU. Values such as respect for human dignity, equality, freedom of movement, and pluralism.
The rise and success of these populist movements has been increasingly rooted in one particular issue which has come do dominate European politics, that issue being the migrant crisis.
- Those who campaigned for Brexit notoriously scapegoated migrants as the cause of Britain’s economic decline.
- Both Le Pen and Wilders made the supposed threat posed by Muslim migrants to secular Europe the xenophobic foundation their far-right campaigns.
- The AfD in large part owes its success to the decision of chancellor Angela Merkel to admit nearly a million migrants to Germany in 2015.
The results of the Italian election are simply the most recent example of the issue of immigration resurfacing to the benefit of Eurosceptic populist parties.
While many are quick to dismiss this tactic of exploiting the issue of migration and scapegoating migrants as xenophobic propaganda, what has become abundantly clear is that regardless of it’s validity it’s a tactic that has the potential to succeed.
What does this say about European voters?
While many are eager to point to the populist right’s successful use of scapegoating and propaganda as evidence for deep seeded racism within European society, few are examining the situation with proper consideration for its historical context.
This pattern of scapegoating a vulnerable minority in order the reinforce the view of a victimized majority is nothing new to historians who have studied the rise of historical populist movements. While this aspect of populism is widely acknowledged by both the media and the political establishment which have gone as far to describe emerging populist parties such as the Front National as neo-fascist. There is a second aspect that has contributed to the historical rise of populism which is almost entirely ignored.
Like its historic counterpart the modern rise of populism within Europe has been facilitated by a catastrophic economic collapse which has created victimhood among ordinary Europeans. Like the Great Depression which proceeded the rise of populism in Europe during the 1930’s, many have seemingly forgotten the European Debt Crisis which proceeded the migrant crisis and the following rise of populism.
In the face of insurmountable debt, nations such as Spain, Greece, and Italy accepted austerity cutting social spending in exchange for debt relief. This dismantling of social services has disproportionately impacted the poor and the middle-class.
This newfound sense of fear brought on by rising unemployment and a rapidly declining standard of living was unfortunately coupled with the sudden influx of an unprecedent number migrants into Europe which naturally have required a significant degree of aid in order to resettle within European society. Taking this into account it is hard to imagine a situation in which right wing populists would not have experienced a dramatic rise by scapegoating migrants.
The political establishment of the EU can no longer afford to simply ignore the efficacy of the populist right and its xenophobic tactics. It can also no longer dismiss the fears of migration as being inherently rooted in racism while ignoring the historical context in which this migrant crisis is occurring. The EU must walk a fine line between maintaining the support of its member states and defending its core values by living up to it’s humanitarian obligations. The only way in which both of these needs can be met while also disarming the populist right is by reprioritizing public welfare and the protection of welfare state. It is only by addressing the genuine economic fears of working class Europeans that the political establishment of the EU can effectively dismiss the fictitious fears which the populist right is desperately attempting to propagate.
2. New York Times