Can Europe Make It?

The radical right, immigration and the future of the EU

In the May European elections, the immigration issue will continue to play a role in the expected success of radical right parties.

Terri E. Givens
14 February 2019


Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini in the Chamber of Deputies, Rome, February 13, 2019. Zucchi/Press Association. All rights reserved.

The initial success of radical right parties such as the French Front National (FN) in the mid-1980s coincided with concerns about immigration flows into countries across Europe. Although the post-WWII guest-worker era had ended in the mid-1970s, immigration continued, mainly through family reunification.

Radical right parties in the 1980s and 1990s appealed to voters who felt threatened by economic modernization and globalization. They used immigrants as scapegoats for rising unemployment and underemployment as well as addressed fears that new immigrants were a threat to cultural homogeneity. The research in my book, Voting Radical Right in Western Europe showed that radical right voters tended to be blue-collar males who were concerned about unemployment and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs.

When conducting research during the latter end of this period, I was regularly told that these parties were a “flash in the pan” and that they would disappear after the next election. The last two decades have shown not only that these parties have staying power but also that they now regularly participate in national governments, either as part of a governing coalition as in Austria, or in support of a minority government, such as in Denmark from 2001 through the parliamentary elections of 2011. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the German federal parliament for the first time in 2017.

Recent surveys show that immigration is a top concern for most voters in the EU. In the run up to the May European Parliament elections, it will be important to understand the links between the vote for the radical right and immigration. In my study of the radical right in the 1990s, it was clear that many voters considered the European Parliament elections a way to register their discontent with the leading parties.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that the number of arrivals in Europe has gone from over 390,000 in 2016 to 144,000 in 2018. Even though the absolute number of immigrants and refugees has declined in the last two years, immigration remains high on the agenda, as seen in the split between Angela Merkel’s CDU and the Bavarian CSU last summer. Although Merkel’s government survived, she was badly wounded in the end and stepped down as party leader, while remaining as Chancellor.

Many radical right parties have consistently performed better in European Parliament elections than they have in national elections. For example, Marine Le Pen and the FN (now known as the Rassemblement national) won only 3 seats in the EP in 2009, but went on to win 24 seats in 2014. That number could grow in 2019 given the low popularity of President Macron, although his popularity has increased in response to his concessions to the “yellow vest” movement late last year. The same poll showed that Le Pen’s anti-immigrant party “emerged as the one that best represented the government’s main opposition.”

European Parliament elections may act as a referendum on domestic politics, but they are also indicative of trends across Europe. In the 2009 election many radical right parties saw their vote totals and seats increase. The British National Party won two seats, its first seats ever in a European Parliament election, while the Labour party saw its lowest percentage since the beginning of the European polls in 1979.

Overall, left parties saw some of their worst vote totals in European Parliament elections, for example, the German Social Democrats won only 20.8 percent of the vote. Overall, the center left parties won 161 seats versus 263 seats for the center right in the 736-member European Parliament. The radical right parties formed two party groups that were not particularly cohesive.

The 2014 EP election saw even greater success for the radical right parties, but they ended up divided with Hungary’s anti-EU Fidesz party joining the conservative EPP group. The rest of the parties are divided among several party groups: European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR, 71 MEPs), Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD, 45 MEPs), and Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF, 35 MEPs).

May elections 2019

For the coming election, it seems that the immigration issue will play a role in the expected success of radical right parties, including Italy’s Northern League. Its leader Matteo Salvini has called for “a new EU-wide nationalist bloc for the 2019 European Parliament election.” His party, in a coalition with the Five Star Movement, has taken a hard line on refugees entering Italy since they formed a government in May of 2018.

However, it will be important to watch the far left side of the spectrum also. For example, Green parties have been able to outpoll their radical right rivals in the past year; both in the Netherlands and October’s Bavarian state election.

One trend that I will be watching is the role of immigrants and people of immigrant origin as voters and candidates in the election. In a Europe that is becoming more diverse, political parties in some countries have recruited candidates from diverse backgrounds, as described in this edited volume on Immigrant Politics. As MEP Neena Gill notes, “Of the 751 MEPs currently serving in the European Parliament, only around 12 would identify themselves as non-white. And half of us are from the UK. So, after Brexit, it is plausible to suggest that number will reduce to just six. That would be less than one percent of the total number of MEPs.” Diversity has not been a strong point of the EP, but it remains to be seen if it will continue to play a role at all this May.


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