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MPI Report Examines Rise of Radical-Right Parties in Europe and Assesses the Role of Immigration as a Factor in those Gains
Press Release
Wednesday, May 9, 2012

MPI Report Examines Rise of Radical-Right Parties in Europe and Assesses the Role of Immigration as a Factor in those Gains

WASHINGTON — In Greece, neo-Nazi anti-immigrant party Golden Dawn made unanticipated gains in last week’s parliamentary elections and France’s nationalist National Front made a strong showing in the first round of the presidential election in April. In the Netherlands and Belgium, far-right parties have launched websites inviting the public to report crimes allegedly committed by unauthorized immigrants. And the Dutch coalition government collapsed last month after the nationalist party of anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders quit budget talks.

As far-right parties across Europe capture headlines and in some cases shape government policy, significant confusion remains about the nature of their public support and how closely it is rooted in xenophobic feelings. While immigration is thought to be a major factor fueling the rise of the European far right, a new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report finds that although there clearly is a relationship, the connection is not as straightforward as is often assumed.

In The Relationship Between Immigration and Nativism in Europe and North America, political scientist Cas Mudde examines the electoral performance of far-right parties in Europe and North America since 1980, noting that only a handful have had moderate electoral success (defined as gaining 15 percent of the vote or better in two or more elections.)

Disentangling the role played by immigration – particularly at a time of economic austerity, high unemployment and rising skepticism in some quarters about the European Union – is a complex proposition.

Mudde, a political science professor at DePauw University, notes that higher levels of immigration in the three regions examined (North America, Western Europe and Central and Eastern Europe) do not automatically lead to more votes for radical-right parties. High rates of immigration are most closely linked to the rise of far-right parties in Western Europe but play much less of a role in Central and Eastern Europe and also in North America, where the most important anti-immigration actors are single-issue groups, not political parties.

Consistently across countries, Mudde finds, the radical right frames the immigration debate on the basis of two main themes: cultural threat (broadened to cultural-religious threat) and security threat (expanded to criminal-terrorist threat).

The report concludes that nativist groups have typically had only a marginal effect on immigration policy in all three regions studied, mainly because they are rarely part of government. However in the three countries where they are part of government (Austria, Italy, and Switzerland), they have been instrumental in introducing more restrictive immigration policies.

“Success by radical-right parties does not appear to change public opinion significantly. Rather, it mainstreams existing anti-immigrant attitudes,” said MPI President Demetrios Papademetriou. “And immigration is not the sole issue of the far right; their platform typically also includes anti-Brussels and anti-globalization components as well as other themes that resonate with unhappy electorates.”

The Relationship Between Immigration and Nativism in Europe and North America is the latest research report produced by MPI’s Transatlantic Council on Migration that examines the current political and public debates over national identity and social cohesion. The Transatlantic Council is a unique deliberative and advisory body that examines vital policy issues and informs migration policymaking processes across the Atlantic community. A recently released Council statement, Rethinking National Identity in the Age of Migration, examines the roots of society’s anxiety over immigration and outlines 10 steps for fostering greater cohesiveness.

Today’s report and the Council’s earlier research on this and other topics are available for download here.


The Migration Policy Institute is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. For more on MPI, visit www.migrationpolicy.org.