On Sunday, May 7, Emmanuel Macron won the French presidential election against Marine Le Pen. This was the latest in a series of European elections that pitted centrists, European Union advocates like Macron against right-wing, anti-immigrant, antimuslim, Eurosceptic nationalists like Le Pen. First, the Brexit referendum showed the world how strong anti-immigrant sentiment and Euroscepticism were. Then, the loss of the far-right candidate, Norbert Hofer, in the Austrian election suggested that perhaps the wave of right-wing populism was not as strong as it seemed in the wake of Brexit. Geert Wilders’s defeat in the Dutch election appeared to confirm this assumption. Now, with Le Pen’s loss, it looks like the far right definitely did not have as much traction as previously thought. The next election is in Germany on September 24. If the trend continues, the far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), may not win many seats in Parliament. Although it seems as if the wave of right-wing nationalism has receded, election results demonstrate the opposite. The far right has gained supporters and is becoming a political force that the European establishment is going to have to deal with for years to come.
Despite their losses, far-right candidates won a significant percentage of the French, Austrian, and Dutch electorates. Le Pen managed to obtain a third of the votes (33.9%). A quarter of the French electorate (25.44%) abstained from voting, demonstrating either a lack of interest in the process or apathy toward both candidates. These voters could be up for grabs in the next election. It is certain that Le Pen’s National Front will recalibrate its strategy and message for the next elections. More impressive is Hofer winning approximately 46% of the votes in the Austrian election. Also, Wilders’s Freedom Party gained enough seats to become the number two party—albeit out of thirteen parties—in the Dutch Parliament. These are significant strides for parties that were on the sidelines of European politics. Support for these parties could continue to grow as the issues that brought them out of the fringes (the economy and immigration) are still affecting Europe.
The Great Recession (2007-2009) sparked popular resentment against the political establishments in Europe and the United States, and undermined the validity of the EU as an economic and political entity. According to the latest European Commission’s economic forecast, the EU economy has shown signs of recovery and is projected to grow in the next two years. It has also “proven resilient” to the challenges of the past year (Brexit, terrorist attacks and “policy uncertainty” in Europe and the U.S.). These are good news for the political stability of the EU and for its future after the financial crisis generated doubts about the European project.
However, the Commission is cautious as growth is modest, the recovery is uneven across the EU and risks persists. Although the unemployment rate has fallen, it remains high. Along with the slow pace of recovery, it is still early for the majority of the population to reap the benefits of a growing economy. This point is crucial. The benefits of economic growth have to reach the largest percentage of people possible. Otherwise, inequality will generate the type of popular resentment against the elites, the political establishment and EU institutions that has fueled the ascent of the far right. As the Commission’s Director General of Economic and Financial Affairs, Marco Buti, explained in the forecast, one of the EU’s priorities needs to be “sharing the benefits of globalisation more equitably.” A more equitable economic policy will diminish support for politicians like Le Pen, Wilders, and Hofer, and undermined their Eurosceptic, nationalist agenda.
Along with the lingering effects of the Great Recession, a spike in the number of immigrants crossing into Europe between 2015 and 2016 added to the social tensions created by the financial crisis. The refugee crisis exacerbated Europeans’ fears of terrorist attacks, increased unemployment and loss of national identity. These fears helped far-right politicians gain ground. Their rhetoric resonated with concerns about large numbers of immigrants changing the ethnic and cultural composition of European nations.
Immigration will continue to be the issue that gives the far right its political strength. Demetrios Papademetriou, President of the Migration Policy Institute Europe, explains that although the number of immigrants crossing into Europe has “stabilized” to about 200,000 people, the conditions that created the refugee crisis persist. He projects that the next challenge facing Europe in the coming decades is “mass migration from Africa.” Even if the refugee crisis is over and African immigration is contained, EU countries still have to deal with the estimated 1.8 million people who manage to enter Europe in 2015. This is why immigration from outside the EU and terrorism continue to be the main concerns in most Europeans’ minds. Added to this concerns, the prospect of another refugee crisis will play into the far-right’s rhetoric and increase its base of support.
Despite the somber assessment, the immigration problem is not without solutions. Papademetriou argues that the EU needs to implement measures to ensure that refugees are properly vetted before they reach their destination, to help the communities where they resettle, to integrate immigrants and refugees into European society, and to provide education for their children “to prevent the creation of a ‘lost generation’.” Like sharing the benefits of globalization will help people regain confidence in the European economic project, sensible immigration policies and resettlement programs to help refugees and immigrants can serve to ease people’s fears. With less anxiety over immigrants, the far right will lose its appeal and return to the political sidelines.
At the moment, the European political and economic establishments feel a sense of relief. But, without the political will to implement measures to better distribute the benefits of economic growth, to integrate and help immigrants, and to prevent the next refugee crisis, we could see far-right candidates achieving real victories in future elections.