Over the past two decades, Western Europe’s populist right has steadily consolidated its power. According to Professor Betz, the issue that galvanizes supporters of the populist parties is Third World immigration. Whether the right-wing parties will ever muster the popular support they need to win parliamentary majorities depends on how successfully the governments of Western Europe contend with the deepening immigration crisis.

These same governments deserve at least some of the blame for the crisis. Facing a severe labor shortage, they neglected to prosecute businessmen who illegally recruited workers in the Third World. Germany’s Federal Bureau of Labor and France’s Office of National Immigration actively recruited laborers in Morocco, Algeria, Korea, Turkey, and other Third World countries, assisting the workers in their journey to Europe. Hundreds of thousands of poor non-Westerners poured into France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Belgium, and other European countries in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. Confronted with a sudden rise in the rates of violent crime and welfare dependency, many Western Europeans began to question the soundness of their governments’ policies.

Unnerved by rising popular resentment over the unchecked influx of foreigners, these governments tried to soothe voters and preserve the consensus that kept them in power by sharply curbing the recruitment of foreign labor by businesses based in Western Europe. But it was too late. Thousands of the Asians and Africans who had escaped to Europe had left behind families eager to find ways to rejoin their relatives. Many of them simply traveled to Spain, which had not bothered to reform its immigration laws, and then slipped into the countries where their relatives lived. This, together with a burgeoning nonwhite birthrate and a surge in the number of rapes and murders, led not surprisingly to a right-wing backlash. Many political parties that had formerly been devoted to a traditional conservative agenda—lower taxes, fewer government regulations, less fiscal incompetence—sought now to gain the support of disgruntled voters by staking out an anti-immigration position.

In the 1970’s and early 80’s, only some parties ran regularly in national elections, and the performance of those parties was mixed. But in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the populist right started to enjoy broader support. The Freedom Party of Austria won an astonishing 16.6 percent of the vote in Austria’s 1990 national elections. In Germany, 12 percent of all voters in the 1992 Baden-Wurtemberg elections cast their ballots for the Republicans. In France, the National Front won an astonishing 12.3 percent of all votes in the March 1993 elections to the National Assembly. Nearly one out of ten voters in Italy’s 1992 parliamentary elections voted for the Lega Nord. While only the Lega Nord received less than 2 percent of all votes in the 1989 European elections, the National Front won 11.8 percent, one of its greatest electoral victories to date.

In response to the threat posed by the far right, Germany started rejecting larger numbers of applications for asylum. Italy expelled masses of Albanians who had crossed the Adriatic on small boats. In France, the government selected Charles Pasqua, a man with staunchly anti-immigrant views, for the post of minister of the interior. Austria placed soldiers along its border with Hungary, seeking to reduce the flow of refugees from that country.

The populist parties would probably enjoy even greater influence if journalists and politicians refrained from smearing them as racist and demagogic. Betz concedes that apart from an occasional ill-advised remark—Jean-Marie Le Pen’s comment that the gas chambers were a “footnote to the history of World War Two,” for example—the right wing has generally spurned hard-core bigotry. Despite his hostility to populist leaders like Jörg Haider and Le Pen, Betz admits that they are an altogether different breed from the skinheads who murder Turkish immigrants.

In spite of the left’s defense of immigrants and attacks on populist leaders as racist and xenophobic, the populist movement is gathering force in some countries. In the Austrian parliamentary elections last October, the FPO received 23 percent of all votes, thereby gaining 42 seats in parliament. Even the New York Times conceded that the FPO is now “the main opposition” to the People’s Party-Social Democratic Party coalition that has dominated Austria’s parliament for the last eight years. In the same week a Vlaams Blok candidate won an impressive victory in Antwerp’s municipal elections, while several other party candidates were elected to parliament. Last December, an overwhelming majority of voters in Switzerland approved a plan to grant vast powers to the authorities combatting illegal immigration.

Voters in other countries are scarcely less resolute in their hostility to the foreign population or in their opposition to liberal immigration policies. According to an ISPES poll conducted in 1991, no fewer than 46 percent of French citizens desire a sharp reduction in the number of immigrants in their country. Approximately one-fourth of Italians blame foreigners for the increase in serious crime—particularly drug-dealing. In the E.G., roughly 40 percent of all citizens oppose the extension of new rights to foreigners, and almost 20 percent actually favor stripping them of many of the rights they already possess.

Despite the rising tide of anti-foreigner sentiment, the immigrants have no intention of going home when economic conditions in their countries start to improve. For many, returning home would be little short of suicidal. The Tamil refugees in Germany, for instance, narrowly escaped the mass slaughters conducted by the Sri Lankan government. While the regime continues its war of extermination, the Tamils will quite understandably refuse to return to Sri Lanka. Although many of the immigrants in Western Europe would not face any sort of persecution if they returned to their native lands, the generous handouts provided by their host countries are reason enough to stay put.

But the continued presence and spread of the foreign population is a small problem compared to the massive influx of poor non-Westerners, which is certain to continue until and unless the populist parties either win control of Western European governments or exert enough pressure to force a thorough going reform of immigration laws. Amartya Sen, in an essay published in the New York Review of Books, observes that the populations of the so-called developing countries are rapidly expanding even as per capita incomes in those countries are sharply declining. In countries that are too poor to tackle the problems involved in feeding their current populations, Sen suggests, a skyrocketing birthrate will only make existing strains on resources even less tolerable and increase the temptation to emigrate.

If this is true, then the current populist uprising may only be a prelude to a far wider conflict. Whether Western Europe will escape colonization by the very people it once subjugated may depend on the outcome of that battle.


[Radical Right-Wing Populism in Western Europe, by Hans-Georg Betz (New York: St. Martin’s Press) 226 pp., $18.95]