EU political trends driven by anti-immigration populist movements, experts say

Migrants, most of them from Eritrea, jump into the water from a crowded wooden boat as they are helped by members of an NGO during a rescue operation at the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Thousands of migrants and refugees were rescued Monday morning from more than 20 boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian cost guards and others NGO vessels operating at the zone.(AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Over the weekend, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced he will resign from office after failing to win a referendum. French President Francois Hollande announced last week he will not seek another term in office. And the leadership of Great Britain began hearings on Monday to determine exactly how and when they will official trigger their exit from the European Union.

According to experts, the complex events unfolding across Europe have one common denominator, the rise of populist political movements fueled by a wave of anti-immigration sentiment.

Renzi staked his future political career on the referendum to reform the Italian Parliament and ultimately lost. Leading the campaign against the referendum was anti-establishment Five Star Movement Party led by former Italian comedian, Beppe Grillo, whose party is expected to make significant gains when the next election is called.

After a series of terrorist attacks and continuously slow recovery from the 2010 Euro crisis drove down his popularity, French President Hollande announced he would not seek a second term as president. Some analysts speculate the move was, in part, a way to shore up Hollande's Socialist Party in light of the growing wave of support for the far right National Front Party of Marine Le Pen. The popularity of the Euro-skeptic candidate, driven in part by her hard-line stance against the wave of Middle Eastern and North African migrants entering Europe, has put her in the running as one of the top three contenders in the April 2017 French presidential race.

In the Netherlands public support for the far right Party of Freedom, led by Geert Wilders, is also growing, fueled by a growing population of Muslim immigrants fleeing nearby conflict zones. Following the Brussels terror attacks, Wilders called for a ban on Muslim immigration, claiming that by accepting the flood of asylum seekers from Muslim countries, Europe "imported a monster, and this monster is called Islam."

These developments within EU nations follow the historic Brexit vote in June, when more than half of Britain's voters elected to leave the European Union, many spurred on by fears of migration and lax European border security.

For Matteo Garavoglia, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Italy referendum, Brexit, and upcoming votes throughout the EU have a common "populist streak." In both referenda, anti-establishment candidates effectively upended the national debate in favor of a nationalistic policy agenda only partially related to the issue up for a vote.

Comparing the anti-immigration right wing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) to the 'No' coalition that mobilized against the Renzi referendum, Garavoglia explained that populist forces "hijacked the amount of discourse into the actual issue itself, and that by playing the populist rhetoric on immigration."

Professor of European Union politics at the University of Denver, Martin Rhodes, argued that there was nothing substantively similar about the Brexit vote and the Italian referendum. What was the same, was the effective mobilization of right wing forces into the public debate.

"The connection is the fact that UKIP under...Nigel Farage used immigration as a means of stimulating opposition to the European Union," Rhodes said of the Brexit vote. "The connection is that lots of parties are appealing to people's worst instincts by saying that immigration is the problem and only we have the solution."

Despite the boost in popularity enjoyed by UKIP, the French National Front, the Dutch Freedom Party, Italian Five Star Movement, and other movements in Europe, Rhodes argues that historically, their support tends to hit a ceiling. They can attract a certain number of supporters, but never enough to take over a national government. Even in the unlikely but possible case Marine Le Pen wins the French presidency, she still won't have enough seats in parliament to force through her most radical anti-immigration policies, like shutting France's borders.

"It's not as though you're going to suddenly get Nazi tactics implemented with no opposition," Rhodes said. More likely, is for the populist factions to exert increasing influence over the main stream parties, pushing them into tougher positions on immigration.

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders has arguably contributed to the hardening of Dutch immigration policies, though Prime Minister Mark Rutte's demands for tougher border security are a far cry from Wilders's call to ban the Koran and export thousands of Islamic migrants. In other words, even if the more extreme parties are unable to rally a governing majority, they can still exert significant political influence.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has referred to the recent years' mass migration from the Middle East and Northern Africa as the greatest crisis of displaced persons since World War II. In 2015, more than 1 million asylum seekers arrived on Europe's shores after crossing the Mediterranean. That number has declined in 2016, but remains high at more than 350,000.

Within the European Union, there are no uniform codes on immigration, leading to tensions between nations who want stricter border security and those who adopt an open door approach. The primary rule governing the treatment of asylum seekers by EU member states is covered in the European Convention on Human Rights, requiring the humane treatment of asylum seekers and other classes of migrants,and their protection from mass expulsion. In the wake of the unprecedented migration crisis impacting the nations of Europe, the EU Commission on Human Rights has warned against countries treating asylum seekers as a security threat, criminalizing migrants, detaining them, or expelling them to countries where they are at high risk for mistreatment.

The problem in Europe is the perception that some countries are shouldering a disproportionate share of the burden of the migration crisis. Italy and Greece have received the largest numbers of asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean to Europe, but Germany has resettled the overwhelming majority of migrants. Meanwhile, the Baltic States, many EU members in eastern Europe, as well as Portugal, Iceland, and others have accepted only handfuls of refugees.

Despite the large numbers of migrants entering Europe, the challenge itself is "manageable," Garavoglia says. "The fact that it is not a fair challenge is unmanageable."

The right wing mobilization in Europe to the perceived threats of migration is not a new phenomenon. Many of the parties currently riding the wave of anti-immigration support have been part of coalition governments in the past, or held seats in national parliaments. What is new, is the relevance of the message within the current political climate.

The nationalist surge has come out of a climate shaped in recent years by the high-profile terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, and Nice, combined with growing concerns that Islamic State fighters or other foreign fighters are exploiting the refugee crisis to gain access to Europe.

The terrorist attacks, refugee crisis, and multiple failed states, like Syria and Libya, "that has created a whole new situation that far right parties have been able to exploit," Rhodes said.

According to both Rhodes and Garavoglia, the way populist parties have "played the immigration card" is not only limited to Europe, but has a transatlantic dimension. Much like Britain's UKIP party or France's National Front, the American voters connected their security concerns and economic woes to both legal and illegal immigration, and Donald Trump was able to effectively mobilize that sentiment and their support. However, both experts stressed that the each country's case is unique, and just as the Brexit vote was not the cause of Trump's victory, the U.S. election does not necessarily foreshadow a wave of anti-establishment leaders across Europe.

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