Tue, Jun 26, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Europe left veers right after anti-migrant backlash

By Michael Broning

Europe’s established left is facing the threat of extinction. In less than two years, the continent’s social-democratic parties have suffered historic losses in France, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. On a continent long defined by democratic competition between center-right and center-left parties, the collapse of the left could have far-reaching consequences, beyond particular party interests.

Many factors underlie the left’s decline, including the dissolution of the traditional working class.

However, one of the most important reasons is as grim as it is simple: European voters are increasingly opposed to immigration and do not trust the left to limit it.

Faced with a sustained influx of refugees and migrants, primarily from the Middle East and Africa, European voters have transformed a series of recent elections into popular referenda on immigration. Right-wing populist movements have skillfully played on blue-collar voters’ fears by convincing them that traditional labor parties would allow immigrants to flow in virtually unchecked.

In April, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban won a landslide election victory after running a campaign that focused on the “threat” to “Christian values” supposedly posed by Muslim immigrants. Italy’s new anti-establishment coalition government was propelled to power by the popularity of the staunchly anti-immigrant League party, led by Matteo Salvini, who is now minister of the interior and deputy prime minister.

In Slovenia, former prime minister Janez Jansa’s right-wing opposition party secured just less than 25 percent of the vote in this month’s parliamentary election, meaning that Jansa is to form the country’s next government.

When right-wing populists first started gaining political traction, Europe’s center-left parties hoped that their traditional strengths would enable them to weather the challenge.

To avoid unwittingly strengthening right-wing narratives, center-left campaigners attempted to shift public debate toward their ideological comfort zone: unemployment, inequality and social justice. The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) based its entire election campaign last year on the slogan “It’s time for more justice.”

Yet defeat after painful defeat has driven center-left parties to a stark realization: Voters who are concerned primarily with immigration are not going to be won over with calls for equality.

In Germany, the coalition government (comprising the SPD, the Christian Democratic Union, and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union) is embroiled in a bitter fight over immigration that threatens the survival of the coalition.

While the SPD aims for a European solution and rejects sealing Germany’s borders, party leader Andrea Nahles called for accelerated asylum procedures that would enable authorities to conclude asylum applications from safe third countries within one week.

Last month, Nahles launched the debate within the SPD when, seemingly echoing right-wing rhetoric, she said that Germany “cannot accept all.”

Some in the SPD’s leadership and its youth wing were up in arms. Yet Nahles has doubled down on her stance, publicly endorsing a critical analysis, compiled by a board of independent observers, of last year’s election defeat.

That report identified “the lack of a consistent social-democratic position” on migration issues as one of the party’s structural weaknesses.

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