Sofia panourgias

 How far can we say the politics of migration has been driven by the far right over the past decade?

The politics of migration has been defined in relation not only to government policies, but also socially and culturally, including the very portrayal of migrants and the debate surrounding a ‘migrant crisis’. Within a European context - since to tackle this subject globally would be too extensive - the increasing potency of the far right can be observed even despite Europe’s largely centralist values and politics. In Britain, far right influences have been primarily limited to populist movements which have gained traction with Brexit, although it is important to observe the normalisation of far right values even in central-right policy-making. More significantly, with the resurgence of radical right-wing parties across Europe, the role that the far right has played both socially and in government concerning the politics of migration is much more considerable; this acceptance of the far right in mainstream European politics is arguably present to a larger, more venomous extent than we are prepared to admit.


In order to examine the impact of the far right in the politics of migration, it is important to define and explore what constitutes the far right today.  In the past decade, Britain has seen the rise and fall of radical right-wing parties, most prominently including UKIP which experienced a surge in voter support to 12% in 2013 (Lochocki, 2014). Primarily endorsing a policy of euroscepticism, UKIP emphasises the necessity of a British national identity, rejecting multiculturalism and aiming to greatly limit immigration. Such beliefs, alongside UKIP’s further right counterparts such as the EDL and Britain First, reveal a disdain for cultural ‘others’ in the form of migrants, most evident in the recognition and work against the so-called ‘Islamification’ of Britain by these parties. In 2014, as these more radical groups carried out attacks on mosques, Britain experienced a more sinister message than petty terrorism with UKIP’s huge win in the May European Parliament elections as Nigel Farage, with ‘ex-fascists and other right-wing cranks’ managed to create a ‘devastating political weapon: a significant national party’[1], marking the infiltration of the British far right into mainstream politics. However, although Britain’s far right has indeed experienced a cultural resurgence, particularly amidst the ongoing Brexit debate, parties such as UKIP - which itself has been in decline following the stepping-down of Farage - have had an arguably limited political impact, never achieving widespread success in national elections. As a result, these parties remain as little more than a  ‘shouting minority’[2] in the politics of migration, despite such an issue being fundamental to their party ideology. Contrastingly, across Europe, the far right has experienced much more widespread gain in support, reaching and influencing the political mainstream considerably. Parties such as Austria’s Freedom Party, the Danish People’s Party, and Greece’s Golden Dawn have all achieved significant parliamentary success - unlike Britain’s radicals - not to mention the French National Front which had 14% of the vote in 2012 (Polyakova, 2014). With an overwhelming rejection of multiculturalism and non-Western immigration, these parties share a stance on immigrantion that prioritises assimilation, if not drastic reductions on the entry of migrants. In terms of popular support, the ‘migrant crisis’ that would follow in 2015 saw a media-fuelled emphasis on immigration as a key issue which, combined with these right-wing parties better mobilising their voters (Rooduijn, 2020), the far right experienced an unprecedented rise, which although limited in the UK, has had an increasingly stronger hold over Europe.


In Britain, despite a lack of far right dominance in the government, the politics of migration has nevertheless been defined by policy-making that to an extent legitimises a far right approach to migration. In 2010, David Cameron’s promise to drastically reduce ‘net migration’ in the lead-up to the elections was deemed unattainable as proven by its ‘spectacular failure’[3], with the proposed bringing down of numbers to the ‘tens of thousands’ feeling all too familiar to UKIP’s aim for net migration ‘below 10,000 per annum’[4]. This harsh approach set a precedent for subsequently stricter and more inflexible policies, such as a cap on the immigration of non-EU skilled workers, a minimum income for non-European spouses, a closer review of foreign students, and most notably the ‘hostile environment’ policy which aimed to crack down on illegal migration. However, even despite such regulations, the Conservatives were repeatedly unsuccessful in meeting their target for migration, succeeding only in ‘enflaming public resentment and mistrust over the issue’[5]. As a result, it is clear that these measures did not prevent migration, or even hinder it to the extent that was envisaged; instead, such policies only fostered a sense of disdain towards non-EU migration in public discourse, which although does not reveal a deep-seated pressure from the far right, certainly emulates their values, arguably foreshadowing Brexit’s political climate of decreased tolerance and the rise of collective anti-immigration feeling across the nation. Furthermore, as discussed by Lizenkova, Mérette, and Sanchez-Martinez (2013), if the level of migration that Cameron’s proposed cuts had been reached, this would have actually been detrimental to Britain’s economy, reiterating these policies as sending a social message reminiscent of far right policies rather than providing a coherent economic or political solution for the nation. Ultimately, the use of hard language in policy-making has the effect of causing a popular response to call for more stringent measures (Geddes and Tonge, cit. Shabi, 2019); it can therefore be argued that these policies acted as an attempt to reinforce public opinion against migration, even giving far right connotations.


Whilst policy-making in a British context has remained largely in the hands of moderates - even despite the influence of the far right - it is significant to recognise the powerful role that Brexit has played in the politics of migration, most notably concerning popular response to immigration. Amidst harsher regulations for migrants at the beginning of the decade, the arrival of the Brexit referendum in 2016 saw the Leave campaign being principally characterised by a hostile attitude to immigration, in contrast to the Remain campaign which warned against the negative economic impact of Brexit. Significantly, studies have shown that those with a strong national identity are less enthusiastic towards European integration (Carey 2002, cit. Hobolt 2016) and that Euroscepticism is closely linked to negative attitudes towards minorities and immigrants (McLaren 2002,2006, cit. Hobolt 2016). Such characteristics are also undoubtedly tied to the values of far right parties such as the EDL, the BNP, and Britain First, all of which received more positive online attention following the referendum result (Smith and Colliver, 2016). However, whilst the first Leave campaign did include the UKIP MP Douglas Carswell, it was primarily headed by pro-Brexit Conservative and Labour MPs, which although held beliefs about migration which could be associated with the right, did not initially demonstrate a strong far right influence. This changed as the Leave campaign continued, becoming increasingly unofficially dominated by UKIP with an emphasis on ‘reinstating the sovereign will of the British people’[6], linking a Brexit vote both to the support for the nostalgia of an imperialist Britain, and the strong anti-immigration views of far right parties. Although Brexit was of course motivated principally by its debate on European integration, it is nevertheless important to consider the impact of the far right in influencing and leading this debate with its harsh ideas of migration included. As evident in the 2019 European Parliament elections, the staggering success of the Brexit Party - led Nigel Farage, who has expressed controversial opinions such as an aversion to the arrival of Muslim immigrants who ‘take us over’[7]  - arguably demonstrated not only popular support to ‘take back control’, but a more sinister acceptance of such right-wing figures, and the ominous side to euroscepticism that they represent.


Finally, examples of government response to migration grounded in increasingly far right terms are evident following the ‘migrant crisis’ of 2015-16 across Europe. From 2015, Europe saw the arrival of over 1 million immigrants - largely made up of asylum seekers fleeing from conflict in Syria and Iran - reaching the Meditteranean. Despite an estimated 90% of European migration being legal (Trilling, 2015), the media was widely negative and polarised in its response - particularly in the UK (UNHCR, 2015) - utilising toxic terms such as ‘flood’[8] which only emphasised fears about the impact of immigration, subsequently strengthening the far right. Naturally, Europe’s reaction came in the form of stricter rules on immigration, however the controversial and even discriminatory strengthening of external borders provided a callous - and even pro-right - response to a humanitarian issue, as discussed by Lendaro (2016). Whilst it is understandable that these countries wished to protect their resources and economies, particularly while experiencing after-effects of the 2008 economic crisis which had compromised national security, policies such as the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement - which allowed for those arriving illegally in Greece to be relocated in Turkey - only emphasised the poor treatment of migrants. This answer to reducing immigration succeeded in cutting down the number of illegal immigrants arriving in Greece, but crucially did not provide ‘a structural solution’ to the crisis and ‘raised several questions’[9] regarding the treatment of these migrants in Turkey, which still today is regarded as widely unsafe. As a result, this convenient but morally ambiguous treatment of migrants not only acted as proof for the acceptance of harsher right-wing views concerning migration, but foresaw the far right pushing for even more repressive policies, as discussed by Georgi (2019). Examples of these attitudes include notably the fierce anti-migration stance of Hungarian far right prime minister Viktor Orban, and more recently the insensitive actions of Italy’s former deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, and his proposal to ‘fine those who rescue refugees at sea’[10] amidst refusals to authorise the landing of migrants by boat. However, perhaps most concerning is the apparent infiltration of far right ideas into mainstream European politics. Controversial documents, such as Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte’s open letter urging people to ‘act normal, or go away’[11], or Ursula Von der Leyen’s appointment as vice-president for ‘Protecting our European Way of Life’ certainly attempt to impose necessary regulations on the integration of immigrants, however come across as pursuing a policy of assimilation, portraying these migrants as a difficult ‘other’ that must change to become worthy of their residence in Europe. Such clear demonstrations of anti-immigration feeling - whether directly from the far right or underlyingly influenced by these values - has therefore experienced a resurgence in reaction to the ‘migrant crisis’, even within the political mainstream.


In conclusion, the extent to which the far right have driven the politics of migration in the last decade is certainly a mixed picture. In Britain, whilst the far right has proved to be a potent popular force, radical parties have not demonstrated a great degree of national political success. However, both the ‘migrant crisis’ and the Brexit debate have catalysed euroscepticism and anti-immigration feeling in Britain, providing the far right with arguably more support from the mainstream than previously in recent politics. Across Europe, although it is difficult to talk about the continent as a whole without considering individual nations, there has nevertheless been a clear resurgence of far right parties, which in multiple cases have had a fair degree of parliamentary success. Ultimately, with such a nuanced debate, whilst the far right has certainly proven to be influential - both in government and amongst the public - it is difficult to ascertain how far this influence has truly driven the politics of migration. However, an aspect of influence that Britain, European countries, and the EU itself share is the emerging normalisation and acceptance in moderate politics of far right values, characterised by a problematic approach to migration, as evident in Britain’s strict policy-making limiting immigration, the harsh strengthening of EU borders, and a policy of assimilation as pursued by the European Commission and EU countries; it is the growth of such attitudes that arguably demonstrates the most sinister form of far right impact on the politics of migration.





[1] Seymour, R. (2019) ‘Nigel Farage is the Most Dangerous Man in Britain’, New York Times, May 28. Available at:

[2] Mudde, C. (2020) ‘The 2010’s grim legacy: the decade of the far right’, Guardian, Jan 6. Available at:

[3] Grice, A. (2015) ‘David Cameron immigration pledge 'failed spectacularly' as figures show net migration almost three times as high as Tories promised’, Independent, Feb 26. Available at:

[4] UKIP party (2019) ‘Manifesto for Brexit and Beyond’. Available at:

[5] Shabi, R. (2019) ‘How immigration became Britain’s most toxic political issue’, The Guardian, 15 Nov

[6] Virdee, S. and McGeever, B. (2018) ‘Racism, Crisis, Brexit’ Racial and Ethnic Studies 41 (10)

[7] Bromwich, K. (2014) ‘Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage: their wit and wisdom’, Observer, Aug 31. Available at:

[8] Samuel, H. and Squires, N, (2017) ‘'Millions of Africans' will flood Europe unless it acts now, warns European chief, as Paris evacuates huge migrant camp’, Telegraph, Jul 7. Available at:

[9] Tagliapietra, A. (2019) ‘The European Migration Crisis: A Pendulum between the Internal and External Dimensions’ p.8

[10] Perrone, A. (2019) ‘Far-right Italian leader Salvini launches bill to fine rescuers €5,500 for each refugee they save’, Independent, May 14. Available at:


[11] Holligan, A. (2017) ‘Dutch PM Rutte: 'If you don't like it here, then leave'’, BBC News, Jan 23. Available at:



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