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Rampaging populism

It is worrying to observe how small an electoral price you have to pay for anti-immigrant talk

The victory of the initiative “against massive immigration” in Sunday’s referendum in Switzerland constitutes a sharp warning in an electoral year that is shaping up to be crucial for the European Union. The organization that has been pushing for this referendum, the Democratic Union of the Center (UDC), also known as the Swiss People’s Party, is the most successful right-wing nationalist party in Western Europe, and has been the top-ranking party in Switzerland since 1999. If the opinion polls are trustworthy and there is no change in trends, then in the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, political groups that share the UDC’s aversion to European integration, multiculturalism and immigration, stand to obtain impressive electoral results in months to come.

Immigration from outside Europe, and in particular Muslims, were the preferred targets of abuse until not long ago; now that the economic crisis has turned half the member states of the EU into lands of emigration, parties of this nature are calling for quotas to be set on the free circulation of workers, such as Switzerland will now have, and restrictions on welfare benefits.

Those who are stigmatized, the immigrants, tend to stay away on election day

The wave of popular hysteria rose with the end to restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians, but it extends to all immigration from the east and south of Europe. A month later, there is not much trace of the feared Balkan invasion. Consider the statistics. Romania has seven-percent unemployment and the highest growth rate in the EU; some places in Europe have a labor shortage (Switzerland’s unemployment rate stands at 3.5 percent, Austria 4.9, Germany 5.1); the number of EU citizens in the United Kingdom (2.3 million) is practically equal to the number of Britons across the rest of the EU (2.2 million); other receptor countries, such as Germany, France and Italy, also produce emigration (for example, to Switzerland).

It is worrying to observe how small an electoral price you have to pay for anti-immigrant talk. Many fellow countrymen of the national-populists are ready to give them the benefit of the doubt, just to punish the traditional mainstream parties. And, unlike in the United States, those who are stigmatized hardly react at all. The second (and later) generations of immigrants, with a right to vote, represent a substantial part of the electorate in many countries (in the United Kingdom the ethnic vote, linked mainly to recent immigration, amounts to 11 percent of the census) but they are mainly abstentionists who stay home on election day. EU citizens can register and vote in municipal and European elections, but so far they have never made their numerical weight felt; this includes the most settled groups — such as Poles, Italians and Romanians — and those from countries hard hit by the crisis and misgovernment, such as Hungary, Greece and Spain. Most of them are still more focused on criticizing the system they left behind than on defending their rights in the countries that have received them. For these reasons, bad-mouthing the immigrants is largely free of electoral cost.

The European elections are coming up, and the campaigns are going to be marked by harsh attacks. It is very likely that millions of people who are most directly concerned will throw away their right to reply through their vote. This would be a pity because, as happened in Switzerland on Sunday, those who believe in closing the doors to Europe will be sure to show up at the polls.

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