Central Europe’s Faceless Strangers: The rise of xenophobia in the region

2016-06-30

The brief takes a closer look at xenophobic sentiment in Central Europe, discussing the reasons behind historically high levels, as well as its increase with the European refugee crisis. Unlike in Western Europe, anti-immigrant rhetoric comes from the very center of the political space in Central Europe, exerting a “supply-side effect” and legitimizing xenophobia. While some mainstream populist politicians have been successful in exploiting these feelings, there is a danger that in the long-run it will be extremist parties that benefit from the fanning of resentment.

  • Xenophobia has increased all over Europe due to the refugee and migrant crisis. Although Central European countries lack significant foreign-born populations and have mainly been unaffected by the crisis, xenophobic sentiment is widespread in the region. This shows that anti-immigrant attitudes are unrelated to the actual presence of immigrants—rather, attitudes often present themselves as symbolic fears of the unknown, fostered by political forces for domestic purposes.
  • While far-right and right-wing populist forces have gained ground all over the EU, there is a key difference between the Visegrad countries and Western Europe. In Western Europe, far-right and anti-establishment groups have driven the increase in these sentiments, but in the Visegrad countries, anti-immigrant rhetoric comes from the very center of the political space. In these countries, long-established right- or left-wing forces exert a “supply side” effect: they make political capital out of anti-immigrant sentiment and thus legitimize xenophobia.
  • Similarly, while counterterrorism legislation has been tightened all over Europe, in Western Europe the changes reflect a high level of actual threat and are embedded in a stable democratic system. In the Visegrad region, the proposed amendments mainly serve symbolic goals and come in systems with weaker levels of institutional development. This securitization of the debate enables politicians to portray themselves as leaders who can deliver; they can stay in power longer by playing on the public’s fear.
  • The successful exploitation of xenophobic sentiment and weaker checks and balances, as well as fraying rule of law, make for a dangerous cocktail in Central Europe. It is unclear how long politicians can keep up securitization in the absence of real immigrants, although fresh counterterror laws show an intent to keep the topic alive. Recent developments demonstrate that it can be hazardous for mainstream populist parties to concentrate their efforts on exploiting fears of immigration at the expense of other policy areas. Instead of mainstream parties, it might be far-right and anti-establishment forces that benefit from the fanning of resentment.

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