The rise of anti-immigration sentiment in Europe has been a constant over the past few decades, a startling mix of blatant xenophobia and perceived cultural superiority. What began as individual feelings of ethnocentrism or shameless racism has now evolved into carefully phrased political positions espoused by ultra-right, nationalist parties in Europe. Politicians and their parties, such as Matteo Salvini of the Lega Nord in Italy and Marine Le Pen of the National Rally in France, have found support from a wide range of Europeans who all rally around a single battle cry: “Foreigners out!” Recent factors, such as the spread of the novel coronavirus, the proliferation of social media, and the creation of the Identity and Democracy (ID) group, have facilitated the success of these leaders and their respective parties.
Matteo Salvini, head of the Lega Nord political party, is a leader in both the Italian right-wing political arena and in the European political sphere. He stands firmly against immigration in almost every respect, stating, “for me, the problem is the thousands of illegal immigrants stealing, raping, and dealing drugs.” He has been responsible for many anti-immigration policies, including restricting the classification of “humanitarian protection” for migrants coming to Italy through the “Salvini Decree,” effectively curbing many people’s ability to enter Italy.
Marine Le Pen has been the leader of France’s National Rally party since 2011, gaining international prominence during her presidential campaign against Emmanuel Macron in 2017. Le Pen has promised to virtually stop all immigration to France, accusing her opponents on the left of being “immigrationists.” She has continued to be a force in French and European politics over the past three years, including organizing a gathering of far-right politicians in Nice, France in May 2018.
Beyond these politicians' own abilities to mobilize their constituents through populist rhetoric and often brash statements, certain recent world events have allowed their anti-immigration position to gain more traction in European political discourse. Most glaringly, COVID-19.
The spread of the novel coronavirus has shocked the global economy, caused mass unemployment, drastically halted social gatherings, among other stark changes. With many people scared by the potential health risk and the uncertainty of the situation, ultra-nationalist leaders in Europe have utilized fear mongering tactics to re-emphasize their exclusionary, anti-immigrant position. Salvini recently admonished Prime Minister Conte’s government over the arrival of migrants and refugees in Italy, protesting “the arrival of an NGO Ocean Viking ship with 274 rescued migrants aboard outside the port of Pozzallo in the province of Ragusa, Sicily” and claiming that Rome must have “‘armor-plated borders.’” In France, Le Pen has been perhaps even more daring, stating “she was in favor of suspending Schengen and instating checks at the Italian border.” The two leaders’ positions during this crisis have not only been anti-migrant, but anti-EU in general, increasingly allowing nationalism to masquerade as a pseudo-health concern.
II. Social Media Proliferation
It is no surprise that social media platforms have lubricated the proliferation of anti-immigrant views, which can be readily considered morally questionable, into mainstream political discourse. When one can share their message publicly, and anonymously, without 1) feeling an initial sense of shame given the audacity of the statement or 2) suffering any sort of consequence beyond their computer screen, extreme positions are disseminated at a much higher rate. What were once private, suppressed feelings of cultural superiority have now flourished into full-blown political platforms.
Salvini’s presence on social media has been nothing short of overwhelming: “the endless relaying via social media of videos and selfies [depict] the tireless leader of the League out and about among the people, hammering home the notion that he is ‘one of you.’” Le Pen is also an active force on social media, “with an office in Paris dedicated exclusively to managing the party’s social media presence and aggressively launching online campaigns that include viral hashtags, memes, and animated videos.” Where previously Europeans may have kept their more offensive views silent in the public sphere, social media has allowed them to express their more provocative views without repercussion. Through online political communities that reinforce highly charged, extremist ideologies and skilled communications professionals working for far-right parties, the individual is empowered to create their own self-justifying superiority complex. Social media has fostered an auspicious environment for growing nationalist sentiment.
III. The Creation of the Identity and Democracy group in the European Parliament
This party, created in June 2019 under the leadership of Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen, represents the consolidation of the far-right, ultra-nationalist parties in numerous European countries beyond their borders. Many of the individual parties identify as “Euroskeptic” and espouse similar political positions, such as a strong stance against immigration. Although the leaders of these parties have repeatedly supported closing their borders to other European countries, bashed the European Union for overextending its authority, and criticized the Schengen Agreement, their unification in the European Parliament has helped each individual party’s political ambitions in their respective country. By consolidating power in this supranational organization, they have gained both international attention and inter-European legitimacy.
Through their position in the European Parliament, the Identity and Democracy Party can also support legislation that ultimately reduces migration to Europe. By focusing on supporting democratic reforms and stability measures in foreign countries, the European Union can subsequently classify countries such as Tunisia and Morocco as “safe countries of origin.” This classification allows EU countries to deny asylum seekers from these countries on the basis that the potential migrants do not face persecution or violence, absolving the EU of its obligation to protect them under any body of law.
As Joshua Greene states in his book, Moral Tribes, these leaders utilize an “us vs. them” rhetoric that creates an almost tribal understanding of one’s identity. When this identity can be reinforced through institutions not only within one’s country, but also outside one’s country, the position’s legitimacy is further established.
Far-right, ultra-nationalist sentiment in Europe is dangerous for the national interests of countries in Europe, for Europe as a whole, and for the hundreds of thousands of migrants trying to enter Europe. By spreading inherently xenophobic rhetoric throughout their own countries and further legitimizing their positions through the actions of the EU, leaders of ultra-nationalist parties have helped shift the discourse surrounding immigration in Europe. For the “200,000 to 250,000 people who are being sent back and forth in Europe like Ping-Pong balls,” a strong defense against these strengthening parties might be the difference between life and death.
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