- Date published:
2:07 pm, October 16th, 2017 - 20 comments
Categories: Deep stuff, democracy under attack, democratic participation, elections, Europe, Globalisation, im/migration, International, Politics - Tags:
Why is Europe continuing to vote for anti-immigration parties, spurning the once-dominant centre-left parties? The Austrian election has finally provoked me.
After World War II, European societies were built on principles that owed a lot to centre-left ideas. There was widespread agreement after the war that the political chaos and social upheaval associated with the Great Depression had been the consequence of unregulated markets, so the idea that they should be left unregulated again was an anathema. And so, when European political economies were rebuilt, they were designed to ensure that capitalism was reined in by governments. Just to focus on Austria for a moment, it’s been said by historian Gunter Bischof that no country did better out of the Marshall Plan that stabilised industrial production than Austria. This postwar order worked well: The three decades after 1945 remain Europe’s period of fastest growth ever.
So why now are so many exclusionary parties gaining in share and now gaining power?
My quick answer is that more and more are viewing foreign immigration as shorthand for globalised trade stealing economic security. More and more voters view un-integrated migrants as standing for destabilisation and economic insecurity.
This is growing fast. Way, way back in May 1989, 28% of Jacques Chirac’s Gaullist supporters pronounced themselves “globally in agreement” with the ideas about immigrants expressed in the program of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front. In 1991 the figure was 50%. In the Presidential elections of 1995, the socialist candidate Lionel Jospin got just 21% – a figure they can but dream of now. In 2017 the National Front was actually running off for the Presidency itself.
Other examples abound, but here’s the fresh one: a 31 year-old from the further right is now elected to run Austria.
His People’s Party won 31%, and they will form a coalition with the far-right Austrian Freedom Party who came in second with 26%: 57%. The Austrian Greens are gone, and the old social democrat parties are way down.
In 2015, Austria was used as a gateway for nearly 900,000 migrants making their way to Germany.
In a poll reported in Deutcsche Walle, state broadcaster ORF reported 55% of respondents said that they voted for the OVP (People’s Party) because of their stance on asylum and immigration.
The threat and its political results is clear.
And yet for so many at the core of Europe, European integration and free borders to economic migration really works. To see Europe at work for the “winners” one has only to spend a few days in the triangle made up by the towns of Saarbrucken (Germany), Metz (France), and Luxembourg. Here prosperous citizens of three countries travel freely across all-but-vanished frontiers. People, employment, commodities, and entertainment move easily back and forth among languages and states, seemingly unconscious of the historic tensions and enmities that marked this very region in the quite recent past.
The threat to this prosperity used to emerge from the European south – from the south of Italy, Spain, Greece. Each in turn provided waves of immigration from distinct European subcultures for cheaper and less skilled labour. Thirty years ago, many European saw this multiculturalism – the embrace of an inclusive and diverse society – as an answer to Europe’s social problems. Today it is clear a growing number consider it to be a cause of them. That perception has led to some mainstream politicians including previous Prime Minister David Cameron and Angela Merkel, to publicly denounce multiculturalism and speak out against its dangers. It has fuelled the success of far-right parties across Europe.
But the truth about multiculturalism is complex and highly coded. Multiculturalism has become a proxy for amalgamating social and political issues: immigration, identity, political disenchantment, working-class decline. Different countries have followed distinct paths. While the United Kingdom’s public sector has worked hard over the last two decades to give various ethnic communities a more equal stake in the political system, some non-integrated Muslims have perpetrated outrageous violence. Germany has encouraged immigrants to pursue separate lives in lieu of citizenship, but the Turkish communities have drifted further from mainstream society. Everywhere you look in Europe, the overarching consequences from the immigrants arriving since the high point of the early 1970s has seen fragmented societies, alienated minorities, and resentful citizenries.
The causes may be legion, but from the citizenry voting against them, the biggest interest they seek to protect is economic. Prior to the GFC a decade ago, and the austerity programmes that made things worse, the “losers” in Europe’s postwar history have been sustained by complicated but expensive and substantial systems of regional aid that the European Union put in place within and between countries. These amount to a form of institutionalised relief – constantly correcting for market deformations that have concentrated wealth and opportunity in the rich northwestern core without doing much to alter the causes of the disparity. Southern Europe, the periphery countries, and the “immigrants” thus constitute a community of the disadvantaged for whom the EU is the only source of relief on the one hand – for without their help the depressed mining communities and unprofitable peasant villages would be in even worse trouble than they are – and envy and resentment on the other.
Failure to protect sustained prosperity is viewed by voters as an undermining of the entire project of European integration, and you can see the significant impact of globalised manufacturing on European voting patterns here.
It’s also worth looking at “The Trade Origins of Nationalist Protectionism: Import Competition and Voting Behaviour In Europe” by Italo Conantone and Piero Stanig.
That same impact from globalised manufacturing can be seen on the Brexit vote.
The really chilling thing is how much the citizen-frog is enjoying feeling the heat turned up in the pot. So many Austrians are nonplussed by a hard-right president and government. “Most people just don’t associate the Freedom Party with the far right anymore,” says Günter Haunlieb, a senior director at Gallup International, a leading pollster in Vienna. “The Nazi label doesn’t stick.”
Voters do, however, associate the mainstream parties with the period of economic stagnation that took hold after the global financial crisis of 2008. Unlike Greece, Spain and other debt-wracked E.U. members, Austria came away from the crisis relatively healthy, and its economy has returned to growth. But the crisis has left Austrians feeling unmoored, fearful of losing what they still have. “A steady job previously guaranteed a comfortable life here,” says Haunlieb. “But that’s finished. People have stopped believing they can move up the social ladder.”
There is hardly a democracy in Europe where that same sentiment would not ring true. Countries in the formerly communist East have been hit especially hard by factory closures, high unemployment and an exodus of young workers to the wealthier states of Western Europe. They have all been able to capitalize not only on fears of migration but also on angst over economic inequality, often with what seem like the same slogans in different languages. On immigration: Send them back! On Muslims: Keep them out! On the media: Full of lies! On the Establishment: Crooked! On the elections: Rigged! Even their tactics seem to run in parallel, especially when it comes to the politics of fear.
It used to be possible to conceive of such failures in long Marxist waves: painful crises are followed by incremental reforms that lead to deeper integration. From the GFC, so the theory goes, institutional collapse leads to policy crisis that threatens to destroy whatever progress has been made to integration. Unwilling to allow such collapse. E.U. leaders then agree to a set of minimal reforms they think are necessary to save what they have accomplished, strengthening their common institutions but leaving them incomplete in ways that will later spark another crisis. But the political trends right across the continents’ elections are now too great to ignore: France’s President Macron stands alone with the E.U. President as seeking greater integration. What matters now is far simpler: the E.U. hasn’t delivered enough in a decade, individual members states are fracturing from internal and external threats, and the centre of its idealism holds less and less.
The simple test for the European Union, as it is for any political party is this: you keep fear down and the politics of xenophobia at bay when you consistently deliver the economic goods. Fail to do that with really significant cross-regional wealth transfers, and the whole thing will start to turn to the path that Austria is now on.