A Mood is Spreading in Europe

The Swiss voted for capping immigration on Sunday. The seeds of right-wing populist and nationalist thinking are germinating, with ramifications for the whole continent.


Despite posters like this, most of Switzerland voted for the right-wing Swiss People’s Party. Photo: Reuters

You could call it political irony. Switzerland, the country sending shockwaves through Europe, is not even a member of the European Union.  The consequences of the referendum are as broad as the margin of victory in the vote was narrow. In part, because EU agreements will have to be renegotiated. And European right-wing populists and nationalists will seize upon the victory as a sign of a shift among voters.

The referendum results increase the likelihood that anti-EU parties will occupy a fourth of the seats in the European Parliament and hence become the largest group in the EU legislature after elections on May 25th. Mark Schulz, the European Social Democrats’ leading candidate, fears that “those who want to destroy Europe are in a position to win the elections in Europe” could become a reality.

A mood is spreading in Europe

The enemy is Brussels. A mood is spreading in Europe, a mood hostile toward the European idea. The Swiss referendum is now a bellwether for far right-wing parties across the continent, for the Finns Party, the French National Front, the anti-Islamic Dutch Freedom Party as well as English EU opponents.

The Eurosceptic party, Alternative for Germany, will easily surpass the 3% hurdle. And the rallying cry is no longer opposing the unpopular euro. The immigration debate and the opening of the borders with Romania and Bulgaria could prove to be a volatile mix and hot topics in the run-up to the election. The question of whether new arrivals in Germany are eligible for social welfare and unemployment benefits is an issue that will make the populist message appealing to unsatisfied voters. The less openly this topic is discussed, the more damage it will do. That politics must become honest is the sentiment of Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière, who has called the discussion helpful that was prompted by Thilo Sarrazin’s book (Deutschland schafft sich ab), which denounces immigration in Germany as a failure.

Fear of Überfremdung

The idea of Europe is not dead, not yet. But most Germans do not see immigration as a promising way to a peaceful future. They consider it be a form of redistribution burdening to Germany and as a threat to hard-earned prosperity. As the results in Switzerland show, the integration of Europe is increasingly associated in people’s minds with a fear of Überfremdung, a word alternately translated as “excessive immigration” or “being overrun with foreigners.” One could argue that it makes no sense to compare immigration in Switzerland and Germany, to compare the impact of 80,000 new arrivals in a country of only eight million residents with a country that has a population ten times larger. Yet 120,000 asylum seeker applications in 2013 was enough to significantly heat up the political debate.

In dealing with the financial crisis, the government has also struggled to communicate that integration and the euro have benefitted Germany and that the country has even profited from the interest on financial aid packages. That applies to an even greater extent for people in countries hit hard by the Eurozone crisis, who feel dominated and blackmailed by Germany. For those focused on saving the banks, it should thus not come as a surprise that voters are looking for solutions elsewhere.

By Gerd Nowakowski. Published in the Tagesspiegel on February 10, 2014.

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