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Immigrants, Islam, and European Democracy

Playing the Wild Card

Syrian refugees offer flowers to German Chancellor and Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) main candidate Angela Merkel after she gave a speech during an election rally in Schwerin, northern Germany, on September 19, 2017.(Getty)

by Ronald J. Granieri*

European politics continues to be roiled by debates over immigration and national identity. The questions of whom to admit and how to encourage the integration of the new arrivals into the indigenous society each raise complex issues about defining the national community and the responsibilities of those who want to join it. Such issues have played a role throughout European history as the various states of the continent have modified their borders and transferred populations, but they emerge with especially vehemence when the new arrivals come from outside of Europe, and especially when they are Muslims. Although a cynic could say that European society had been successfully undermining its Christian identity and Western Civilization all on its own over the past couple of centuries, facing the prospect of large numbers of non-Christian immigrants has brought the issue out into the open.

The relationship of Muslim immigration to electoral politics runs in multiple directions. The most obvious issue is whether one uses the fear of immigrants to win elections. Certainly, the rise of parties such as the Party of Freedom in the Netherlands, France’s Front National, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has depended to a significant degree on the mobilization of fears among natives about the potential for Muslim immigrants to change society. Although none of those parties has (yet) been able to form a national government, their success and the success of similar parties elsewhere in Europe have influenced the way that the established parties approach immigration. For center-right parties especially, the fear of losing voters to more stridently anti-immigrant movements raises existential questions. Is it enough to adopt tougher anti-immigration rhetoric, for example, while keeping the actual parties at an arm’s length, or should traditional parties also be prepared to enter into coalitions with these parties?

German speaking Central Europe offers examples of both strategies. In Germany, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats—especially the more conservative sister party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU)—have tried to modify their policy stances and rhetoric to win over and win back possible AfD voters. CSU Chair and current Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, for example, has consistently advocated for an upper-limit on immigration and touched off a fiery debate by proclaiming that “Islam is not a part of Germany.” Merkel herself, at the urging of both the CSU and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) backpedaled from the open-ended welcome to refugees that had earned her so much international good will in 2015. At the same time, however, the CDU/CSU had rejected the idea of forming governments with the AfD at either the state or federal level, preferring to maintain a Grand Coalition with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). Both Merkel and Seehofer hope that this strategy will win back voters lost to the AfD while hastening that party’s decline into irrelevance by denying it governmental legitimacy. This has been the strategy of the CDU/CSU in dealing successfully with right-wing challengers since the 1950s. Whether it will work this time remains to be seen. Current polls are not encouraging, as the AfD continues to claim mid-double-digit support.

In Austria, the Christian Democratic Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) has chosen a different approach. Under the leadership of its charismatic thirtysomething leader Sebastian Kurz, the ÖVP not only adopted more stringent anti-immigrant rhetoric in the last federal elections to woo voters attracted to the FPÖ, but also decided to form a government with the FPÖ after the election. This decision broke with Austria’s traditional preference for grand coalitions between Christian and Social Democrats and is now being watched closely by political analysts. The ÖVP and the CDU/CSU each earned about the same percentage of the national vote (in the low 30% range) in the Austrian and German elections, so at first blush it is not clear which party has chosen the more propitious path. The different coalition choices, however, offer a living laboratory experiment on how to deal with right-wing challengers. For his willingness to take the risk of elevating the FPÖ (whose chairman, Heinz-Christian Strache, is now Austria’s Foreign Minister), Kurz offers a clear alternative to Merkel’s centrism, leading British journalist William Cook to call him “Germany’s most important politician,” for better or worse.

Supporters of Austria’s Foreign Minister and leader of Austria’s centre-right People’s Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz react after first exit polls were published during the party’s election event following general elections in Vienna, Austria, on October 15, 2017(Getty)

Kurz and his supporters may hope that they can thread the needle of winning over FPÖ voters while weakening the FPÖ. Nevertheless, there are two dangers to the Kurz approach—either the right-wing party will become stronger thanks to its successful inclusion in government and make the established party irrelevant, or the established party will itself be pulled further to the right, essentially becoming what it had claimed it wanted to stop. The former is Merkel’s great fear, bolstered by some particularly dire examples from the political history of the 1930s. That history also echoes in Italy, where the more established Forza Italia of Silvio Berlusconi fell behind Matteo Salvini’s more explicitly nationalist and anti-foreigner League in the last elections. The latter is already on display in Austria’s estranged Habsburg sister Hungary, where Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party’s rightward journey began with a coalition with the populist Jobbik party and has led to Fidesz absorbing much of Jobbik’s platform and electorate. Fidesz today has become a much more nationalist and illiberal party than it was in the 1990s when its western educated and George Soros-supported leader (who also happened to be Viktor Orban) espoused a Hungarian version of Christian Democracy. In each of these scenarios, embracing the right-wing challenger has strengthened right-wing sentiment. Kurz’s long-term intentions may be different, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to succeed with his gambit.

The center-left’s challenge in these times is somewhat different but nonetheless tricky. As they have shed their older connections to organized labor and become the party of choice for the educated urban bourgeoisie, and globalization has eroded the social and cultural base of traditional working class politics, center-left parties such as Labour and the SPD, as well as France’s Socialists and sister parties in the low countries and Italy (not to mention the Democrats in the USA) have seen their overall vote totals collapse. Many disaffected members of the working class have proven susceptible to nationalist and anti-immigrant rhetoric and reject the multicultural and transnational agenda of their former political homes. Center-left leaders have hoped that the loss of such voters could be counterbalanced by aggressive appeals to socially and culturally more progressive younger voters, especially younger women, and to communities of color. Whether such a strategy, which relies on long-term demographic forces as much as overt appeals to multicultural pluralism, and risks dismissing many formerly reliable supporters as deplorable racists, will bring short- or medium-term success is far from clear.

There has been no shortage of commentators who warn against this strategy, urging the respectable left to court older working class voters by focusing on economic policy and avoiding excessive reliance on “identity politics.” The original American “populists” of the 1890s presented themselves as the defenders of small town values, farmers, and workers against urban moneyed interests, so there is a strong case to be made for using economic arguments to recover voters attracted to the new populist parties of the right. But does it make sense to chase after lost voters who may never come back at the expense of undermining their growing connection to the progressive blocs who provide so much current enthusiasm? Ideally, strategists would prefer to reach both the old and new audiences at once, which was the recipe for success for center-left parties from the 1960s to the heyday of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gerhard Schröder at the turn of the recent century.

The wild card for parties across the political spectrum is the behavior of the immigrants themselves. Although the process of naturalization differs across countries, the emergence of new immigrants—and Muslim citizens in particular—as a voting bloc will pose complicated questions for all political parties, but especially for those on the center-left. It makes sense to appeal directly to recent immigrants by confronting and condemning anti-immigrant sentiment, which would certainly please some parts of their existing voter base. That, however, could hasten the departure of those voters who are already flirting with nationalists and populists. It is also important to remember that reducing the electorate to a collection of monolithic ethnic or religious voting blocs is dangerous for the development of a pluralist political order. If the emphasis is on integration, and the encouragement of a diverse but harmonious society, political parties should resist the temptation to pursue strategies of ethnic division. That noble impulse, however, is in constant conflict with any politician’s desire to win the next election.

One of the controversial questions on this score is Labour’s effort, under Jeremy Corbyn, to appeal to Muslim communities in part by taking aggressive positions on Middle East politics. Corbyn has recently received justifiable criticism for his role in organizations that have trafficked in distinctly anti-Semitic rhetoric — as opposed to reasoned criticism of Israeli policies — in advocating a hard line against Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. Corbyn has attempted to distance himself from anti-Semitic utterances and associations to mollify centrist voters, but has not altered his policy positions, which have appealed to many Muslim and far-left voters. In trying to please both sides, he may end up pleasing neither—only the next election will deliver a verdict.

British Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn (2nd R) visits Finsbury Park Mosque during Visit My Mosque Day held by Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) in London, United Kingdom on February 5, 2017.(Getty)

Cause and effect are difficult to disentangle in this case and will remain so. It is possible that the existence of growing voter blocs of Muslim immigrants and desire to attract their votes will encourage changes in party platforms, but it is also possible that those new voters will be attracted to parties who have already adopted certain policies on issues such as immigration and international politics. Center-left parties may be better positioned to win those voters thanks to their pre-existing domestic and foreign policy preferences, even as they struggle to hold onto other voters in return. For center-right parties, the challenge is harder. Unable and unwilling to outbid the left on multiculturalism, conservatives have discussed appealing to the cultural conservatism of immigrant communities, and to their entrepreneurial spirit, in the hope that at least some of the new immigrants will see center-right parties as welcome defenders of those cultural and economic interests.

Of course, Muslim citizens and voters are much more well established in Britain and in France than in Germany or Austria, so the concrete strategies of different parties vary accordingly. But across Europe it will become increasingly important to view them not merely as an undifferentiated group of “immigrants,” packaged as a threat to the native population, but as citizens and voters in their own right. As one of the grand old men of German politics, Wolfgang Schäuble, recently told his Christian Democratic colleagues, abstract debates over whether Islam “belongs to Germany” are irrelevant compared to the reality that Islam “has become part of our country” through the addition of new residents, citizens, and voters. The crucial interest (and oft-stated goal) of most European political leaders, no matter the attitude they or their parties have toward immigration in the abstract, or how many actual immigrants their states are willing to welcome, is to make sure that those immigrants become part of the existing society, not permanent outsiders in a parallel world. Discussions of integration often focus on what the immigrants will have to give up or take on in order to live up to their responsibilities as citizens of a new country. In the years to come, Europeans will also have to engage in an honest discussion about what those new citizens can and will contribute to the prosperity and political stability of their new homelands.

*Ronald J. Granieri is Executive Director of FPRI’s Center for the Study of America and the West, editor of FPRI’s The American Review of Books, Blogs, and Bull, and host of Geopolitics with Granieri, a monthly discussion program at FPRI.

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