Why coronavirus is likely to be bad news for Europe’s radical right

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Even if coronavirus has a negative effect on attitudes to immigration, it will be bad news for Europe’s radical right, argue Dr James Dennison and Professor Andrew Geddes. [Janos Vajda/EPA]

Even if coronavirus has a negative effect on public attitudes to immigration, it will be bad news for Europe’s radical right, argue Dr James Dennison and Professor Andrew Geddes.

Professor Andrew Geddes is Director of the Migration Policy Centre of the European University Institute in Florence; Dr James Dennison is Visiting Scholar at the Center for European Studies, Harvard University

The Covid-19 pandemic may have given Europe’s radical right a perverse version of what they have long called for. Governments have closed international borders and suspended the EU’s free movement regime. The pandemic has reduced migration beyond the wildest dreams of the nativists, ethnonationalists and populists that make up Europe’s radical right. Yet, these trends are, ironically, likely to rob Europe’s radical right parties of their anti-immigration political niche.

In theoretical terms at least, a devastating global pandemic could trigger some of the psychological predispositions that have been associated with anti-immigration attitudes, such as valuing security or having a moral foundation based on authority and in-group loyalty.

But the pandemic has also demonstrated in stark terms the vital role played by immigrants in European economies and societies. Citizens in locked-down countries have seen daily news coverage showing migrants playing a disproportionate and vital role in over-stretched health care provision as well as everything from agricultural work to restaurant delivery.

To unravel and make sense of these potentially contradictory forces, we must first consider how attitudes to immigration in Europe have been changing and why, and how this has affected support for the radical right.

The most authoritative pan-European surveys—such as the European Social Survey—show that attitudes to all types of immigration in most European countries have actually become markedly more positive, or at least less negative, in recent years. This could seem counter intuitive because of the simultaneous rise of the radical right and because fundamental political attitudes, such as identifying as left- or right-wing, tend to be fairly stable, particularly as we age. What change there is usually results from generational change – the old dying and younger generations that were socialised in different contexts coming through.

The striking thing is that attitudes to immigration have been becoming more favourable so quickly that it seems unlikely to be just the result of a higher proportion of citizens that were socialised in heterogenous contexts. It may be that people are genuinely changing their minds about immigration. This only tends to happen when an issue is highly prominent and, sometimes as a result, new information becomes available. Whereas just 10 or 20 years ago, people would have seen immigration in relatively simple binary terms—either pro or anti—the intense focus on the issue in recent years means that citizens now hold more nuanced views.

This explains why attitudes to immigration as a whole are becoming more favourable across Europe, but also why, on some more nuanced questions about specific policies such as whether NGO boats can dock in Italy, there can be simultaneously high reported negativity.

How does this all fit into the rise of the radical right and the effects of the pandemic? The basic point is that the rise of the radical right was not driven by a broad backlash against immigration, but by heightened concern from a significant but shrinking segment of the population, particularly during and after the 2015 ‘migration crisis’.

According to the Eurobarometer survey, the percentage of Europeans seeing immigration as one of the most important issues affecting their country—and therefore the proportion with the issue in mind when in the voting booth—rose from just 10% in 2013 to 36% in late 2015. Since then it has partially fallen back so that, by late 2019, 17% of Europeans see immigration as one of the most important issues.

The pandemic and responses to it means that the immigration issue has further fallen back dramatically as a political concern. Migration rates will pick up as the effects of the pandemic ease, but they are currently at rock bottom levels. Numbers of migrants has been shown to predict the political attention that is paid to immigration.

More importantly, the pandemic and responses to it mean that economic and welfare issues will dominate the political agenda for years to come. In the months and years to come attitudes to immigration may stabilise or could even return to greater negativity as voters return to the relatively low-information environment of decades past.

Radical right parties will be forced to devise policy responses away from their ‘home turf’ of immigration, but this is likely to prove to be difficult. The rise of the radical right in most European countries was usually preceded both by an increase in the salience of immigration and the mainstream centre-right party being ‘discredited’ on the topic, often simply via incumbency. But, even if governing parties are discredited on the issue of health or economics, there is little reason to think citizens will turn first to the radical right to pick up the pieces.

Unless European radical right parties can change tack fast, their future is highly contingent on just how long the Covid-19 pandemic and responses to it dominate politics.


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