How a surge of migrants pushed European politics into the arms of the right

SMH LOGOMore than a million migrants arrived in Europe last year: a surge of humanity that made its way over land and water. From the war zones of the Middle East and the poverty of parts of Africa and Asia, they streamed towards a dream of peace and wealth.

The largest movement of humanity since World War II, these refugees, or migrants, or perhaps exiles, were dealt a shocking hand by fate. They suffered, they endured, thousands drowned, often they went hungry, they were jailed and corralled, and they arrived to a rapidly evolving and increasingly dark mood, accelerated by the New Year’s Eve wave of sex crimes in Cologne, crimes blamed largely on migrants.

And now that dark mood has filtered up to European politics, pushing the debate to the right. Dog-whistle politicking has become the new norm in Europe, playing on fears of migrants and the link to housing and jobs shortages, of overwhelmed social services and increasing crime, lashing out at the other.

The emergence of a brand of angry nationalism has flowered across the continent in the last couple of years, and a swag of right-wing parties are making the most of the mood.

Ranging from stridently nationalist to neo-fascist, they have leveraged some big successes from the widespread paranoia. Not least of these is the momentous Brexit vote, which will pull Britain out of the EU. The “Leave” campaign was pushed hard by the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party and its leader Nigel Farage, who played on British insecurity about immigration.

Here’s a country-by-country guide:


“We all agree that Europe and European culture and freedom are under threat today because of irresponsible mass immigration”: Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, December 2015.

Norbert Hofer, the candidate from Austria’s far-right nationalist and anti-immigration Freedom Party, lost a frighteningly close federal election by the slimmest of margins in May – missing out on victory by just 31,000 votes among the more than 4.6 million cast. The massive emotional shift among Austria’s voters has been seen as an indication of more far-right victories to come. The Freedom Party has been leading recent polls by a substantial margin, and it is now challenging the election results. Hofer may have lost, but the oh-so-close result put heart into the one-time Nazis and Teutonic nationalists who were with him in founding the party in the 1950s.


The European Union has “opened the door to an exodus of biblical proportions”: UKIP leader Nigel Farage, September 2015.

The far right in British politics, embodied by Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, has made the question of immigration central to the national debate. Immigration certainly influenced – to large degree – Britons’ momentous decision to wrench their homeland out of the EU. Freddie Sayers, the editor-in-chief of pollster YouGov, wrote in April: “Immigration is by far the best issue for the ‘Leave’ campaign. The more it can focus the campaign on immigration, the better it will do.”

Net migration to Britain reached a record high of 336,000 last year. These were nearly all migrants from within the EU, but the river of distressed and despairing refugees arriving in Europe from the Middle East and elsewhere over the past year or so has served to deepen entrenched fears of a quiet “invasion”.

Worried about the shrinking job market and the increasing stress on social services, many British people pointed the finger of blame at foreigners, and xenophobic violence increased in Britain after the Brexit vote.

Conflating legitimate movement within the EU with the hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers arriving in Europe was one of the weapons in the Brexiteers’ armoury. Farage did his best to whip up discontent. His advertising campaign even featured a poster with a crowd of refugees and migrants, with the line “Breaking Point” – which critics immediately noted had a racist, if not Nazi, tang.


“Without any action, this migratory influx will be like the barbarian invasion of the IV century, and the consequences will be the same”: National Front president Marine Le Pen, September 2015.

France’s far-right National Front has made substantial gains in recent months, and now French opinion polls suggest the Eurosceptic party will win through to the run-offs in next year’s presidential elections. The party’s charismatic blonde leader, Marine Le Pen, has ratcheted up her anti-immigrant rhetoric, warning in January that the stream of migrants arriving in Europe would “impoverish European nations and kill their civility”.

Using populist rhetoric to excoriate immigration and pro-EU positions, the National Front won 27 per cent in the first round of regional elections last year, but failed to leverage the margin into wins in the second round – still, the National Front far outpolls President Francois Hollande’s governing Socialists. National Front members and sympathisers include Nazi collaborators and members of the wartime collaborationist Vichy regime.

Britain’s momentous vote to leave the EU rattled European leaders. In an unprecedented step, Hollande even invited Le Pen to emergency weekend meetings in Paris to discuss future steps – tacit recognition of the increasing power of the far right.


“People must stop migrants from crossing illegally from Austria [into Germany]. If necessary, [they] should use firearms. I don’t want this, but the use of armed force is there as a last resort”: Alternative for Germany (AfD) party chairwoman Frauke Petry, January 2016.

“People must stop migrants from crossing illegally from Austria [into Germany]. If necessary, [they] should use firearms. I don’t want this, but the use of armed force is there as a last resort,” Alternative for Germany (AfD) party chairwoman Frauke Petry said in January. Germany’s welcome for refugees, given weight via the courageous insistence of Chancellor Angela Merkel, has infuriated many from the far right. The nationalist Alternative for Germany party was founded three years ago as a protest movement against the euro currency. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength, fuelled by xenophobic fury and an increasing distrust of the EU.

Support for the party rocketed after the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne, largely blamed on migrants. In March, the AfD won as much as 25 per cent of votes in state elections. Now polling well, with about 10 to 12 per cent support, it could well be the first far-right party to win seats in the German Parliament since the end of World War II. The party’s latest policies include a ban on the construction of mosques, with the line: “Islam does not belong in Germany.”

Another German anti-immigration force, Pegida, an acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, has attracted thousands of supporters to a string of rallies and marches since it began in late 2014. Founder Lutz Bachmann has encouraged party followers to protest against “those who come here bring terror to the country”.


“Close the borders! Make the army and the navy seal our borders and not let people enter illegally”: Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos, September 2015

The neo-fascists of Golden Dawn first won seats in the Greek Parliament in 2012. Stunned by a massive debt crisis and a rapidly sinking economy, Greeks turned to a new, xenophobic force – and, casting about for someone to blame, warmed to Golden Dawn’s extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric. Described by the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner in 2013 as “neo-Nazi and violent”, the party has had a chequered history.

In 2013, a crowd of top-rank Golden Dawn officers, including MPs and the party’s leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos, were charged with building a criminal organisation. Their often-delayed trial is ongoing. Meanwhile, repeating its success, last September Golden Dawn again won 18 seats in Parliament, and began planning protests against the “Islamisation of Greece”.


“Someone somewhere – I think in Berlin this week – will announce that 400,000 to 500,000 Syrian refugees could be brought straight from Turkey to the EU – this nasty surprise still awaits Europeans”: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, December 2015.

Quasi-authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his far-right Fidesz party have won the last two parliamentary elections in Hungary. Freedom of the press and freedom of religion have since been curtailed and increasingly stringent restrictions have been imposed on the Hungarian people. After the party’s big win in 2010, Fidesz leaders used a two-thirds parliamentary majority to introduce a new constitution, slash the power of some courts and eliminate high-profile naysayers.

To deal with the influx of migrants, Hungary constructed a 450-kilometre long razor wire fence to barricade itself from southern Europe. Orban has argued that most of the migrants arriving in Europe were “not refugees because they are not coming from a war-stricken area”.


“[Migrants carry] very dangerous diseases long absent from Europe”: Law and Justice party chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski, October 2015.

Poland’s far right Law and Justice party is in government, where it appears to be slowly but inexorably pulling Poland’s lawyers and judges, its journalists and its security officers under its umbrella of control. Founder Jaroslaw Kaczynski is running the show from behind the scenes, dragging Poland to the right.

The shift has drawn the attention of the European Commission, which has noted that Poland has compromised the rule of law by messing around with the nation’s constitutional court.


“With the economy under pressure, we should raise our voice against the state’s irresponsible immigration policy. Everyone who thinks immigration is a good thing should take a good look at this city”: Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Akesson, 2014.

After enjoying soaring popularity in recent years, the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats party suffered a minor check in May, when its support slid marginally from 19.9 per cent in November to 17.3 per cent, although few expect the slide to continue. First entering Parliament in 2010, the party won nearly 13 per cent of the vote in the 2014 general election, and saw support jump to 20 per cent last year.

Its success has dragged Sweden’s minority Social Democrat government to the right, and the government has now introduced tougher immigration regulations in order to slice asylum numbers from thousands a week to a few hundred. A law passed this month makes it harder for people who get asylum, but who are not classified as refugees, to bring in family members. It also replaces permanent residence permits with temporary ones, which must be renewed every 13 months.

The Sweden Democrats deny they have any links to a white supremacist movement, and instead assert they are simply responding to the desires of the Swedish people, many of whom fear an unchecked flow of immigrants will irreversibly change the face of their homeland.


“Masses of young men in their 20s with beards singing Allahu Akbar across Europe. It’s an invasion that threatens our prosperity, our security, our culture and identity”: Party for Freedom leader Geert Wilders, September 2015.

Geert Wilders, with his prominent shock of silver hair, has been upsetting and embarrassing Dutch liberals for years.

His Party for Freedom is anti-immigrant and anti-Islam, once calling for the closure of all Islamic schools in the Netherlands. It is also anti-EU. Wilders lost no time after the Brexit vote to call for the Netherlands’ own referendum (Nexit).

The party won nine seats in the 2006 election, and then began to improve its position: 24 seats in the 2010 election and 15 seats in 2012, becoming the third largest party in the country’s Parliament.