Fear of terrorism, Muslims, and refugees is driving the parties of the right and left further apart than ever before.
The recent lone-wolf terrorist attacks on the beachfront in Nice and on a train in Bavaria are likely to fuel existing anti-refugee, anti-Muslim fears in a Europe made uneasy by large-scale attacks in the last year in Paris and Brussels. As of writing, it is too early to say whether the ongoing violence in Munich will add to this grim toll.
Nevertheless, these sentiments are particularly prevalent among people on the right of the ideological spectrum in many European nations, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey of 10 countries in the European Union. Given Europe’s tragic history with right-wing political movements and the recent rise of avowedly anti-immigrant parties in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, this ideological divide does not bode well for the future of social harmony in a Europe that has a rapidly growing immigrant population.
Data from 29 European countries show that the median share of immigrants — refugees, recent migrants, as well as long-time foreign-born residents — in the population is 12 percent, according to a recent Pew study. The proportion of immigrants in individual countries ranges from as high as 18.3 percent in Sweden to as low as 1.6 percent in Poland. In some countries this share is rising, mainly due to the large number of asylum seekers entering Europe in the past year. In Sweden and Hungary, for example, the portion of the population that is foreign-born grew by 1.5 percent and 1.3 percent respectively between 2015 and 2016.
Of course, public debate over the impact of immigration is as much about perception as actual numbers. In the United States, for example, public discourse is currently at a fever pitch over immigration. And yet, in real terms, the immigrant share of the American population, which currently stands at roughly 14 percent, has only grown by about 1 percent over the last decade.
Across Europe, a median of 49 percent believe that the large number of refugees fleeing countries such as Iraq and Syria pose a major threat to their country. An even larger median of 59 percent say that refugees will increase the likelihood of terrorism in their country. And a median of 43 percent have an unfavorable view of Muslims in their society.
These broadly shared negative sentiments mask a potentially more threatening political divide in Europe: Those on the right are far more likely than those on the left to hold such views.
The ideological divide on the general threat posed by refugees is 32 percentage points in France: 61 percent of those on the right see refugees as a major threat, while just 29 percent of people on the left share that fear. The partisan divide is 30 points in the U.K., 29 points in the Netherlands and 28 points in Germany and Italy.
Majorities on the right in all 10 EU nations surveyed believe that refugees heighten the likelihood of terrorism in their country. And the ideological divide between the sentiments of those on the right who are more worried about terrorism compared to the views of those on the left is profound: 35 points in the U.K., 34 points in France, 32 points in Italy and Spain, 29 points in Sweden, and 25 points in Germany.
This fear is inextricably linked to attitudes toward Muslims, who make up a large share of the current refugee surge in Europe. An unfavorable view of Muslims is held by majorities of people on the right in Greece, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Spain. And at least four-in-10 people on the right in Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden share that negative opinion. (By comparison, in a 2011 Pew Research Center survey in the United States, only 26 percent of Americans voiced an unfavorable view of Muslims.) Again, there is a significant partisan divide in anti-Muslim sentiment: a 31-percentage point differential between those on the right and left in Greece, a 30-point difference in Germany, and a 29-point gap in Italy.
This also reflects underlying antipathy in many European nations toward diversity — and a lingering belief that Muslims want to remain distinct and not become part of the broader national society.
A majority of Greeks and at least 40 percent of Italians, Hungarians, and Poles think that having an increasing number of people of many different races, ethnic groups, and nationalities makes their country a worse place to live. Again, those on the right are often more opposed to diversity than those on the left; the greatest divide is 36 points in Germany. (By comparison, only 7 percent of Americans say diversity is bad for the United States.)
Upward of 50 percent of the public in nine of the 10 EU countries polled believe that Muslims want to remain distinct and not adopt local customs and ways of life. People on the right are more likely to believe this than people on the left by significant margins in Germany and the U.K. (both a 33 point difference), in France (28 points), and the Netherlands and Sweden (23 points each).
The intertwining fear of refugees, Muslims, and terrorism is now very real among many Europeans. This in itself poses a major challenge for leaders of countries that are rapidly becoming more diverse. Compounding this is the rise of right-wing populism and the spread of nativist rhetoric. And each terrorist incident only strengthens this argument and adds to the base of support. If the far-right continues to surge in the months ahead in countries like France and Germany, it could mean a return to nationalist politics that have more than once left Europe with a sorry legacy.
By Bruce Stokes