European migration policy and the rise of populism
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Migration and the rise of populism: how closely related are they?Oliviero Angeli, lecturer of political theory at the University of Dresden and scientific coordinator of the Mercator Forum on Migration and Democracy (MIDEM).
Did migration contribute to the recent rise of right-wing populism in Europe? At first glance, the question seems trivial. For most right-wing populist parties in Europe put the immigration issue on the top of their agenda exploiting anxieties over cultural disintegration and rising crime. One has only to think of the right-wing populist parties like the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), whose campaign was marked by a hostile anti-immigrant rhetoric. On closer inspection, however, things look more complicated. It is not quite so clear-cut that a rise in the number of refugees or immigrants inevitably triggers right-wing populist reactions. After all, populism is a relatively recent phenomenon, while migration and migratory ‘waves’ have existed for as long as we know. Moreover, consider countries like Ireland or Portugal. How come in these countries there is to date no right-wing populist party with seats in national parliament? They did not take less immigrants than most of the other EU countries.
Evidently, there is no mono-causal relation between migration and the rise of right-wing populism. An increase in immigration does not automatically lead to a populist, anti-immigration backlash. According to our analysis, the recent rise of right-wing populism is more likely to be the result of a process that encompasses at least five stages of which immigration does play an essential role. These five stages can be summarized as follows:
- The starting point is an ‘external shock’ such as the ‘refugee crisis’, which posed major political and administrative challenges for governments in many European countries. As a matter of fact, most European countries in 2015 were neither politically nor administratively ‘equipped’ to handle the increased arrival of refugees and migrants.
- Difficulties in handling the refugee issue provoked extensive media attention and sparked heated political controversies. For an example, one has only to look at the number of articles on immigration that has grown exponentially after 2015. In Germany the highest number of articles on immigration was reached between 2015 and 2016.
- Increased media relevance ‘activates’ latent skepticism towards migration in sections of the population. This means that migration does not necessarily generate anti-immigration fears and attitudes. Rather, it more likely triggers and strengthens pre‐existing ones. Evidence for this is provided by the increased salience of migration in European countries, while attitudes toward migration remained virtually unchanged. In concrete terms this means that for the most part the ‘refugee crisis’ did not make European populations more skeptical of or opposed to migration (with the exception of the Višegrad countries, where the trend in terms of attitudes towards migration had also been predominantly negative beforehand).
- The ‘activation’ of anti-immigration attitudes, combined with the widespread dissatisfaction with the immigration management was ultimately reflected in votes for right-wing populist parties, which capitalized on immigration fears in parts of the population. In this sense, migration can be seen a prerequisite for the mobilization of right-wing populist support in the protest against the ‘ruling elite’.
- Finally, anti-immigration populism opens the way to a restrictive turn in migration policies, one which can not only be traced back to decisions made by right-wing populist governments. Non-populist governments (like German one) have also taken a more restrictive stance on immigration and immigrants’ rights.
Readers might dispute this explanation of the recent rise of right-wing populism adducing the fact that right-wing populist parties proved most successful in countries – like Poland and Hungary – with comparably few immigrants and no refugee crisis to speak of. The above explanation, however, does not imply that migration is a necessary precondition for the rise of right-wing populism. Rising populism has of course many drivers and migration is just one of them – though an important one. Moreover, migration need not be quantitatively remarkable to impact media and political discourse. ‘Imagined’ migration can be equally divisive. The most striking example in this respect are precisely Central and Eastern European countries. In these countries the salience of immigration rose sharply after 2015 in spite of extremely low refugee numbers compared to Western European countries. The main reason is that political entrepreneurs like Jarosław Kaczyński managed to raise the salience of immigration (and frame discussion of the issue in negative terms) by turning it into a matter of national sovereignty and thus mobilizing larger portions of the electorate. In countries like Poland the mere prospect of EU-imposed refugee quotas became the subject of critical media coverage and emotionally charged political debates.
Clearly, the rise of right-wing populist parties is far more likely to be an effect of the increased salience of immigration than of rising levels of immigration on the national level. It is therefore only logical that right-wing populist parties have seized any opportunity to put immigration back at the center of political debates in the attempt to counter the (gradually) decreasing salience of immigration in Europe. Crucially, once immigration is put high on the media agenda and framed in a way that advances populists’ interests, it becomes difficult to promote a different framing. Consider, for instance, political debates that surrounded the introduction of the Global Compact on Migration (GCM). Europe’s anti-immigration populists in large part framed the GCM as a hidden resettlement program for economic migrants. Such framing is ‘toxic’ insofar as it feeds into the pre-existing anti-immigrant anxieties and gives a boost to a virtually uncontrollable amplification process. By giving ample coverage to populist allegations, the media unintentionally filters out alternative perspectives on the GCM and gave the public the impression that populists may not get it all wrong. Breaking out of this self-reinforcing cycle will be one of the main challenges in countering populist anti-immigration narratives.
 Dennison, James, and Andrew Geddes. “A Rising Tide? The Salience of Immigration and the Rise of Anti‐Immigration Political Parties in Western Europe.” The Political Quarterly (2018).
 See, for example, Kaufmann, Eric. “Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities.” (2018), pp. 97ff.