Shift to right leaves Europe in an uncomfortable position
Ever since the big wave of migration into Europe in 2015, the political landscape has irreversibly changed. Although migration is down by about 90 percent from where it was during that summer and autumn, the political discourse is still dominated by migration and how to integrate migrants and refugees who hail from different cultures.
There was a move to the right on the continent before that, but the migration debate has brought many “alt-right” parties to the fore.
The latest example is Sweden, where the Sweden Democrats, which has its roots in neo-Nazi ideology, achieved 17.6 percent of the vote and won 63 seats in Parliament during last weekend’s election. While they did not achieve the landslide victory many expected, their strong position will render it a lot more difficult to govern the Scandinavian country. The ruling center-left bloc of Social Democrats, Green Party and Left Party gained 144 seats, while the center-right alliance of the Moderate Party, Center Party, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals managed 143. Both fall short of the 177 seats required for a majority. While it is not unusual for Sweden to be ruled by a minority government, things look different this time.
It is true that the Sweden Democrats have mellowed and could no longer be described as neo-Nazis. But they are still to the very right of the spectrum, not sharing in many of the common values of Sweden, which is Europe’s original firebrand of liberalism. Meshing the immigration debate with fundamental beliefs in the welfare state perversely helped the Sweden Democrats. Many Swedes feared for their place in the hospital, old people’s homes or their children’s spot in the creches of a country that has taken in more refugees per capita than any other European country.
While most parties have ruled out working with the Sweden Democrats, the ultra-right wing party insists it will only cooperate in the parliamentary process if its voice is heard. Sweden is at an impasse, with the center-right demanding Prime Minister Stefan Lofven step down. He wants to continue, pointing out that the Social Democratic Party is still the largest in Parliament.
None of the above is unusual in the new European context. Geert Wilder’s Freedom Party is the second-largest party in Holland, while Marine Le Pen was runner-up in France’s 2017 presidential election. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany is the largest opposition party and in Italy the right-wing League made it into the government coalition. There is also Viktor Orban in Hungary, Andrej Babis in the Czech Republic and Sebastian Kurz in Austria, all of whom share a strong anti-immigration agenda and are heads of their respective governments.
The issue of migration will not go away as long as poverty and conflict are prevalent in Africa and as long as the Middle East is riddled with civil wars.
So what has happened? The migration debate proved divisive in most European societies. While the numbers abated, migrants are still perceived as posing a threat to the hitherto comfortable lifestyles of Europe. Across the board, far-right parties made huge inroads with their xenophobic rhetoric. The far-left made some gains too — think of Die Linke in Germany or the Left Party in Sweden, both of which have their origins in the former communist parties of these countries. They address income inequality and affordable housing, subjects which became crucial issues for low-income households in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, which brought with it harsh austerity measures in many countries. Austerity hit the poor far more than the affluent.
Center-right parties have lost across the board, but the biggest losers have been the center-left parties, such as the SPD in Germany and the Social Democrats in Sweden. This is quite easily explained: Lower income families feel that they are being squeezed out of the housing market (for renting let alone ownership) and are concerned whether their pensions will be sufficient to sustain them in old age. They look with trepidation at the inflow of people from foreign cultures, worrying that their sheer numbers might prove corrosive for their social safety blanket. This makes them easy prey for extremist ideologies from the far right and the far left.
Where does that leave Europe? In short, in a very uncomfortable position. It has become a lot harder to govern across the continent and the political language has become a lot harsher. Ideologies and language that would have seemed inconceivable in the 1980s and 1990s have become part of the daily political discourse.
Europe and its leaders need to be careful not to lose the “soul” of the liberal welfare state, which Europeans have begun to take for granted. The issue of migration will not go away as long as poverty and conflict are prevalent in Africa and as long as the Middle East is riddled with civil wars.
The financial crisis has left people feeling poorer and immigration has left them more insecure. Poverty and insecurity have been the breeding ground for many a dictatorship. This is not where Europe is headed, but its leaders need to address the issues described above head-on and with transparency. There is also room for giving a lot more thought to how to integrate immigrants. Most European countries have aging populations, which gives space to look at immigration as an opportunity, but this will only be the case if it is treated with sincerity and diligence. It will require give and take from both sides — the host nation as well as the immigrants.
These are hard questions and their solutions will not be easy. In the meantime, it is crucial that the centrist parties remain in charge of the political discourse; for Europe would not be Europe without its democratic and liberal values.
• Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert.