Europe’s anti-refugee policies will not sway far-right voters

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s right-wing coalition won a commanding majority in elections on April 8, 2018, and is set to achieve a super-majority in Parliament. The past eight years of Orbán’s tenure as prime minister have seen the hollowing out of a once promising democracy in a region plagued by the legacy of the Eastern Bloc.

Crony capitalism displaces legitimate enterprise, and all of the major media outlets are de facto controlled by the government. The various parties in the political opposition could not marshal equivalent campaign funds and media attention, and they have suffered from an inability to organize into a cohesive political unit (The Budapest Beacon, “Democratic Opposition Failure to Coordinate Candidates Contributed to Fidesz Supermajority,” 04.09.2018).

Despite his illiberal tendencies, Orbán did not need to fudge election results like his ideo- logical counterpart and ally Vladimir Putin, whose government may have falsified up to 10 million ballots in the March 2018 presidential elections (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Seeing ‘Churov’s Saw’: Russian Researcher Says Putin May Have Received 10 Million Fraud- ulent Votes,” 03.20.2018). Orbán and his nation- alist Fidesz party simply crowded out all other messages than their own.

The core component of his message was that only his leadership and policies could prevent hordes of Muslim refugees from overrunning Hungary and destroying its White Christian purity. In 2015, his government built a fence along the southern border of Hungary to impede the flow of refugees (The Guardian, “Migrants on Hungary’s Border Fence: ‘This Wall, We Will Not Accept It,’” 06.22.2015). Remind you of any- one?

Fear-mongering of this type, mixed with anti-Semitic conspiracies centered around George Soros, won him the votes of a large rural con- stituency that was willing to overlook the de- teriorating condition of healthcare, education and public institutions for the sake of Orbán’s crusade.

As if to illustrate this point, an independent Hungarian media source quoted a man who lost his grandson because an ambulance did not arrive in time to save his life. Yet, he would still vote for Orbán, he said, because keeping the country safe from migrants is the only issue that matters (Politico, “Populist Playbook: 5 Lessons from Hungary for Trump’s Reelection,” 04.09.2018).

Ironically, Hungary has almost no refugees. Many refugees have traveled through Hungary towards the more open and prosperous countries of Western Europe, but very few have stayed. The refugees who chose to remain number in the dozens and live in either Budapest or Szeged, the two largest cities in the country. These cities voted overwhelmingly against the incumbent right-wing government.

There are deep parallels between the anti-refugee politics of Hungary and that of other European countries and the United States. Breitbart described Obama as having no intention of stopping the flood of Syrian refugees into the U.S. and emphasized that less than one percent of these Syrian refugees are Christian (Breitbart, “Obama Administration Floods Country with 769 Syrian Refugees in First Week of September,” 09.09.2016). During Obama’s tenure, 31 states challenged Syrian refugee resettlement efforts, and anti-refugee and Islamophobic bias in these states undoubtedly influenced the fact that the vast majority of them voted for Donald Trump. However, according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), scant amounts of refugees were resettled in any of these states (MPI, “Syrian Refugees in the United States,” 01.12.2017).

Likewise, in eastern Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party won sizeable percentages of votes from engaging in virulent anti-refugee rhetoric, even though eastern Germany has seen far smaller percentages of refugees resettled than western Germany (Deutsche Welle, “AfD Populists Milk Anti-Refugee Anger in German Region with Few Asylum Seekers,” 08.16.2017). The AfD calls for the deportation of refugees back to their countries of origin regardless of safety risks and an end to the right for asylum (Deutsche Welle, “Germany’s Populist AfD Party Seeks to Reboot Migrant Fears,” 08.21.2017).

The cases of Hungary, the United States and Germany make clear that actual numbers of refugees do not factor into the politics of the far- right. Therefore, it is futile to try to compromise with right-wing xenophobes and lower-refugee intake. It would be a vain attempt to appease an unappeasable sector of the population.

Unfortunately, this is precisely what President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany have done. After the AfD took 12.6 percent of the German vote and put a dent in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party (CDP), she agreed to cap the number of refugees Germany accepts to 200,000 a year to appease the CDP’s more right-leaning Bavarian sister party—the Christian Social Union. Nevertheless, in a further rebuke to Merkel, the Christian Social Union invited Viktor Orbán to Bavaria to explicate on the benefits of his draconian refugee policy (Deutsche Welle, “Hun- gary’s Viktor Orban Pays Controversial Visit to CSU Party Conference,” 01.05.2018).

During his election campaign, Macron distinguished himself from the National Front’s Marine Le Pen by promising to improve France’s asylum policy. The government had drawn criticism for providing insufficient shelter to refugees. This has led to the creation of unsafe and unsanitary makeshift camps by refugees who cannot find room at asylum centers (Al Jazeera, “Police Evict Refugees from Makeshift Paris Camp,” 05.09.2017).

Now, in a bid to placate anti-refugee sentiment, Macron is seeking to tighten restrictions on immigration and outsource part of asylum processing to Libya, a failed state racked by a civil war (The Independent, “Emmanuel Macron’s Africa Refugee Plan Condemned as ‘Racist and Inhumane,’” 08.30.2017). In Macron’s new plan, the maximum time for consideration of an asylum request will go down to six months from a year, which will make it more difficult for asylum seekers to prepare their cases and appeal negative judgments (The Guardian, “Emmanuel Macron Unveils Plans to Crack Down on Immigration,” 02.21.2018). Such bureaucratic changes may be positively received by pro-Macron technocrats, but they lack the bombastic politics of gesture that grabs the attention of the anti-refugee right.

European leaders must cease squandering their political capital on restricting refugees and decisively change the subject to how to equitably distribute the continuing flow of refugees across Europe in a manner that does not place an undue financial strain on any one nation. Any nation that is unwilling to accept its quota of refugees should have to pay for the resettlement of refugees elsewhere and then some. Brussels has many levers at its disposal to bring countries into compliance.

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