Nationalism on the Rise as Refugees Flood Europe

September 19, 2016 Updated: October 11, 2016

A rapid influx of refugees pouring into Europe due to global conflicts has unsettled Europeans and furthered nationalist political movements.

Far-right parties, already prevalent, have seen a surge in support and deeper influence within national legislatures and the European Parliament, due to fears the wave of refugees may lead to fewer jobs and more terrorist attacks.

The Pew Research Center found that in eight of the 10 European nations surveyed, at least half the respondents believed refugees increased the likelihood of domestic terrorism.

For Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has become Europe’s poster child for anti-immigrant nationalism, that number reached 76 percent. Additionally, 82 percent believed refugees were an economic burden.

Identity Crisis

Fifty-four percent of the world’s refugees have fled wars and political instability in Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Syria’s five-year civil war alone has driven 4.8 million people from the country, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.

The surge of Muslim migrants has caused unease on the European continent. Beyond fears in certain countries that refugees have ties to terrorist groups like ISIS, some Europeans see the incomers as a threat to their cultural identity, which is heavily based on native languages and shared customs and traditions, according to the Pew Research Center. Sixty-three percent of Greeks and 53 percent of Italians surveyed said more diversity made their country a worse place to live.

Older and less educated people were more likely to hold such opinions than younger and more educated people.

Nationalism on the Rise

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Brussels on March 18. Orban has become Europe's poster child for anti-immigrant nationalism. (THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Brussels on March 18. Orban has become Europe’s poster child for anti-immigrant nationalism. (THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP/Getty Images)

Nationalist parties first began to rise during the 2008 financial crisis. The downturn led to high unemployment, which fueled parties with anti-EU platforms.

Claudia Postelnicescu, a lawyer and researcher on EU migration and identity based in Romania, says there is a pattern.

“Nationalist parties thrive where the predominant mood of the society is rooted in fear, insecurity—be it economical or otherwise—and the preservation of the status quo against the forces of change,” she said.

These parties are almost always populists, pitting the common person against an unjust or otherwise ineffective establishment or elite.

The EU has been a frequent target, with many parties demanding for the return of powers that were surrendered to the EU and Brussels.

“In many cases, these parties have an anti-immigrant rhetoric as well, as they accuse migrants of threatening the national identity of the country that receives them, abusing welfare benefits, and stealing jobs from locals,” said Adriano Bosoni, senior Europe analyst for Stratfor.

The influx of refugees has impacted the EU on at least three levels, according to Bosoni.

“First, it has deepened the process of EU fragmentation, as some countries unilaterally introduced border controls, others chose to ignore plans by Brussels to redistribute asylum seekers across the bloc, and others accused their peers of a lack of solidarity,” said Bosoni.

Concern in receiving countries about the impact of foreign arrivals has hurt several governments, notably Germany’s, said Bosoni.

Anti-immigrant protests broke out in Germany over Berlin’s open-door immigration policy after 2,000 men assaulted some 1,200 women in Cologne and Hamburg on New Year’s Eve in 2015, according to leaked police documents.

Over 120 suspects, about half foreign nationals recently arrived in Germany, were identified. The incident spurred protests denouncing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policy.

Anti-immigration and anti-EU political parties have benefited from such sentiments, Bosoni added.

Leaders of some Eastern European states such as Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, which are often the first to receive refugees, have proposed favoring Christian migrants over Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa, a clear violation of the EU’s non-discrimination laws on asylum-seekers.

Postelnicescu said the refugee crisis has divided EU member states.

“Underlying issues that allowed for compromise until now no longer permit such flexibility and we have seen sparks flying in many declarations of the European leaders over the crisis,” said Postelnicescu.

Terrorist Attacks

Meanwhile, political actors have tapped into fear over the influx of migrants and the potential threat of terrorism.

France and Denmark are among countries reluctant to accept refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, due to national security concerns in the aftermath of terrorist attacks that hit Paris, Nice, and Copenhagen.

The increasing divide in Europe sees countries turning inward, worrying those who advocate for broader cooperation.

“There will be no sense of solidarity, humanity, and hope left if every country is an island and every man too,” Postelnicescu said.