Many Europeans rightfully rejoiced at the defeat of Marine Le Pen in the French Presidential elections. Both Le Pen’s nationalist rhetoric and her party’s past had been signs of great concern for many. Although populism seems to be temporarily halted across mainland Europe with multiple countries rejecting right-wing parties, this doesn’t mean that nationalist politicians and parties have not had any impact on their countries. On the contrary, it might very well be that the biggest consequence of the populist resurgence is their indirect impact on mainstream parties and their platform, particularly those of the center-right.
One might think that statements such as “our country cannot take more immigrants” or “multiculturalism has failed” would come from right-wing politicians like Le Pen or Wilders. However, it is center-right politicians of mainstream parties who have been making remarks hostile to immigrants. We have seen this in countless European countries in which mainstream center-right parties are facing competition from right-wing parties: The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, and head of a self-proclaimed “socially and economically liberal party” declared before the elections that immigrants should “be normal or be gone.” In the neighboring Germany, Angela Merkel who has spearheaded the effort to relocate refugees has repeatedly emphasized that refugees have to “adopt German culture” and “return home when it’s no longer dangerous.” A more extreme example is observed in Austria whose Socialist party government decided to close its borders effectively shutting down the “Balkan route” of refugees. Finally, the impact has been the greatest in Eastern Europe where multiple countries have refused to comply with the refugee relocation quotas and whose politicians have repeatedly made xenophobic remarks such as that “Muslims can’t integrate in Europe.”
This worrisome development is coupled with the broad collapse of the center-left in Europe. Center-left parties, which have traditionally been more open and accepting of foreigners, are reduced to abysmal percentages and courting insignificance in one election after the other. This eradication of the center-left presence means that the most serious challenge for center-right parties now comes from the right-wing. And whereas center-left parties could counterbalance this shift to the right, their electoral underperformance prompts center-right parties to turn rightwards where most of their voters seem to be directed.
To be clear, the anti-immigrant stance of center-right parties is not something new in Europe. These parties are in most cases broad coalitions encompassing different shades of right from centrist classic liberals to the so-called religious and patriotic right. However, as the center-right parties are challenged now from right-wing populists, the “populist right” faction is more likely to dominate them and produce more radical anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric to appeal to their voters fleeing to the right. This shift was also evident in France, where the center-right party, Les Republicains, chose more anti-immigrant Francois Fillion for its candidate, instead of centrist Alain Juppe. Although Fillion failed to win the presidency (largely due to a scandal), his party’s shift to the right as a way to face the “Le Pen” challenge is clear.
What we see in Europe now is that the emergence of nationalist populism along with the collapse of the center-left have largely managed to move the xenophobic rhetoric from the fringes of European politics to the mainstream. Therefore, even if the populists never manage to gain power, either due to institutional constraints or due to their parties’ fringe character and history, they have definitely succeeded in altering the European political landscape, shifting center-right politics to the right, and normalizing xenophobia. Le Pen might never win power in France but her ideas, like those of other populists, have definitely entered the domain of the mainstream in the country. Such normalization of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments will only make the European public more hostile to foreigners, eventually helping populists.