Rethinking Europe

Right-Wing Populism: A Threat to the Cohesion of Europe?

A populist backlash in Europe against immigration is more dangerous than in the United States.

Credit: Artindo Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • The risk of a right-wing populist backlash against immigration is neither new nor confined to Europe.
  • In Europe, a right-wing populist backlash against immigration inevitably takes on an anti-EU tinge.
  • Right-wing populism is the tail risk to watch across Europe. It could first come out in Britain.
  • Right-wing populist backlash against immigration has little to do with either the EU or the euro.

In the wake of two catastrophic world wars, European integration (with NATO) has delivered the longest period of peace and prosperity that most of the continent has known since the time of the Roman Empire.

The European Union (EU) stands for political co-operation and the free movement of goods, services, capital and labor among its members. Common rules and institutions underpin these four freedoms.

EU’s crisis-ridden history

The EU has overcome many crises, usually emerging stronger from each challenge. It managed to cope with the “empty chair” antics of French President Charles De Gaulle in the 1960s, the “I want my money back” tantrum by UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and the euro crisis of 2011-12.


Enlarge Close to power anywhere? Right-wing populists in national opinion polls

The risk of a right-wing populist backlash against immigration is neither new nor confined to Europe. In the United States, Ross Perot thrived on it for a while in the 1990s just as Donald Trump does today. It has little to do with either the European Union or the euro.

Right-wing populists have made waves in countries ranging from the UK (UKIP) to Italy (Lega Nord), from Sweden (Sweden Democrats) to France (Front National) and Austria (FPÖ).

Threat to the cohesion of Europe?

In Europe, a populist backlash against immigration is potentially more dangerous than in the United States.

For example, Iowa would not leave the US even if Donald Trump were to win the state in the presidential primaries with diatribes against immigrants and the politics of Washington, DC.

In Europe, however, a right-wing populist backlash against immigration almost inevitably takes on an anti-EU tinge. After all, migrants heading for one EU country often pass through other EU states first, or come from other EU members.

This is part and parcel of the very openness of the EU that underpins its success. If a right-wing populist wins a national election in a major EU member, demands to “regain control over national borders” and to ignore European rules on human rights, he or she could theoretically take the country out of the union.

The tail risk to watch

We do not expect this to happen at all. Front National’s Marine Le Pen is far away from gaining power in France.

France’s new Italian copycat is unlikely to win a serious national election and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland is tearing itself apart.

But right-wing populism is the tail risk to watch across Europe. It could first come to the fore in Britain if the planned Brexit referendum were to turn into a de facto vote over immigration.

To safeguard the foundations of their countries’ prosperity, EU leaders must work together to address the issue of migration in a fair, compassionate and humane way.

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About Holger Schmieding

Holger Schmieding is chief economist at Berenberg Bank in London. [United Kingdom] Follow him @Berenberg_Econ

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