Europeʹs new isolationist front

Europe is shifting to the right. Border security and isolation increasingly dominate the migration policies of the European Union. At a national level, right-wing parties are peddling a symbolic identity policy to distract from cuts that undermine the very fabric of society, says political scientist Farid Hafez

By Farid Hafez

Whereas in the past, most European right-wing parties were confined to the benches of the opposition, several of these groups now hold the reins of power. One of their chief goals is to alter the character of the European Union: work on consolidating Fortress Europe should continue. At the same time, these right-wing populists are engaged in neo-conservative restructuring at a national level, deploying identity politics as a useful smokescreen.

Since the start of this year, Austria's right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPO) in a governing coalition with the Christian democrat People's Party (OVP) has been showing how it plans to turn the state inside out. The social safety net and education system are being undermined (for example, with cuts to minimum benefits and unemployment benefits) and labour rights curtailed. Companies, on the other hand, are benefitting from a reduction in corporate tax.

Staging a distraction with identity politics

Deploying symbolic identity politics, the government is attempting to distract the electorate from these socially unjust measures. The former not only include a planned headscarf ban in kindergartens and primary schools. A theatrically-staged media conference celebrating the closure of mosques as a blow to political Islam also falls into this category.

Austrian police practice the repulsion of migrants at the Spielfeld border crossing, end of June 2018 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Schlager)
Turn back now: deploying 500 police officers and 200 soldiers, Austria's right-wing conservative government has demonstrated its determination to reject refugees at the border. The image shows a corresponding exercise held at the Austrian-Slovenian border crossing in Spielfeld on 26 June 2018

Furthermore, the decision taken in July to abolish the Turkish-language driving test because the costs were purportedly too high should also be viewed in the light of this strategy. These are just a few examples of announcements made in the last six months, with the hope that they will serve as a diversionary tactic.

A tactic that's not only in evidence in Austria. In Bavaria, CSU State Premier Markus Soder introduced a regulation, which came into force in June 2018, stipulating that all public administration buildings must display a crucifix as "an expression of the historic and cultural character of Bavaria".

In Italy, the right-wing populist Lega followed suit and introduced a draft bill stipulating the display of crucifixes in public buildings such as train stations and airports. Any infringement can be penalised with a fine of up to 1,000 euros. As the Italian ruling party said, Italy cannot do without "symbols of our history, culture and tradition".The right's European policy vision

When, in the year 2000, the right-wing populist FPO led at the time by Jorg Haider entered the governing coalition for the first time, the European Union responded with a diplomatic boycott. Today, the FPO/OVP government's assumption of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union until the end of 2018 went unchallenged. This shows the extent to which Europe has shifted to the right. For the coalition, refugees and border security are top of the agenda.

The first informal meeting of EU interior ministers in July in Innsbruck was attended by the interior ministers of Germany, Italy and Austria. While both Matteo Salvini and Herbert Kickl represent nominally right-wing populist parties, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer is nominally a Christian Democrat, though his agenda is hardly Christian and as far as migration goes, also right-wing populist in flavour.

The three interior ministers discussed how work should continue on consolidating Fortress Europe. Matteo Salvini stressed that the migration question is a "vital issue" for the European Union. Austria's Interior Minister Kickl, one of the FPO's leading lights, made it clear he wants a paradigm shift in asylum policy.

By this, he primarily means enhanced border security measures and co-operation with countries in North Africa to set up refugee camps outside the EU. With these centres, it would seem that Kickl even intends the sole – de facto – filing of asylum applications from outside the European Union in future. The FPO Interior Minister wants the establishment of a "security union" to manage the "migration crisis".

In Vienna, before it joined the Kurz (OVP) administration, the right-wing FPO was required to make a formal commitment to the European Union. But this overlooks the fact that although the Freedom Party may have expressed this commitment to Europe, it has instilled it with a quite different meaning. The new right-wing was for a long time a supporter of Europe, but a Europe with a different face. If you believe its programme, it wants a Europe of fatherlands, a Europe of nations.

With the right-wing shift of Christian democrat people's parties such as Viktor Orban's Fidesz in Hungary, the Bavarian CSU led by Horst Seehofer and Sebastian Kurz's newly-organised People's Party, a new front for the isolation of Europe has been created. "Europe that Protects" is the official motto of the Austrian EU Council presidency, now enjoying the general support of EU member states. In this endeavour, Austria's young head of government Sebastian Kurz is casting himself as Europeʹs security chancellor, while the right-wing interior ministers implement his concepts.

Right-wing populism the new normal?

The new right-wing populism of ruling centre-right and right-wing parties essentially questions standards regarding the issue of asylum and basic rights that have applied to date. The "Axis of the Willing", as Salvini, Kickl and Seehofer describe their co-operation, is making every effort to implement a deal agreed at the EU summit in late June on tightening refugee policy.

The upgrading of border and coast guard agency Frontex to a European border protection police force with 10,000 officers by the year 2020 shows what kind of face the security union will be showing the rest of the world.

There may have been time to prevent the publication of initially formulated racist phrases in the official final document. But despite the watered-down rhetoric, the same applies: Europe is steering a law-and-order course and consolidation of its isolationist policy stance looks likely to continue.

Farid Hafez

© 2018

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Farid Hafez is senior researcher at the University of Salzburgʹs Department of Political Science and a senior research scholar with Georgetown Universityʹs Bridge Initiative in Washington D.C., USA.