COVID-19 has rendered Europe’s right-wing parties all but obsolete, at least in the near-term. Nationalist parties like Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, “Alternative for Germany”) and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, “Party for Freedom”) had built their electoral clout upon anti-migration sentiment. But the centrists have robed themselves in new patriotic colors, robbing the nationalists in Western Europe of any substantial role to play.
As the virus swept across the European Union, national governments quickly rediscovered the need to put their own citizens first. “European Solidarity”—the Eurocrats’ beloved mantra—was an early casualty of the pandemic. Brussels has been completely sidelined during the crisis.
National governments are calling the shots. Makeshift border controls were thrown up overnight, and they are unlikely to come down again any time soon. Thus, the EU’s Schengen Area of passport-free travel has effectively been abolished. Any discussion of taking in more migrants from North Africa and the Middle East is unthinkable. The wealthier northern countries are refusing to help the poorer southern countries like Italy and Spain, which have been hardest hit by the virus.
Europe’s nationalist right has long declared that the EU project is loved only by a small technocratic elite. Ordinary citizens feel no connection to it. The COVID-19 crisis appears to have proven them right.
But where does this apparent success leave the EU’s right-wing parties? Their anti-migration, pro-national-sovereignty platforms have essentially been adopted by the ruling parties. The coronavirus accomplished in a month what leaders like Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet in the Netherlands, and Alice Weidel in Germany could not manage in 10 years.
For the foreseeable future, Europe’s immigration crisis has been averted. Though it feels like a lifetime ago, it was just in February that Europe was facing a major migration crisis like the one that took place in 2015. Early that month, the Greek government sent riot police to the island of Lesbos. Afghan refugees were protesting over conditions where 20,000 migrants were crowded into a facility intended for no more than 4,000. Meanwhile, Greek residents of Lesbos took to the streets to express their frustration at bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis. The story dominated European headlines.
The open-borders activists of Europe seized the opportunity to roll out their playbook. Mike Schubert, lord mayor of the German city of Potsdam, visited Lesbos the last week of February and denounced the situation as a “disgrace for Europe.” He demanded that around 500 unaccompanied migrant children under the age of 14 be brought to Germany, where the 140 “Safe Haven Cities” in Germany would receive them. The evacuation of the unaccompanied children would inevitably have been followed by similar demands for all the children and their parents.
The crisis deepened further when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that he was opening the border with Greece. Erdoğan desperately needed the EU’s diplomatic help to deal with the Russian military offensive in Syria. He also intended to set the terms for negotiations to renew the EU’s multi-billion-euro aid package from 2016 to keep millions of migrants in Turkey. Erdoğan played what he assumed was his trump card: the threat of sending the migrants to Europe. The Turkish government began moving thousands of refugees to the border while the Greek government responded by deploying its army.
Talks between Erdoğan and EU leaders deadlocked in early March. Given the EU’s response in the past, an eventual deal with Erdoğan, including lots of money flowing into Turkey and thousands of migrants flowing out, seemed inevitable.
Then everything changed. On March 16, Germany—the promised land for most migrants—sealed its borders to contain the coronavirus outbreak. Other EU countries followed suit. The Turkish government then announced that it was evacuating the thousands of migrants from the border in response to the virus. It was a humiliating climb down for Erdoğan.
The Turkish leader has vowed to reopen the border in the future. But Europe is likely to remain closed to migrants for a long time. In 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany’s borders with the declaration, “Wir schaffen das” (we can manage this), arguing that Germany and other EU countries had the financial resources to handle the inflow. Today, those same governments are looking at unprecedented expenditures to weather COVID-19, as well as severe, long-lasting recessions. In contrast to 2015, these governments are acutely aware of their limits, both financial and medical.
Europeans have been shocked to learn about the limitations of their national health care systems. For example, virtually all of the 17 million citizens of the Netherlands now know that their country has a total of 2,400 intensive care beds with respirators—with the government pledging to fund 600 more. At this point, the Netherlands appears to have passed the peak of the virus, but the threat of insufficient respirators is very real.
If the Dutch health care system cannot take care of all the Dutch, then why should the country admit any refugees? Governments face overwhelming pressure to take care of their own citizens first. Again, that will keep the borders closed for a long time.
Germany and the Netherlands both have general elections coming up in 2021. Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte are both clever, seasoned politicians. They are likely to outflank their right wing by seizing the opportunity to keep borders effectively closed with the justification that coronavirus requires it. And the best part is that they can still pay lip service to their humanitarian concerns.
A common complaint among northern European taxpayers is that the EU transfers their money to southern countries whose leaders they view as profligate. Right-wing parties speak to that frustration, but coronavirus has largely taken it off the table. Southern Europeans are furious at the north for not offering more financial support.
France, Italy, and Spain would like to finance their recoveries from the pandemic via Eurobonds, which have been nicknamed Coronabonds. National governments could issue these bonds and all 19 countries that use the euro as their currency would act as guarantors. The southern countries can get better lending terms on Eurobonds than their own national bonds because, ultimately, taxpayers in more fiscally sound countries like Germany and the Netherlands are on the hook.
Finland, Austria, the Netherlands, and Germany are refusing to countenance this idea. Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra has led the charge, with the full backing of Rutte. Not even Wilders could have taken a tougher line.
Rutte and Merkel know they cannot cave on this question, otherwise the hard right will crush them in the next elections. Dutch and German voters were very unhappy when they had to bail out the southern countries during the European sovereign debt crisis a decade ago. Guaranteeing new debts by those same countries is beyond the pale.
Hoekstra caused great offense when he suggested the EU should “investigate countries which say they have no budgetary margin to deal with the effects of the crisis.”
As a result, “Hoekstra” has become a curse word in Spain and Italy. “The Dutch way of being very direct plays well with the home voters, but it does not play well in an international environment,” said Teresa Küchler, a correspondent for Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.
German leaders have been more diplomatic in their public statements, but they have not escaped southern wrath. A German journalist for Deutsche Welle who lives in Rome says that Italians he meets in the street point out to him that half of Germany’s foreign debt was forgiven in 1953. They are angry because they feel they are being treated unfairly.
Eurobonds had been proposed during the sovereign debt crisis, but were then nixed by the northern countries. Instead of Eurobonds, they preferred massive bailouts via the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). But these came with strict austerity conditions which the recipients found humiliating and intrusive.
For the pandemic, EU finance ministers approved a 500 billion euro rescue package for the hardest-hit countries. But governments may be reluctant to take the money because it includes loans from the much-loathed ESM, though conditions have been loosened this time.
Citizens of the southern countries, particularly Italy, are outraged about the perceived lack of aid. A poll taken in early April shows 49 percent of Italians saying they would vote to leave the EU. Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing Lega Nord, has burned euro notes on television. He wants his country to return to the lira so they will be able to devalue their currency again.
Salvini has had a field day in the current crisis, and political commentators expect his party to gain seats in the next election. However, most of Europe’s rightist parties are struggling. They have been sidelined, with all the focus on national governments and their handling of the crisis.
Right-wing leaders have little to contribute. Le Pen blamed coronavirus on “the religion of a border-free Europe.” Like Le Pen, Weidel says the virus is the result of “the dogma of open borders.” She proposes hiring teenagers to replace the seasonal workers who are unable to come work in Germany’s agricultural sector. Dutch borders are effectively closed, but Baudet and Wilders want even tighter restrictions.
Germany and the Netherlands will hold general elections in 2021; France in 2022. At this juncture, the hard right is on track to lose. In a time of crisis, voters prefer the established parties they know and trust. They do not want to gamble on inexperienced leaders.
Before COVID-19, Baudet liked to quip that Rutte was angling for a top job with the EU. Today, no one can accuse Rutte of cozying up to Brussels. Rutte is likely not only to be reelected, but also to steal many of Wilders’ and Baudet’s voters.
Last year, Merkel announced her intention to retire, but speculation has it that she will reverse course. Her handling of the crisis has renewed her popularity. It is also not clear who could succeed her. No other German politician comes close to matching her stature.
French President Emmanuel Macron was struggling in the polls, but the virus has given him a temporary respite. He may yet face defeat in 2022. However, Le Pen is unlikely to be his replacement. “In France, I don’t think they would trust Marine Le Pen to run the country now,” said Küchler. “They will say, ‘She’s very good to have when we want to push forward an anti-migration agenda, but we don’t trust her to know how to deal with a crisis situation like a virus.’” Küchler thinks the Socialist Party, which fell apart under the unpopularity of previous President François Hollande, may stage a comeback.
In general, left-wing economic policies are likely to rebound across Europe. “People are now saying, ‘The market could not handle this crisis. It’s the market’s fault that we didn’t have state-run crisis warehouses where we kept masks and everything we needed,’” Küchler said.
A wave of nationalizations is already sweeping Europe and will likely continue. These may be a bad idea from an economic standpoint, but they also represent a significant blow to the EU. One of the EU’s primary tasks is to ensure fair competition between companies within the single market. EU regulators announced they will take a “flexible” approach to the rules on nationalization in light of the pandemic. But that sounds like an attempt to save face. If voters demand nationalization, governments will not let the EU get in the way.
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage wrote in The Telegraph in March that the decisions taken by national leaders “show clearly that in a crisis the concept of solidarity—championed by the European Union and the globalists—counts for nothing. We are all nationalists now.”
EU encroachment on national sovereignty has been halted and even rolled back. Also, any question of receiving new migrants from North Africa and the Middle East is off the table, though the issue may return post-pandemic. If that happens, the right wing will jump back into action. For now, however, they must rest on their laurels.
above: Greek police and soldiers trying to deter migrants as they attempt to enter Greece from Turkey in Kastanies, Greece on March 2, 2020 (Vasilis Ververidis/Alamy Stock Photo)