Almost half of the adults in 12 European countries now hold anti-immigrant, nationalist views, according to major new research that reveals the spread of fringe political views into the mainstream.
BuzzFeed News has been given exclusive access to new data from YouGov, which polled more than 12,000 people across the continent to measure the extent of what it termed “authoritarian populist” opinions – a combination of anti-immigration sentiments, strong foreign policy views, and opposition to human rights laws, EU institutions, and European integration policies.
The YouGov findings are the first to capture the political attitudes that are both fuelling, and being fuelled by, upheaval across Europe and beyond – from the continent’s refugee crisis and the Brexit vote in Britain, to the burkini ban in France, to the rise of Donald Trump and the radical “alternative right” in the US.
In Britain, the poll found authoritarian populist attitudes were shared by 48% of adults, despite less than 20% of the population identifying itself as right-wing. Three months on from the EU referendum, prime minister Theresa May has responded this week by appealing directly to disaffected working-class voters with a promise to crackdown on immigration and reassert British sovereignty.
In France, a clear majority of people surveyed – 63% – held authoritarian populist views, while in Italy the figure was 47%. In Germany, it was 18%, which appears low by comparison but, given the country’s history and the extreme nature of its far-right groups, is regarded by analysts as surprisingly high.
The highest levels of authoritarian populist views were recorded in Romania and Poland, where they were held by 82% and 78% of adults respectively. In Lithuania, by contrast, the poll did not did not detect any evidence of the authoritarian populist phenomenon at all.
“What is happening across Europe is not some sudden revelation,” Farage said, “but a slow build-up of disillusion amongst the peoples of Europe let down by an anti-democratic political class who are attempting to build a United States of Europe without the consent of the citizens.
“This is not a matter of the old labels of left or right. In the past both left and right were rooted in place, but no longer. The governing political class across this continent doesn’t like the Europe in which it lives, holds its people in contempt, and would prefer to sit in executive lounges than engage with those whose work pays their wages. That is why you are seeing increasing disillusion with a failed EU project that is now doomed. Brexit was just the beginning.”
In Germany, for example, the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party now holds seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 states. Nationally, with a general election due next year, the party is polling above 15%. Three years ago, the AfD failed to win enough votes to enter parliament.
The YouGov data shows that most people in the country are centrists, internationalists, liberals and pro-EU. Authoritarian populism is still restricted to more extremist positions.
But certain subjects that have been off-limits since the end of the second world war – such as debates about German nationalism and identity and people’s ethnicity – are now making a comeback.
Hans Blomeier of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation told BuzzFeed News that “what is dangerous is not always the words themselves, but their history and what is behind them”.
“A nation that is outward-looking is suddenly inward-looking again – and the AfD is driving this,” he said.
Like Germany, Denmark has also seen a shift in the tone of political debates. According to the YouGov data, a quarter of Danes who identify themselves as centrists nevertheless hold authoritarian populist beliefs – a similar proportion to those on the right-wing of the country’s political spectrum.
“There is a move towards more authoritarianism, discrimination based on ethnicity,” said Karen Melchior, a diplomat and candidate with the liberal Radikale party. “It is not a left-versus-right issue. It is like a cold war with competing visions of Europe.”
In recent policy discussions about introducing a tougher citizenship test and the appropriateness of segregating classrooms on the basis of ethnicity, even parts of the Social Democratic party held “discriminatory” views, Melchior claims.
Voters in France will soon have the chance to vote on the ideas that drive authoritarian populism. Polls suggest Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant Front National, will easily make it through to the final round of two candidates in the country’s presidential elections in 2017.
In nearby Hungary, the “cultural counter-revolution” that central European leaders pledged in the wake of Brexit is even more stark.
The refugee crisis is one of the most powerful drivers of authoritarian, anti-immigrant views. A senior government official close to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban told BuzzFeed News “it is not just about the numbers. There is an issue with provenance, cultural, demographic and religious issues. Some Muslims do not respect the European way of life.
The official predicts that there will be eventually be walls all around the EU. “Countries colonise others by war, or by flooding them with their people,” they added.
To the right of the ruling Fidesz party is Jobbik. In the space of a decade, the party, grown out of a right-wing youth association, has gone from polling less than 2% to 20%.
The YouGov data shows that authoritarian populist groups tend to be more likely to be male, older, with fewer educational qualifications, but the degree for which that holds varies from group to group and from country to country. This makes defining and responding to the demographic mix of populist parties difficult.
“In the past, these voters thought that all the parties were the same, now they see the AfD and Trump as different – protesting makes sense,” said Hans Blomeier, of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. “They see them as a way to give the establishment a slap in the face. They deliver their anger in an election, it hurts everybody.”
He warned that governments and parties that respond to populism with more populism are “playing with fire”.