Populism and anti-immigration fervour surges in the West

Taiwanese commentator Chen Kuohsiang notes that populist fervour and anti-immigration sentiments in the US and Europe embolden each other and form a vicious circle, dominating major political issues. This has led to the potential political comeback of former US President Donald Trump and the rise of opposition parties in Europe.
Members of Border Angels and migrants demonstrate at the US-Mexico border as part of International Migrants Day in Playas de Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, on 18 December 2023. (Guillermo Arias/AFP)
Members of Border Angels and migrants demonstrate at the US-Mexico border as part of International Migrants Day in Playas de Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, on 18 December 2023. (Guillermo Arias/AFP)

Growing anti-immigration sentiments in Europe and the US have worsened political conflicts and partisan rivalries, increasingly jeopardising the democratic system that the West is proud of. The intense surge in populism is one of the adverse effects.

Anti-immigration stances in US and Europe

Former US President Donald Trump's campaign to return to the White House is gaining ground. Trump has always advocated an “America First” policy, blatantly inciting “white supremacy” and holding a hardline stance on immigration. But while he is yet to take office, Trump has already doubled down on his anti-immigration rhetoric, putting immense pressure on the Democrats. 

The Joe Biden administration’s inaction over the immigration wave is seen as bending over backwards to accommodate immigrants. The state of Texas bore the brunt of the situation — in order to add razor wire along the border with Mexico to block illegal immigrants from crossing into the country, Texas challenged the Supreme Court’s decision to grant the removal of razor wire last month, and even deployed the Texas National Guard into action, a move that won the support of 25 Republican governors. The current standoff is not only a direct challenge against the federal government but also a battle between the Republicans and Democrats.

Migrants cross concertina wire laid by the Texas National Guard at the US-Mexico border in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico, 8 February 2024. (Justin Hamel/Bloomberg)
Migrants cross concertina wire laid by the Texas National Guard at the US-Mexico border in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico, on 8 February 2024. (Justin Hamel/Bloomberg)

Europe’s immigration issue is even more antagonising. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party rose to prominence in the last decade and was even the country’s largest opposition party at one point. The party was recently rumoured to be discussing a plan for a mass deportation of migrants, including those who have become citizens as well as second- and third-generation immigrants, triggering widespread protests. Meanwhile, enterprises are more worried that the deportation plan could exacerbate labour shortages. 

In mid-to-late January, hundreds of cities across Germany staged protests against the AfD, sharply accusing the AfD of being unconstitutional and calling for its dissolution. Seen as weak in dealing with internal affairs including immigration issues, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government saw its approval rating dropping to a low of around 15%, which could potentially cost Scholz his position this year.

Europe’s deep-seated immigration problems, exacerbated by economic difficulties, have turned poverty into a hotbed of leftist and rightist extremism, intensifying immigration-related protests.

French President Emmanuel Macron is also in a tough spot. The government’s new immigration bill was rejected by both the left and right wings, with the far-left and far-right criticising it for being too harsh and too lenient respectively. The government eventually had to compromise and water down the measures by imposing restrictions on residence permits, delaying welfare benefits for immigrants, and simplifying the deportation process. But various parties were still dissatisfied with the final bill passed by the parliament, prompting Macron to replace the prime minister in response. Notwithstanding, the battle between the pro- and anti-immigration camps continues. 

Migrants picked up at sea attempting to cross the English Channel from France, walk to a marquee for processing after disembarking from Border Force vessel 'Defender' at the Marina in Dover, southeast England on 17 January 2024. (Ben Stansall/AFP)
Migrants picked up at sea attempting to cross the English Channel from France, walk to a marquee for processing after disembarking from Border Force vessel 'Defender' at the Marina in Dover, southeast England, on 17 January 2024. (Ben Stansall/AFP)

Meanwhile, the UK’s conservative Rishi Sunak government is facing an electoral challenge and has no choice but to take on the immigration issue. It pushed through an illegal migration bill in blatant violation of international human rights and the spirit of democracy, announcing a limit on the number of new immigrants and leading the anti-immigration movement. 

Enticing but unrealistic promises to stir the public 

Europe’s deep-seated immigration problems, exacerbated by economic difficulties, have turned poverty into a hotbed of leftist and rightist extremism, intensifying immigration-related protests. As the Europeans search for a scapegoat, immigrants are seen as invaders and distinct from the “locals”.

The three-year pandemic dealt a massive blow to economies around the world, and the Russia-Ukraine war has inflated energy prices. The government’s inability to curb inflation in the face of financial difficulties has further fuelled public grievances. At the same time, the welfare and treatment of immigrants involve human rights issues and have thus catalysed an intense anti-immigration wave, exacerbating social antagonisms, ethnic conflicts and political extremism.

Most right-wing populists combine populism with some form of nativism and pride themselves on pure patriotism, with leaders claiming to represent the unified “will of the people”. European and American populists often package themselves as aggressive leaders with an anti-immigration and authoritarian stance. They are adept at stirring up people’s emotions and making enticing but unrealistic promises. The global rise and resonation of right-wing populism mainly stems from multiple crises, of which the immigration issue is key. 

Trump supporters attend a "Take Our Border Back" convoy near the Mexico-US border in San Ysidro, California on 3 February 2024. (David Swanson/AFP)
Trump supporters attend a "Take Our Border Back" convoy near the Mexico-US border in San Ysidro, California, on 3 February 2024. (David Swanson/AFP)

Immigration issues are not only fuelling Trump’s return to the White House but also emboldening right-wing populists in Europe. The European Parliament election is an indicator of the rise of populist parties. During the election in 2014, the anti-immigrant and eurosceptic UK Independence Party was Britain’s biggest winner; France’s National Front party also won around 25% of votes in the country.

During the 2019 European Parliament election, the European People’s Party and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats — the two largest parties occupying over half of the total 751 seats — lost nearly 40 seats each. In contrast, those that gained seats were the Europe of Nations and Freedom bloc formed by France’s National Rally, Italy’s anti-immigrant Lega Nord and others; as well as the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy bloc formed by the Italian Five Star Movement, the UK’s eurosceptic UK Independence Party and others.     

The core ideology of right-wing populist parties is mainly the rejection of foreigners and multicultural societies, and an emphasis on prioritising “our country” and “our people”.

Roping in economic woes for support

The rise of populist parties is accompanied by a significant decline of social democratic parties. Support for the Social Democratic Party of Germany fell to around 14% in 2018; the French Socialist Party only won 7.4% of the votes in the 2017 legislative elections; while the Dutch Labour Party also won a mere 5.7% of the votes in 2017. The immigration crisis is the main catalyst for political extremism and the rise of right-wing populism.

The core ideology of right-wing populist parties is mainly the rejection of foreigners and multicultural societies, and an emphasis on prioritising “our country” and “our people”. They believe that immigrants, refugees or social benefit recipients should be ostracised because they will reduce the resources of “our people”. 

Asylum seekers wait in line to be processed by the Border Patrol at a makeshift camp near the US-Mexico border east of Jacumba, San Diego, California, US, 2 January 2024. (Guillermo Arias/AFP)
Asylum seekers wait in line to be processed by the Border Patrol at a makeshift camp near the US-Mexico border east of Jacumba, San Diego, California, US, on 2 January 2024. (Guillermo Arias/AFP)

Apart from refugees, the domestic economy also affects the ability of right-wing populist parties to appeal to the masses. Populist parties typically cannot win over people by focusing solely on the economy, and it is only by associating the economy with the refugee crisis and blaming them for the recession and climbing unemployment rate that makes right-wing populism more attractive. Populism also leverages on a “failed state”, in which the government is deemed weak and incompetent in handling the immigration issue. 

Their hardships are worthy of sympathy, but the countries they are flocking to are stretched to the limit, and they are also accelerating fundamental political changes in those countries, much to their detriment.

Populist fervour and anti-immigration sentiments in the US and Europe embolden each other and form a vicious circle, dominating major political issues. Ongoing wars around the world in recent years have worsened livelihood challenges and resulted in a growing number of refugees. To survive, they are left with no choice but to look for a place to settle down and carry on with life. 

Their hardships are worthy of sympathy, but the countries they are flocking to are stretched to the limit, and they are also accelerating fundamental political changes in those countries, much to their detriment. This is the predicament of immigrants and the serious challenge for democracies around the world.  

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “欧美民粹狂潮与反移民怒潮相激荡”.

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