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Migration and populism

We are taking up the classic definition of populism suggested by Cas Mudde. Populists are inclined to frame politics as a fight amongst the “honest people” and an immoral or dishonest elite. One of the key points of populist parties is to protect “the people” or “the nation,” defined in historical and homogenous terms. Populist parties often condemn immigrants and minorities of weakening and destabilizing the national cultural and historical identities. Simultaneously, there is a wider worry about the integration of immigration populations. Populism is not a new phenomenon, but the last ten years have been remarkably fecund as populist leaders now govern countries, from Donald Trump in the USA to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and have gained ground in many European countries, including Italy and Hungary.

The immigration policies supported by populist parties change from one country to another, but usually share some general ideas: a sense of exclusive nationalism, the conviction that national identity is under menace from alien values, the wish to abruptly reduce immigration, and the mistrust of elites. The populist movements in Europe are also intrinsically anti-European as “Europe” is being blamed for weaker job security, loss of identity and the loss of control over issues such as monetary policy leading to harsh austerity measures since the economic crisis.

Immigration and immigrants’ integration are central issues in the populist discourse. Sentiments of insecurity associated to migration have been reinforced by a succession of terrorist attacks in Europe perpetrated by EU citizens with an immigrant background. The French far right party is playing on the fear of future attacks to advocate against the reception of immigrants and the withdrawal of France from the Schengen area and even the European Union. Populist parties are also playing on the fears of some segments of the population towards growing ethnic and religious diversity. For example, women wearing the burqa or the building of mosques with minarets became very controversial topics in several European countries such as France or Switzerland. With the “migration crises” populist movements gained ground arguing that borders were out of control and that dangerous migrants were entering European without appropriate screening. The election of Matteo Salvini in Italy as well as the success of the AfD in Germany and FPÖ in Austria, all strongly supporting anti-immigrant views are clear examples and are now in a position to influence national immigration policy. Sweden and Austria, which drastically restricted their policy towards the reception of asylum seekers, are other examples of how populist ideology influenced national political agendas and priorities.

The data shows that populism has been constantly increasing since at least 1998. Two decades ago, populist parties were mainly a peripheral power, accounting for merely 7% of ballots throughout Europe but today, one in four votes cast go to a populist party. With the European parliamentary elections approaching, the risks of populist parties gaining seats are high. If the predictions are correct, they could obtain more seats than ever before and therefore potentially change the direction of the EU on immigration and asylum and ironically against the EU itself.

Author: Dr Fanny Tittel-Mosser

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