Refugees and migrants are rescued by members of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms after leaving Libya trying to reach European soil aboard an overcrowded rubber boat, north of the Libyan Coast. Picture taken Sunday May 6 2018 | Photo: Picture Alliance / AP Photo / Felipe Dana
Refugees and migrants are rescued by members of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms after leaving Libya trying to reach European soil aboard an overcrowded rubber boat, north of the Libyan Coast. Picture taken Sunday May 6 2018 | Photo: Picture Alliance / AP Photo / Felipe Dana

Right-wing anti-migration parties in Italy and France are celebrating large wins in the European elections this week but can they and their allies across Europe influence the future policy of the EU regarding migration?

Matteo Salvini is jubilant. He campaigned hard during the European elections, promising to “stop bureaucrats, stop bankers, stop ‘soft hearted people’ and stop the [migrant] boats.”

In Italy, Salvini's message appears to have worked. “Thank you Italy,” he tweeted, holding up a sign reading “the first party in Italy. THANK YOU.” His party, La Lega (The League) won 28 seats doubling the score of his coalition partners the Five Star Movement who languish in third place, behind the Democratic Party with 14 seats.

In France it was a similar story. The Rassemblement National, Marine Le Pen’s party gained 22 seats just one ahead of the Liberal coalition which includes French President Emmanuel Macron’s party. Le Pen tweeted using the hashtag “#victory of the people.” She thanked the head of the list, youth leader Jordan Bardella for his campaign and said that "the people had, with pride and dignity, taken back power." She claimed that a “great alternative movement has been born.”

Voting as a bloc?

In early May, on a visit to Bulgaria, Le Pen praised Matteo Salvini for “controlling the problem of migration.” In mid-April she told the French media that “immigration needs to be stopped.” She added that she was against a forced redistribution of migrants around Europe. She has called Frontex a “welcome agency for migrants” and said that the French borders needed to be protected at all costs. Instead of distributing migrants from NGO rescue ships around Europe, she feels they should be taken back to the port from whence they came.

In Sweden, the nationalist and populist Sweden democrats managed to take 15.4 percent of the votes, making them the party to have made the largest gains in the European parliament. They too are anti-immigrant and at one time wanted Sweden to leave the EU.

In Hungary the nationalist, anti-immigration governing party Fidesz along with its coalition party KDNP (a Christian Democratic party) topped the polls winning 13 of the country’s 21 seats. Fidesz was suspended from the Conservative bloc in the European Parliament in March due to fears that it was becoming anti-democratic. It has pursued an anti-immigration policy since its rise to power. Its fence along the border with Serbia as well as the treatment of those who enter the country to apply for asylum has long been criticized by NGOs working in the country such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.Border Hungary and Austria, 2015 | Photo: Picture-alliance/dpa/Tatif/Wostok Press/Maxppp Hongrie

Different views

In the Czech Republic, the governing party from Andrej Babis won the most seats in the election with six. Other conservative parties followed closely in its wake with a further 7 between them. Although it is difficult to place Babis’ Ano party politically, most commentators call it centrist. Babis himself has described it as a “right-wing party with social empathy.” The party has called for immigrant quotas in the past.

In Belgium, the New Flemish Alliance NvA party won three seats. The same number of seats was also won by the right-wing populist Vlaams Belang party, or Flemish nationalists. Although the NvA were not previously anti-European or anti-migration, both parties campaigned against the Global Migration Pact last summer and left the Belgium government because of their stance on the matter.

In Poland, the PiS, party of Law and Justice took 26 of the seats. They are a national-conservative Christian Democratic party. The party doesn’t like being called nationalist. However, PiS is against mass relocation of refugees and economic migrants across Europe. Some individual politicians in the party have also made anti-migration and anti-Islam comments when discussing migration.Migrants are escorted by Slovenian police towards the Slovenian-Austrian border crossing in Sentilj, Slovenia, 31 October 2015 | Photo: EPA/Gyorgy Varga

In Slovenia, an anti-immigrant party won the majority of votes alone, but less overall than an alliance of more moderate groups together. The news agency AP reported that the Slovenian Democratic Party had won around 26.5 percent of the votes.

Pro-migration parties have a bigger bloc

Salvini and Le Pen look forward to an alliance of right-wing anti-migration populist parties which will command more than 150 seats in the European Parliament when it sits again in July. However, despite the triumphant noises coming from France and Italy, that is no match for a much bigger alliance of pro-European parties which tend to take a much softer stance on migration. Even with losses for the traditional social democratic parties, the greens, and further left-wing parties account for a block of 254. If you add in some of the liberal centrists then this block could grow as big as 392 on some issues. Enough to counteract then the anti-immigrant parties' stated aim of disrupting the way things are done in the EU and blocking any more migration once and for all.

Mark Leonard, the director and co-founder of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) thinks that the fear of these nationalist right-wing parties actually accounted for the slightly higher turnout across Europe and the surge for the greens and liberal parties.

In a blog he wrote for the ECFR just before the election, he predicted that the fears of European voters could be “good news for the European Union.” He quoted a new poll commissioned by ECFR and carried out by YouGov (a global public opinion and data company) which said that support for EU membership across the bloc is “the highest it has been since 1983. But [the poll] also found that a large number of voters across the bloc fear the EU could collapse in the coming decades.”

How to leverage fear

Leonard writes that populists have shown how effective it is “leveraging voters’ fears – of immigrants, of change, of the other, -into votes. Now it’s time for pro-Europeans to leverage a continent’s anxiety and come up with convincing solutions.”

Germany wants to stop human smugglers, who offer individuals wanting to flee their homelands life-threatening ways to try enter Europe | Photo: Picture-alliance/dpaThe ECFR poll showed that the countries who most feared the EU might disintegrate in the next decades, also tended to vote more right-wing and nationalist parties into power. France, Italy, Poland and Romania all polled 58 percent and Slovakia polled 66 percent. Conversely, only 40 percent of people in Spain thought the EU will fall apart in the next 10 or 20 years and there the Socialist party won the vast majority of European seats with the anti-immigrant and right-wing populist Vox party gaining only three seats and doing worse than expected based on previous local elections.

As the success of Nigel Farage’s Brexit party shows, most voters in the EU elections tend to use the elections to protest what is going on in the national context. If Farage has his way and Britain finally Brexits, the weight of both blocks could be reduced if the UK MEPs leave the parliament. That would do damage to the three blocs which include anti-immigrant parties, taking their share from around 171 seats to 138. The Left-wing and green blocs would also lose some seats, taking them down to 237. 

The blocs, like the electorate, also often can’t agree across all policies all of the time. Some of the right-wing populists in the west of Europe are more favorable to Russian influence and backing, whereas those in the former Soviet bloc in the east of the continent feel that would be a step too far. Even on the subject of migration, whereas Salvini wants a fairer distribution of the migrants who are already in Europe across the bloc, many of the parties further east do not want to take any migrants in at all. 

The Greens have picked up in many countries across Europe, including Germany, Belgium, the UK and Portugal and they tend to favor a decidedly pro-migrant and open- door foreign policy in the future. It is impossible to predict what will happen to the EU's migration policy when the new parliament sits in July. Salvini is fond of tweeting "from words to deeds" especially when it comes to migration. However, Italy is currently one of the few countries that have been participating in the UN humanitarian corridor for asylum seekers and refugees airlifted out of civil-war-torn Libya.


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