The true force propelling populism in Europe is not immigration.
The German elections sealed a cycle of elections in Europe and to the relief of many marked another success of pro-European forces. And while pro-EU voters were celebrating their parties’ victories, analysts were quick to point out reasons for caution. As many have correctly said, populists might not have won power in Europe yet, but that doesn’t mean they failed. In fact, they did better than they ever have in the Netherlands, Germany, and France and there is nothing guaranteeing that this upward trend will not continue.
So what have we learned from this year of election and change in European politics? A common argument explaining the rise of populists is that the rise of immigration has propelled xenophobia on which extremists capitalized to their electoral benefits. Although it’s true that the rapid rate of immigrants arriving in countries shifted the political rhetoric in a way that benefited extremists, a close look at the data of all post-election results reveal that the real the populist success in Europe involves multiple factors.
In fact, looking at the election results of the Netherlands, France, and Germany reveals that immigration levels are not the biggest predictor of a vote for populist. Both in the Netherlands and in France, the single largest predictor of vote for Wilders or Le Pen respectively was education. Meaning that in both cases, knowing a voter’s educational attainment was the best way in predicting whether they will vote for a populist or not, with voters with a higher education level being less likely to vote for right-wing populists. Moreover, in both countries as well as in Germany, income was a great determinant of the likelihood of a vote for the right-wing. For example, in Germany, it was in the poorest regions and towns where AfD got its largest vote share regardless of actual immigration levels. Another important factor in all three countries was geographic location. In fact, in all these elections we see an urban-rural divide, very similar to the one that is evident in the US. Voters from rural areas are much more likely to vote for right-wing populists than those from the cities even though the cities have a significantly larger immigrant population. The number of immigrants did play a role in the Netherlands but it was still less significant than the other factors. Finally, in Germany, the region with the fewest migrants (Saxony) was the one where AfD succeeded the most.
All this goes to show that the rise of populists in Europe is not really about immigrant numbers. It is about the rhetoric of immigration which exploits pre-existing social and economic inequalities to exacerbate fear and anger. Dealing with populism requires fixing these underlying structural problems. As long as there are regions and people left behind in our transforming economies and societies there will be support for extremists regardless of the number of immigrants. Therefore, politicians should focus more on helping those left behind by globalization and technological change by making growth inclusive rather than decreasing immigration arrivals.