Europe’s Continued Shift to the Right

While the United States has elected a conservative Republican leader in President Donald Trump, the people of Europe have voted in record numbers in recent years for leaders who are also right-leaning. Although in a number of cases, this voting was not enough to land nationalist candidates in office, it has generated much talk about a surge in populism sweeping the globe.

In the United Kingdom, the conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron fell apart in 2016 when Cameron resigned following the “Brexit” referendum vote, but taking his place was new conservative leader Theresa May, who has resolutely pledged to remove Britain from the European Union (EU).

While May isn’t as right-leaning as the UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage, her government has rejected EU proposals for refugee quotas. As Britain’s former Home Secretary, May was behind mobile ads placed on the backs of taxis that told illegal immigrants to “Go Home or Face Arrest.” Although the left in the UK has large support under longtime Labour Party politician Jeremy Corbyn, for now, May’s reign appears to be secure despite several public gaffes she committed in recent weeks.

In France, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, missed being elected the nation’s president in May, losing by 33 percentage points to Emmanuel Macron. Although Macron has been described as politically centrist, France has enacted numerous measures aimed at the many immigrants that country has absorbed in recent years, including a ban on “burkinis” (Islamic swimwear for women), burqas and niqabs (facial veils) in public. In the wake of terrorist incidents in Paris, Nice and elsewhere, the government has stepped up security actions that take into account the fact that many immigrants are of the Muslim faith and have congregated in specific villages and urban neighborhoods.

In the Netherlands, anti-Islamic candidate Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) was defeated in the country’s elections in March, but PVV retains the second-largest share in the nation’s parliament.

Most recently, in Austria, 31-year-old foreign minister Sebastian Kurz was elected chancellor of that nation — the country’s most powerful leadership role — which will make him the world’s youngest state leader and put him in the media spotlight as he’s committed to cutting government benefits for refugees in his country and keeping the EU out of Austrian affairs.

On October 15, Kurz, who represents the conservative People’s Party of Austria (ÖVP), defeated 51-year-old incumbent Christian Kern of the center-left Social Democrat (SPÖ) party. While the ÖVP is part of the same umbrella group — the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) — as Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU party, the CDU portion of Merkel’s base — located more in the north of Germany — is more liberal than the CSU portion, which is located more in that country’s southern region.

In Germany, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party took 13 percent of the vote this year in a share that surprised many analysts and more than doubled their result from the last election in 2013.

Although Germany’s Merkel has been described as a leftist leader — she’s most notoriously known for strongly supporting her country’s “open border” policies for both Germany and the EU — her CSU base has driven her to the right in the latest German elections (although for now, Germany’s and the EU’s policies on refugees remain unchanged). It should be noted that many of the immigrants who have come to Germany in the last two years passed through Austria to get there. In 2015, Austria gained the equivalent of one percent of its 8 million population in terms of refugee immigrants.

In contrast to Merkel, incoming Austrian Chancellor Kurz has committed to applying the brakes on government handouts to refugees, capping welfare payments to them at just 540 Euros per month — a little over one-third the minimum wage his party has proposed for Austria. Like President Trump, Kurz wants to reduce government red tape in his country and lower taxes for most citizens. Many observers say that Kurz was able to win this latest election by taking a swing to the right, particularly on immigration issues.

Adding fuel to the fires of controversy surrounding Kurz is the fact that in many European nations, there are more than two major political parties; Austria is no different in this regard. In many elections, no one party is able to claim a majority (more than 50 percent) of votes, so in order to govern, coalitions must be built whereby two or more parties agree to combine forces on most issues.

In Austria, the next government will likely be a coalition between Kurz’s conservative ÖVP and the farther-right, anti-Muslim Freedom Party (FPÖ), to the chagrin of leftists both inside the country and outside it. In fact, it was Kurz who forced this latest election to happen by ending the coalition of his ÖVP and the center-left SPÖ led by incumbent Chancellor Kern.

The farther-right FPÖ has a platform of keeping non-European Union citizens out of specific sectors of the Austrian economy and cutting the proportion of foreign-born students in schools as well as deporting refugees who become criminals. The FPÖ and the ÖVP both desire to stop supporting Mediterranean Sea rescue missions of refugees and eliminating certain benefits to foreigners for five years. They also desire higher standards for asylum seekers wishing to become Austrian citizens and want to keep the European Union out of the day-to-day government business of Austria.

A previous coalition of the FPÖ and the ÖVP in the mid-2000s saw new asylum applications in Austria fall from 32,000 in 2003 to less than 14,000 in 2006. In this latest election, both parties were able to increase their share of the popular vote from the prior race, proving an increasing shift toward right-leaning positions among voters.

Austria is not the only country where conservatives have a new shot at taking power. Next year, Italians will go to the polls to elect either former center-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi or 31-year-old rising star Luigi Di Maio of the populist Five Star Movement. In Greece, Sweden and Bulgaria, far-right anti-immigrant parties have taken third place in those respective governments in recent elections, reflecting shifts to the right in those nations.

It’s expected that as flows of refugees from the Middle East and Africa continue to Europe that further movements toward populist and anti-immigrant political stances among voters will advance.