The European elections have been and gone and as seemed likely, populist parties gained the most votes in the UK, France, Italy and Hungary. They did not gain as much ground in the rest of Europe as many feared but nonetheless, populism is on the rise and will make its presence felt in the new groupings of the European Parliament.
What is populism? Oxford Dictionaries define it as, “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.” In Europe today it is closely linked to an anti-immigration stance, as are right-wing nationalist parties. Why is it on the rise? In Europe, the immigration crisis of the last five years has played a major role in populism’s appeal. Countries such as Italy, Greece and Hungary have seen a huge influx of immigrants, often fleeing war and great poverty.
But it is not necessarily the current immigration crisis that has triggered anti-immigration attitudes. Inequality has increased globally, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer and globalisation has deprived many of jobs they once felt secure in. Governments have not done enough to alleviate this and there is a compelling argument that people have reacted to their reduced incomes by looking for a scapegoat – and immigrants are easy targets.
Then there is the EU, which has open borders, with people able to migrate within them. The stand-out country that has rebelled against this is of course the UK, the snooty island off the main coast of Europe that has always seen itself as separate from the continent. Many in Britain struggle with the loss of sovereignty that being in the EU entails. Famously, in the country’s 2016 referendum, people voted by 52% to 48% to leave the EU, one of the main aims of the “leavers” being to curb immigration.
Attitudes to immigration are now dividing nations as they have not done for decades. Those who are pro-immigration can feel disgust for those who are against it, seeing them as lacking in compassion for refugees who have lost everything and lacking also in imagination, as immigrants can expand a country’s cultural boundaries in a positive way and bring economic benefit. Those who are anti-immigration argue that a country cannot have its population expand unchecked and that immigrants take jobs and use up resources that its native citizens need.
The fact is of course, that an anti-immigration attitude can slide oh-so-easily into racism or be a cover for it. “I don’t want foreigners coming here taking my job and taking over my neighbourhood” can transform in a millisecond into “I don’t want those dirty, no-good foreigners taking my job and taking over my neighbourhood.”
Let’s look more deeply at the psychological issues behind anti-immigration that veers into racism. In his influential 1978 book ‘Orientalism’, Edward Said, a Palestinian American and professor of Literature at Colombia, described the West’s attitude to the Middle East, North Africa and Asia as patronising and claimed that Europeans saw the peoples of these regions as “other”, in other words, different. The book had a great impact among academics and the terms “to other” and “othering” quickly became embedded in the behavioural sciences and in cultural studies as a way of explaining human behaviour through the ages.
Put succinctly, “othering” someone is to make it “us” versus “them”. In a November 2015 Washington Post article, Robert Gebelhoff describes “othering” as “the process in which any group of people — such as a race or religious group — is characterised as outside of the mainstream. The result is systemic prejudice: the group is judged and treated unfairly based on negative stereotypes.”
After all, “othering” is very understandable. The distinguished anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Human beings do not carry civilisation in their genes.” By this she meant that a child who is not brought up to behave in a civilised way will behave, well, primitively. At our core, we are tribal beings and it is a primal instinct to see those who do not belong to our tribe as “other” and a threat to survival. Beware of those who do not belong to your group – they may harm you! if you don’t watch out for threat, you’re a goner!
Let’s return now to populism and its emphasis on the threat that immigrants pose to one’s country. As we have noted, European countries in the last five years have seen a huge influx of immigrants. This is a great change and people do not respond well to change, which can feel and may indeed, be dangerous. Populist leaders play expertly on people’s fears about immigration. Though not a European, President Trump is an arch-populist in the way he exaggerates the threat that Mexicans illegally entering the USA pose, labelling them as rapists and drug dealers – “othering” them.
What is missing in the populist’s narrative, clearly, is the benefits that immigration brings. It is ironic that in the UK, since 2016, immigration from the EU has dropped significantly while immigration from other countries has risen to fill the gap. Immigration numbers have not dropped – why? Because the government recognises that the country needs the work force. Between 1948 and 1970 Britain positively begged Caribbeans to come to the country to work. (Once they did, they promptly “othered” them.)
Now, in the twenty-first century, with an ageing population and a falling birth rate, Europe needs fresh blood and that can only come from immigration. However, the psychological response to immigration by a significant part of Europe’s population can be an attitude of “othering”, which we need to work actively to overcome. How? Those who are pro-immigration must make more efforts to understand people’s fears regarding immigration and not despise them. The pros and cons of immigration must be more openly discussed and debated in government. It is essential that governments take on board that to combat populism a stand must be taken against inequality and accompanied by action, not just words. With the increase in populist representation in the European Parliament, the European Union, too, must follow the same course.