Europe in 2015: Right-wing forces rise on back of worst refugee crisis since WWII
Merkel faces backlash against Germany’s open-door policy
Angela Merkel’s Germany, the continent’s unspoken leader, has borne the main brunt of the inflows, while failing to persuade neighboring states to follow its lead. But, perhaps due to the historical guilt of Nazism, and a restrictive public discourse, growing anger has not yet gone mainstream.
Merkel’s popularity has wavered, and her coalition partners have dismissed the open-door policy as a “grave mistake,” but she is not facing an unseating by anti-immigration forces – as yet.
The anti-Islam Pegida has remained a loud and high-profile, but marginal movement, with its stronghold in Dresden, but scant presence in most major cities.
Meanwhile, Alternative for Germany, formed in 2013 and one of a raft of new protest parties across Europe, has organized high-profile rallies, but suffered a debilitating internal rift over the very issue of migration half-way through the year, weakening its influence.
The older National Democratic Party of Germany has also not capitalized on the migrant issue, with its Neo-Nazi-tinged past and symbols failing to appeal to most ordinary Germans.
Merkel’s own cabinet has backpedaled furiously in the past several months, re-introducing border controls, putting more and more countries on black lists, and making it more difficult for migrants to secure permanent residence. Whether this will divert the people smugglers’ routes is unclear, but with over three-quarters of Germans telling EU’s Eurobarometer survey immigration was one of their two biggest concerns, Merkel had better hope she is not shuttering an empty stable.
Nordic social conscience put to the test
Historically, the socially-oriented Nordic states have been a prime destination for asylum seekers, with Sweden regularly receiving more applications per 100,000 of the population than any other European country, and Finland and Norway not far behind.
But these are also some of the most homogeneous, cohesive societies in Europe, and the mass arrival of migrants has been highly noticeable, and has divided communities.
More than 190,000 people crossed into Sweden without documents in 2015, among relatively high unemployment, an urban housing shortage, and a wave of violent and sex crimes that many attribute to recent newcomers (Swedish police are forbidden from recording the ethnicity of criminals).
The anti-immigration Sweden Democrats have consistently polled in first or second place, all the while being branded “xenophobes” and “racists” by the respectable media. Each of their major demonstrations – including a gay pride march through a Muslim area in August - is followed by a counter-demonstration by radical left-wing activists, often forcing the police to break up the two.
In Denmark and Finland, the electorate had a chance to vote for the anti-immigration parties at the ballot box. Both the Danish People's Party and the Finns Party came second in their respective elections, but from then on their paths differed.
Unwilling to compromise, the Danish party let a smaller right-wing party assume government, for which it is providing conditional support, while the Finnish party has become a part of the cabinet. The Finns have reason to regret the decision – as a junior coalition partner they have not been able to stem the flow of refugees, or implement their populist economic policies, and have seen their popularity tail off.
Terrorism fears help Le Pen lead National Front into first place
With Marine Le Pen’s sights set on the Elysee Palace, the National Front’s 2016 presidential election frontrunner has bigger priorities than chasing single causes. But immigration and opposition of Islam remain fundamental tenets of her party’s appeal, with France’s two shocking terrorist attacks, both executed by Islamist extremists, adding to the party’s popularity.
But the regional elections in December exposed the party’s limitations. Despite capturing first place in the first round, but not enough to take control of the councils of France’s large provinces, the party was then shut out in the second round, as its political opponents tactically voted for a compromise candidate, or withdrew one of the runners if it looked like the FN might grab a win. Still, the FN remains on the rise, and has only gained credibility throughout the year.
Eastern Europe battles Berlin-imposed refugee quotas
With less fondness for political correctness, a history of Islamic occupation, and an idealization of Enlightenment-era European values, Eastern Europe has been the ideological trendsetter in the resistance to migration. Leaders that would have been in charge of protest movements in the rest of Europe are in office here, such as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
His forthright opposition to multiculturalism and desire to defend Hungary’s own heritage and borders saw him portrayed as an outcast of the European project. But as other countries began to experience hundreds of thousands of refugees on their soil, some began to view him as a pragmatist, and even a visionary.
The biggest public protests in this region have been directed not at demonstrators’ own governments for accepting refugees, but at Berlin and Brussels for attempting to impose quotas.
This is an issue that will continue to play throughout 2016, and the election of the conservative and Eurosceptic Law and Justice party in Poland in October shows that Eastern Europeans will battle for their right to sovereignty, while wanting to retain the benefits of EU membership in visa-free employment and travel.
Arson, protests, clashes highlight bleak prospects of integration at local level
The most tangible political backlash against the arrival of refugees and migrants has not just happened at a national level, but often at a local one, particularly as hundreds or thousands of newcomers have arrived in isolated, monocultural regions.
There have been more than 200 arson attacks on refugee shelters in Germany; in Sweden, the authorities made their location confidential, after citizens left threatening messages outside several temporary facilities.
One of the most antagonistic and direct protests took place in Corsica, which enjoyed a turbulent Christmas of demonstrators chanting "This is our home!" and "Arabs get out" before setting fire to the Koran.
While these actions are carried out by a minority of disgruntled Europeans, they reflect a pervasive unease and lack of easy integration for thousands of asylum seekers who have arrived in Europe.
The partisan media reports these outbreaks either as understandable grievances boiling over, or evidence of racism, but with more migrants on the way, and no practical solutions in sight, Europe will have to get used to the hum of low-level confrontation with its migrant population, and the booming proclamations of triumph from its right-wing parties.