The Rise of the Populist Right (part 2)

Part 1 -

Immigration and Integration – why not?

The rise of the right in continental Europe clearly has a lot to do with a failure of politics – but it is also closely linked to immigration, and I believe that it has constrained the capacity of governments and societies to respond with momentous changes.

We should acknowledge that immigration is considered a very serious problem by many, and we should take their complaints seriously. Often the worst difficulties do not necessarily arise because of immigration, but because the authorities are notable to react to the change quickly enough in order to defuse possible tensions. Some aspects of integration (or lack of integration) do cause genuine problems, usually both for immigrants and those who were there before them, for example ghettoisation of residential areas, schools segregated when native speaker parents are unwilling to have their children educated with too many immigrants, and too many stranded without ever being able to learn the language of their new country.

The situation can only get worse if the political discourse becomes polarised. There ought to be a way of acknowledging problems that arise, often particularly for the working class, when a large number of immigrants move to a particular area in a very short time. The more polarised the debate becomes, with anti-immigrant populists on one side and liberals desperately trying to enforce open-mindedness on the other, the more difficult it becomes to deal with such issues and to defuse problems before they cause any real trouble. One side resorts to complaining that these immigrants shouldn’t be there in the first place and get too many favours already, the other side wonders, wringing their hands, whether all these complaints about foreigners are a sign of intolerable intolerance.

In the UK, these debates are also prominent, but on the whole, I would say that immigration, and particular immigration by people with very distinct racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, has become a fact of life. Many people in the UK by now surely can’t remember a time when the country did not understand itself as multicultural and when cities at least were not visibly racially mixed. This is very different in many places on the European Continent. I remember a time when people would turn round with curiosity when an African walked down the main street of Graz – the second largest city of Austria, no less. That would have been in the late 1970s or even the early 1980s. I also remember a TV documentary about he first African-Austrian in the Austrian army: since this is a conscript army, he must have been one of the very first citizens with an African background: his skin colour was discussed with an innocence (or callousness?) which is now difficult to imagine. That was sometime in the 1990s. Today, more than 12% of people living in Austria were born abroad – and although it has to be said that a large proportion of these immigrants has come from neighbouring countries, immigrant communities are certainly a lot more noticeable now than they used to be.

Of course, there is a long tradition of immigration: after World War II, many came from eastern Europe, especially ‘guest workers’ from Yugoslavia, as it then was, and that caused tensions and discrimination, too. It is worth pointing out that the rise of the populist Right in Austria predates the significant immigration from Africa and Asia which started in the 1990s. When people began to be uneasy about the rising number of immigrants who wouldn’t easily ‘blend in’, because they were not white and came from very different cultural backgrounds, the populist right in Austria at least was waiting for them -  ready to pander to the fear and discontent.

I wonder how you manage such change properly? It’s easy to look at the tensions and rising xenophobia in continental Europe from Britain and somehow feel that we have overcome some of the worst problems. Yes, we had riots this summer, but at least (phew!) they weren’t racially motivated, as many pointed out at the time. But note how relieved and almost surprised many were about that! Look at recent history, and clearly, when immigrants arrived from the Caribbean and the Subcontinent in the 1950s and 1960s, racism and discrimination were surely worse than they are on the Continent now. It is dispiriting to think how long it took Britain to get to where we are now, through injustice, riots and a long fight for racial equality – and that’s clearly not near good enough if you look at the inequality that still persists in many areas of life.

When I visit Austria I often feel impatient and wonder whether it would not be possible simply to skip a step, look across the channel and to other places, analyse the problems of the past and do things better straight away?

This is where persistent rightwingery, and the insistence of the mainstream parties to move to the right themselves, has not helped at all. Why isn’t it possible to admit that Austria, like most countries in Europe, are obvious destinations for immigrants – both refugees and economic migrants – and that it will be almost impossible to change this? ‘We are not an immigration country’, politicians used to say not so long ago, and probably still do, as often as they can get away with it. Under these conditions, a really open debate is hardly possible, and debating ideas and solutions is even more difficult.

I watch and wonder – will some of those continental countries manage to avoid the riots and tensions that Britain or France have seen, and manage to develop into more multicultural societies without some of the worst conflicts?

I have to admit that I am rather pessimistic. There are so many issues that should be tackled head-on – finding ways of offering immigrants opportunities for integration without forcing them to lose their identity, looking at the problems and prejudices of many in the general population and starting to defuse the worst tensions, or dealing with the many difficulties that can arise when new, culturally different communities develop in new places. But the constraints imposed by right-wing populism mean that both the right and the left don’t seem to be able to tackle these issues pragmatically; instead things are just allowed to drift  – perhaps straight into more serious conflict, if we are not careful. Austria is comparatively well off at the moment, but the precarious economic situation in most European countries will add to these difficulties and make it even harder to find sensible solutions.

Perhaps the right-wing populists will rarely manage to gain real power in national governments – but if their pressure means that many countries are unable to find new ways of accommodating immigrants, the damage they do to Europe in the long term might be considerable. Direct comparisons are always difficult, but I worry that many countries on the Continent might yet have riotous times ahead of them.

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2 Responses to The Rise of the Populist Right (part 2)

  1. the right-wing populists will rarely manage to gain real power in national governments
    They don’t need to if mainstream parties bend their policies to pander to a perceived racism among their core voters.

  2. Maria Pretzler says:

    I agree – this is one of the main problems (as in my previous blog post). One of the things, I think, where the UK is doing a lot better – but I’ll blog about that soon!

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