I’m writing this on Sunday 4 September, and it looks like a party from Europe’s populist right has just secured another victory. Early projections predict that Alternative for Germany (AfD), the anti-Euro party which transformed itself into an anti-immigration party, has beaten Merkel’s Christian Democrats in her home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Not beaten them by much admittedly – it looks like 21 per cent to 19 per cent – but the symbolic value is enormous. A party of the hard-right has emerged as a serious player in German politics for the first time during the post-war era, and has defeated the Chancellor’s party in her native state. And the migration policy of the defeated Chancellor, Angela Merkel, bears a significant among of responsibility for this right-wing revival in Germany and other parts of Europe. It’s hard to imagine that, had she spent the past year being remote controlled by someone who wanted to see the likes of Marine Le-Pen and Norbert Hofer elected, her policy would have been much different.
Angela Merkel’s refugee policy was certainly bold, verging on revolutionary. It’s difficult not to admire her humanitarianism, nor to appreciate the quality of welcome which Syrian refugees received in Germany last year. But acts which are motivated by the best of human decency can have negative political impacts, and can be unwise. Germany took in over a million refugees, mostly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans. Other European countries, most notably Austria and Sweden, took in similar or greater numbers as a proportion of their population. The political fallout has been significant, and generally negative. Europe’s more authoritarian leaders have seen their support increase. Orban in Hungary, and since October 2015 the Law and Justice Government of Poland, have boosted their support by opposing the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their respective countries. Turkey’s autocratic ruler President Erdogan secured significant concessions from the EU by blackmailing the body over migrant controls, whilst all Putin has to do is point Russian’s to the chaos in Central Europe to increase his own support.
For Europe’s radical right the refugee crisis, linked to the EU’s apparent inability to control its external borders, has been a Godsend. The Schengen area, the European free travel area, is only as secure as its weakest link. And its weakest link, Greece, has proven totally incapable of securing its borders. The initial refusal of certain key European leaders such as Merkel, European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker and the former Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann (who managed to offend both sides in a particularly undignified manner) to take serious action turned the situation into a crisis. Merkel’s famous shout of ‘Wir schaffen es’ (we can do this), and the initial pressure which was placed on countries such as Hungary to let refugees head North, turned the problem into a crisis.
Now it may seem unfair to blame Merkel and various other European liberal leaders for the migration crisis. And to some extend it is. Clearly they weren’t responsible for civil war in Syria or the conflict in Afghanistan (though most of liberal Europe has preferred to let the Syrian meat grinder continue than intervene directly). Moreover whatever else it was, and I think it was a lot of other things, Merkel’s refugee policy was inescapably well intentioned. But it was also extremely chaotic. For a long period virtually anybody from certain countries who managed to make their way to Germany could stay. This boosted the forces of nationalism and made people smugglers rich. But it also encouraged hundreds of thousands of refugees to attempt to cross the Mediterranean, and thousands died during the trip. Surely it would have been far more humane to take a smaller number of the most deserving cases straight from Turkey, rather than promoting a deadly free for all.
Now if the refugees were arriving in Germany and other European countries straight from a warzone the moral pressure to take in an unlimited number would be almost irresistible. But the refugees arriving in Germany last year had already passed through several safe countries. Would it not be better to focus on improving conditions in refugee camps in Turkey and Lebanon, rather than incentivising people to cross the sea in rickety boats with the inevitable tragic consequences? We should remember that kindness isn’t always compassionate.
And the impact of the fortunes of the European radical right has been phenomenal. Admittedly this has been a good time for them generally, as a result of Islamist terror and the still smouldering Euro crisis, and it’s very possible that the combination of these three factors will lead to a party of the radical right taking over either the Government and/or Presidency of a Western European state. In recent months the Dutch Freedom Party, Front National, Swedish Democrats and Austrian Freedom Party have all topped polls in their respective countries. Now these parties will struggle to find partners to join coalitions with them, and so are unlikely to achieve power in the short term. But if terrorist attacks continue, or the economic situations takes a bad turn for the worst, this could change.
More likely in the short-term in a radical-right victory in a Presidential election. At present the Austrian Freedom Party candidate, Norbert Hofer, is leading polls for the rerun Austrian Presidential election later this year. If Hofer does win it will be a direct result of the refugee policy pursued by certain European Governments in 2015-16. And it would also be a shot across the bow of liberal Europe. A Hofer Presidency would be embarrassing, but its political impact would be containable. A Le Pen Presidency in France in 2016, and I think this is quite plausible, would be utterly revolutionary for European politics.
So liberals, and I generally count myself in this category, need to wake up. We need to start listening to the voters on immigration and asylum policy, or we will be replaced by those that do. We need to be pragmatic, and stop fermenting chaos. And the stakes are high. If we fail systems of Government which we though had been banished to the dustbin of European history could plausibly make a return. We were shocked by Brexit, but what follows could be an earthquake.