Two interesting publications from European think-tank and research institute this week explore European public opinion on migration in more detail. Elements of both reinforce ECRE’s view on the inaccuracy and danger of the over-simplistic narrative that the European public is opposed to migration and there is therefore a wave of success for far-right political parties.

The ECFR’s paper “What Europeans Really Want: Five Myths Debunked” presents public opinion studies in the run up to the European Parliament elections and shows that migration is not a major concern for the public in any country (except Hungary), with only 15% of voters considering it a threat to Europe; when it comes to concerns, people in many parts of Europe are more concerned about emigration than immigration. There are a range of issues that are considered threats, including nationalism. Indeed, generally, people are more concerned and worried about far-right parties than they are supportive of them.

The fragmentation, volatility, disillusionment and desire for change on  the part of the electorate are all confirmed but should not be equated with either far-right sympathies or general anti-migration views. In good news for the EU, the research confirms and references recent Eurobarometer statistics that show the strong popularity of the EU among the European public overall (there are of course national variations).

OPAM’s study of public opinion in the Mediterranean region argues – following other recent academic research – that the saliency of the issue of migration is the reason for the increase in support for far-right parties; there has not been significant change in public attitudes. They predict an increase in voter share of just 3% for the far-right.

The need for a more nuanced approach and a change in strategy of mainstream parties comes across clearly. Make no mistake, the politicians, parties and activists of the far-right are dangerous – they incite hatred and violence. ECRE and its members work with the targets of the violence, repression and destitution these political forces generate – and in some cases are the targets. So no-one is complacent. However, over-estimating the success of these parties and public support for them is also dangerous. It makes them a phenomenon, creates a sense of momentum, provides free publicity and helps mobilise their supporters.

The panic about the rise of extremism influences the choices of mainstream political parties and other policy-makers but it is just one factor in shaping their strategy. Through the last four years of “the crisis”, time and again we have heard restrictive measures that undermine the right to asylum in Europe justified on the basis that “the public don’t want migration” or “the public are opposed to accepting refugees”. The strategy of prevention of all migration is based on this over-simplified understanding of public opinion.

Despite the inaccuracies and misrepresentations at play, disputing inaccurate presentations of public opinion is met with the accusation of naivety or wishful thinking, even when it is based on the EU’s own statistics from Eurobarometer or EU-funded academic research. Given that the statistics are widely available, it is hard not to conclude that these over-simplistic references to public opposition are used to justify measures that the policy-makers themselves want to take and actually believe in. It would be refreshing to just hear them own their decisions rather than inaccurately claiming public support. Hopefully analysis of public opinion on migration by more mainstream and neutral organisations will also start to have an influence.

An area where more research is needed is the impact of mainstream parties’ strategies on public opinion. There is a clear correlation between the absorption of far right views by mainstream parties and public opposition to migration – the most extreme example being Hungary. But what is the direction of causality? What is the impact on centre left parties of absorbing the narrative of the far right? It doesn’t seem to do them much good. How does the strategy of accepting the far right into governments affect public opinion and voting compared to the Cordon Sanitaire approach?

In the light of these new publications and impending European Parliament elections, ECRE revives its “Nine Suggestions for Countering the Far Right”, first published in September 2018:

1) Know (and name) your opponent

In much of the political debate, “populism” or “populist party” are inaccurate terms, deployed lazily or due to the lack of easy shorthand – or due to the lack of courage to name what is really the problem. Populism is an approach to politics, a method or at most a partial ideology based on direct appeal to the public, a claim to represent the public rather than the establishment or the elite. It is not necessarily undemocratic or even “bad”.  The centre can also use populist tactics (En Marche and Ciudadanos are often not covered in discussions of populism despite following some of these approaches).

For ECRE, the main concern is a group of parties which could be termed extremist-nationalists or if the term populist is to be used, it at least has to be qualified as “far right populism”. These parties are sufficiently similar to be grouped together: they are all anti-EU, anti-migration and anti-democratic. This is a distinct group and this is our target. They should also be the target of the mainstream left, right and centre. In terms of the European Parliament, this is recognised at every level: these parties self-identify as similar, work together in groups – or at least try to do so – and promote the same positions. There isn’t a group of “populists”.

Despite their similarities, as nationalists they struggle to form pan-European alliances – but aim to do so for the election, with the Orbán-Salvini or Salvini-Le Pen axis leading and volunteers such as Steve Bannon. No doubt their Russian backers are also gearing up their support machine by staffing their troll farms.

2) Talk about migration, but say something different

If mainstream politicians accept the premise that migration is a problem to be solved, they are doomed from the start. The exhausting repetition of myths has totally distorted the debate. Myths like “None of these people are refugees” – in fact, the majority of those who arrived in Europe during the recent political crisis were refugees, with by far the largest number from Syria. Forced displacement is at record levels, and there is a brutal war going on in Europe’s “neighbourhood”. In any case, people without protection needs have human rights. Other myths are also too popular like “By welcoming refugees, Merkel made a terrible mistake and destroyed her career.” Sorry, but who is the Chancellor of Germany for an unprecedented fourth term? Or “return is simple and will resolve everything.” Or “doing deals with third countries to contain migration is in Europe’s interest” (in fact, cooperation with corrupt security forces leads to more forced displacement).

How about: migration is positive and inevitable? It will save Europe from economic decline. Or: migration is the answer to Europe’s demographic crisis. There are multiple positive policies and recommendations out there. For example, that if Europe hosts its fair share of refugees it is more likely to encourage protection standards in other regions and generate cooperation. There are many ways to offer safe and legal channels to protection for those entitled to it. Integration is the success story nobody talks about: there are multiple examples of how to support it.

3) Don’t exaggerate the popular support of these parties

The media and NGOs are both guilty of exaggerating the success of the far-right populists, the former due to sensationalism; the latter due to fear. Headlines referring to “victories” and “tidal waves” of support, are followed by articles that clarify that the far-right party actually polled 10%. Let’s be clear: any political presence of these parties is a threat and should be resisted. But exaggerating their success makes them stronger and leads to self-defeating strategies, such as absorbing their views. It also legitimises support for them by making it seem normal when in most countries it is exceptional (Hungary is an outlier).

These parties have always been part of the European political landscape – unfortunately. In a majority of European countries, their share of the vote is stagnant or decreasing or negligible. Their “successes” need to be understood: Orbán’s electoral success is not because he has tapped into popular sentiment. It is due to a 10-year process of capturing independent institutions, allowing for unchallenged propaganda. The remaining opposition voices are now threatened with imprisonment under the latest laws that attack civil society.

Luckilly, we are now starting to see headlines saying that 85% of the electorate rejected the far right despite the political crisis on migration. Others need to follow: Europe accepts millions of refugees but the far right fails to make gains. Or the European public strongly supports refugees despite political opposition. The combination of economic crisis, disillusionment with politicians and the dramatic arrivals of refugees by sea created perfect conditions for these parties. And this is the best they can do?

4) Talk about ALL the issues that people care about

OK, migration should not be taboo but it is permissible to speak about other issues too. The centre-left in particular has internalized the far-right’s critique that it doesn’t talk about migration. In reality, it sometimes seems that politicians talk about nothing else, a view shared by the public in many places (the electorate in Bavaria, for example, where in the run-up to last year’s election a majority considered there to be too much discussion of migration). Migration has taken up a massively disproportionate amount of political resources, which increases its salience and leads to more votes for the far right. Given the issues that the public care about, changing the subject is neither cowardly nor irresponsible. The more the EP election is about migration, the better these parties will do. The last two years have also shown that preventing migration is not the way to change the debate or to reduce the popularity of these parties. Changing the way that migration and asylum are discussed and approached would be better. It just needs a little more honesty and courage. Civil society could do more to support politicians that challenge the narrative that migration and refugees are the problem.

The far-right often links migration and security. Mainstream politicians should not shy away from talking about security, just do that differently too. Refugees crossing borders is not the greatest security threat faced by people in Europe – that would be climate change; or lunatic strongmen leaders; or European governments that are in cahoots with organised crime. Here, rather than changing the subject, expand upon it. The parties of the far-right incite violence, social tension and instability – they are a security threat.

5) Stop the complicity

It is possible to talk to and even work with far right nationalist parties. But it has to be clear what the red line is – at which point does engagement become complicity? Going into government with these parties and allowing them to control institutions is one example; letting them join coalitions is another. The EPP has stepped over the line and the support it gives Fidesz is complicity. Party leaders and advisors must resist the misguided pressure to adopt anti-migration or anti-asylum positioning. The Centre-Left is not going to increase its votes by adopting the policies of the far-right; yet some PES members are doing that.

6) Understand political fragmentation and build coalitions

The “success” of the far-right is often relative and results from fragmentation of party systems. A party with 20% or even 15% might be the largest in a highly fragmented system. The main left and right blocs that dominated post-war Western Europe have lost voting share due to social changes. Post-Communist Eastern Europe has seen its own rapid processes of political party (trans)formation and division.

The EP elections will reflect this dynamic with polls showing that forming a majority will require not two but at least three political parties to join forces. Clever coalition building will be required increasingly at European as well as national level. ECRE urges the exclusion of far right parties from governing coalitions – handing over the power to manage institutions leads to normalisation and proliferation of their views.

7) Court the doubters

There are individuals and factions within parties that are currently allied with the far-right who might be shamed into renouncing their support and joining or at least allying with other forces. Bringing such individuals into other parties or supporting breakaway efforts should be encouraged.

8) Reclaim Europe

For the far-right populists, although they exploit the migration issue, their real agenda may be to destroy the EU, or to undermine democracy or to enrich themselves and their cronies. It is particularly unpleasant to see these parties now switching to a defence of European values, reinterpreted to mean the defence of the purely white, Christian Europe that never was and never will be. At the same time, there is a flourishing of new and positive pan-European forces. Some support reform of the EU but they still believe in it and are firmly internationalist. The mainstream parties should follow this line and re-affirm a vision of Europe as a place of cooperation, rule of law, democracy and human rights. Unity in diversity. With all the meanings of diversity.

9) Participate! Vote!

Those who care about human rights and democracy or Europe can’t “opt out”. It is self-indulgent inaccurate clap-trap to say that “all” political parties are the same or that “all” politicians are corrupt, and therefore it’s not worth voting. Sometimes these attitudes derive from apathy but often it is misplaced idealism, purism even – not wanting to vote for those who are seen as too compromising. If the far-right populists increase their seats in the European Parliament, there will be a tangible negative impact on the rights of refugees in Europe. If that’s not reason enough to resist, then just look at their impact on the rule of law and democracy. ECRE’s campaign “Your Vote. Our Future” continues.

Editorial: Catherine Woollard, Secretary General for the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE)


Photo: (CC) Diamond Geezer, March 2015

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin . You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.