IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2023




Influence of Populism on the European Migration Agenda

Prof. Dr. Ayhan Kaya

Istanbul Bilgi University
Jean Monnet Chair
Director of the European Institute
Clingendael, The Hague

Right-wing populist parties and movements constitute a rising force in several EU Member States. At the very heart of the story about the rise of right-wing populism lies a disconnect between the established political parties and their electorates. Right-wing populist parties in particular have gained greater public support in the last decade amidst two crises: the global financial crisis in 2008, and the so-called refugee crisis in 2015. The former created relative socioeconomic deprivation for some Europeans due to ongoing neo-liberal forms of governance, deindustrialization, and internal migration, while the latter has caused a nostalgic deprivation, stemming from the feeling that established notions of identity, nation, culture and tradition have been threatened by demographic changes resulting from the perceived mass migration of refugees from the Middle East and Africa.

The populist spirit has either strengthened many of the former extreme right-wing parties or created new ones. Recent research suggests that these parties and movements are now a durable force in Europe. Right-wing populist parties are no longer only in power in eastern European countries, such as Hungary and Poland, but are also becoming key players in governments in western Europe. All these political changes suggest that these parties and movements may have more potential to become influential political actors in the long term.

The main purpose of this intervention is to assess the relationship between populism and immigration in the European Union. Based on an extensive review of the literature on the current state of right-wing populist movements in the EU as well as on the findings of comparative fieldwork conducted in five European countries (France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands)[1] in the first half of 2017, and the findings of ongoing research into the root causes of youth radicalization in European cities (Aalst, Ghent, Rotterdam, Lyon and Dresden),[2] this article seeks to understand and explain the relevance of the debates on migration, refugees and Islam to the rise of extreme right-wing populism.

The current research demonstrates that populist rhetoric has been mostly accommodated by individuals who live in spatially remote places in Europe (Rodrigues-Pose, 2018). Populist rhetoric is an anti-system discourse used by socioeconomically, politically, spatially and nostalgically deprived individuals with precarious rural or working-class backgrounds (Kalb, 2011), to fight back against the hegemonic strategies of globalism, neoliberalism, EUization, supranational unity and superdiversity. Hence, I assume that sympathizers of right-wing populist movements are mostly resorting to nativist, anti-multiculturalist, and Islamophobist discourses, as they feel challenged by the current dominant streams of globalism that appear in the form of transnational companies, deindustrialization, migration, tourism, borderless economies, mobility and the intensification and condensation of the physical world. Populist sentiments have their own local constraints and sources of legitimation. Since I assume that all populisms are local in essence, this intervention mostly focuses on the analysis of local drivers of right-wing populism emerging in various European cities selected for scientific inquiry in two different and complementary research projects: Aalst, Ghent, Athens, Dresden, Rome, Rotterdam, Toulon and Lyon.

The data presented in this article originate from both desk research and around 260 semi-structured interviews conducted by native and novice researchers who worked under my supervision.

How to Define Populism?

There is no unique definition of the term “populism.” Drawing on the interventions of Edward Shils (1956) in the aftermath of World War II, some scholars take it as an ideology (Mudde, 2004; 2007 & 2016). Some scholars have analysed populism as a strategy, embodied by various political parties to generate and sustain power by means of plebiscites, referenda and public speeches (Weyland, 2001 & Barr, 2011). Other scholars are more content with defining it as a discourse based on the assumption that populism is a part-time phenomenon instrumentalized by populist individuals whenever it is necessary to build up a stronger link with “the people” (Wodak, 2015). Based on a Gramscian interpretation, some scholars, on the other hand, tend to see it as a political logic (Laclau, 2005). In his seminal work, Peter Worsley has already stated that populism is not a phenomenon that is specific to a particular region, nor is it the unique bastion of any ideological side of politics (Worsley, 1969). It is rather an aspect of a variety of political cultures and structures. Eventually, following the Marxist scholar Worsley (1964), some others defined populism as a political style (Taguieff, 1995; Moffitt, 2016).

In this contribution, I prefer to use an anthropological and spatial definition of right-wing populism, which I think is a discourse for disempowered individuals living in remote places to curb their political, social, economic, spatial and nostalgic deprivation. Anthropological approaches mostly understand populism as “the moods and sensibilities of the disenfranchised who face the disjuncture between everyday lives that seem to become extremely anomic and uncontainable and the wider public power projects that are out of their reach and suspected of serving their ongoing disenfranchisement” (Kalb, 2011). On the other hand, Andrés Rodrigues-Pose, a geographer, defines populism as a political force that has taken hold in many of the so-called “spaces that do not matter,” or in other words, the remote places that are creating a systemic risk (Rodrigues-Pose, 2018). Right-wing populist votes have been heavily concentrated in territories that have suffered long-term declines and reflect an increasing urban/rural divide. It is no surprise then to see that right-wing populism has become a recurring phenomenon in remote places such as Dresden, Toulon, Lyon, Antwerp, Aalst, Rotterdam or the Bible Belt cities in the Netherlands, as well as rural and mountainous places that do not matter anymore for the neoliberal political parties in the centre which are heavily engaged in the flows of globalization such as international trade, migration, foreign direct investment and urbanization. The feelings of being left behind in those sometimes geographically and sometimes ideologically remote places that “no longer matter” in the eyes of the political centre may sometimes lead to what one might call “spatial deprivation.” Such feelings of socioeconomic, political, spatial and nostalgic deprivation have been triggered even more after a series of crises, such as the 2015 “refugee crisis,” the Covid-19 pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and the ongoing energy crisis.

A Manichean Understanding: “Us” vs “Others”

Right-wing populist discourse is mostly built upon the antagonism between the constituted “pure people” and the enemies, such as “the Jews,” “the Muslims,” “ethnic minorities,” or “the corrupt elite.” In Europe, this purity of the people is largely defined in ethnoreligious and civilizational terms, and rejects the principle of equality and advocates policies of exclusion mainly toward migrant and ethnocultural minority groups. Despite national variations, these parties and movements can be characterized by their opposition to immigration, concern for the protection of national/European culture and adamant criticism of globalization, the EU, representative democracy, the political establishment and mainstream political parties. Populists simply argue that established political parties corrupt the link between leaders and supporters, create artificial divisions within an homogenous people and put their own interests above those of the people (Mudde, 2019).

The immigration issue is central to the discourse and programmes of all radical populist parties in Europe. According to a survey made in the second half of the 2000s, for instance, voters of such populist parties were significantly more likely to say their country should accept only a few immigrants, or even none: in Austria 93 percent of these voters (versus 64 percent overall); in Denmark 89 percent (44 percent); in France, 82 percent (44 percent); in Belgium 76 percent (41 percent); in Norway 70 percent (63 percent); and in the Netherlands 63 percent (39 percent). In fact, fewer than 2.5 percent of voters of populist extremist parties across six countries wanted to see more immigration (Rydgren, 2008). Regarding immigration in Europe, a more specific form of hostility towards settled Muslim-origin communities can be observed, particularly in the past decade. A large number of voters are anxious about increasing diversity and immigration, which provides the electoral potential for these parties. Anti-immigration sentiments often go together with anti-Muslim racism. For instance, in 1994, 35 percent of the Danish People’s Party supporters endorsed the view that Muslims were threatening national security; by 2007 the figure had risen to 81 percent (as opposed to 21 percent of all voters) (Goodwin, 2011). Anxiety is not solely rooted in economic grievances. The support for these parties and public hostility to immigration are mostly driven by fears of cultural and civilizational threats (Kaya, 2019). The discriminatory and racist rhetoric towards the “others” poses a clear threat to democracy and social cohesion in Europe.

Another reliable survey was conducted by Mathew Goodwin, Thomas Raines and David Cutts for the Chatham House Europe Programme, between 12 December 2016 and 11 January 2017, in the immediate aftermath of the “refugee crisis.” The online survey was conducted with nationally representative samples of the population aged 18 or over in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK. The online survey was made with quota sampling (age, gender and region) and the total number of respondents was 10,195.[3] The survey asked respondents if immigration from Muslim-majority countries should be stopped. An average of 55 percent of those surveyed agreed, 25 percent neither agreed nor disagreed and 20 percent disagreed. According to the survey, 71 percent of people in Poland, 65 percent in Austria, 64 percent in Hungary and Belgium, and 61 percent in France agreed. 58 percent of Greeks, 53 percent of Germans, and 53 percent of Italians also agreed with the question. Support for the ban was stronger among older populations, with only 44 percent of people aged 18-29 being in favour, while 63 percent of those older than 60 said they agreed with a ban. The notion of a ban was more popular with men and those living in remote, rural and mountainous areas. Urban dwellers and female respondents were less likely to support the move. Education was also a dividing factor. 59 percent of those with secondary-level qualifications opposed further Muslim immigration, while less than half of all degree holders supported further migration curbs. Gender, education, age, region and religiosity play an important role in the perception of European citizens with regard to acceptance and tolerance towards Muslim-origin immigrants and refugees (Kaya and Kayaoğlu, 2017).

Immigrants and Refugees

It is often assumed that the supporters of right-wing populist parties are, by default, anti-refugee individuals. Our research findings indicate that those individuals actually distinguish between economic migrants and refugees when they express their thoughts on migration-related issues. One of the striking commonalities of the interviews we conducted during the fieldwork, held between mid-March and late May 2017, was that a great majority of the interlocutors drew an explicit distinction between immigrants and refugees. Though having great sympathy for the refugees who seek refuge from war zones, they expressed their concerns about the inability of their countries to take care of them permanently. The refugees should be given shelter in their own neighbouring countries, and the European Union Member States should help them out with economic support. Immigrants, on the other hand, are a different category as they are embedded in their countries for decades. They were not treated very sympathetically by the interlocutors as they are perceived “to be seeking to take their jobs” and “to use resources without contributing to their society.” There is a common belief that immigrants do not really integrate while taking advantage of public services, such as healthcare and unemployment benefits. As for the immigrants, they are mostly perceived by supporters of right-wing populist parties as an economic burden, and unassimilable because of the civilizational difference resulting from Islam.

For instance, the supporters of the Party for Freedom (PVV) in Rotterdam mostly agree that they should be “helping the ones in need.” The refugees escaping from war, persecution and ethnic cleansing should be given refuge, they believe. However, our interlocutors said that they were unreceptive towards economic migrants, who are believed to exploit the Dutch welfare system. A kind of welfare chauvinism was often expressed by the interlocutors, who mainly complained that immigrants were “exploiting their system.” When asked about refugees, a 56-year-old male construction worker in Rotterdam said the following:

“We should let the refugees come in. The others just come here to exploit our system, we should not even let them in… I guess the economic migrants are just here to try their luck, they shouldn’t be here at all… When you look here in Rotterdam, the Turkish people sit in their Turkish bars, where only Turkish people go, with no integration whatsoever. They stay close to each other and no outsider is allowed to enter. They don’t feel the need to integrate… They think that what we are doing here is crazy, and that image they have will never change. We allow men to marry each other, which is good, but to them, it’s crazy and they will always think so. The young Turks are even worse. While their parents or grandparents were grateful that they could come and live here in the Netherlands, they had some respect for us, the young generation doesn’t have this anymore, and they don’t integrate. It [integration]’s failed, there is no assimilation, but there is segregation or polarization. It’s unbelievable (interview with a 56-year-old male, Rotterdam).”

PVV supporters’ responses reveal that the main concern was not actually the refugees, but the economic migrants and their descendants. The main problem remains the same in a way – Muslim-origin migrants and their descendants, who “do not integrate,” and who construct their own parallel communities. This interlocutor’s narrative was representative in the sense that it clearly made a separation between refugees and economic migrants.

It was often implied by the interlocutors that immigration is an inevitable outcome of the processes of globalization, about which they are very critical. The experience of immigration is clearly differentiated from the experience of refugees, in the sense that the former is a permanent action, and the latter is temporary. The experience of immigration is resented by the interlocutors in terms of its economic and cultural consequences. Economically speaking, immigrants are believed to be exploiting the welfare state regime. Culturally speaking, they are mostly associated with Islam, which is believed to be in opposition to their national values. A 49-year-old male supporter of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Dresden refers to the relevance of immigration to globalization as follows:

“The AfD stands for strengthening our national interests. Therefore, we are ending this craze for globalization. Immigration to Germany and in general to Europe needs to be limited. The AfD argues that more German interests should be at the centre of politics, not the interests of the other nation-states. Exactly, it should be the way it is in the United States nowadays. There they are focusing on their own national interests and that is legitimate” (interview with 49-year-old male worker in Dresden, 10 April 2017).

Europe’s radical-right parties rejoiced at Donald Trump’s win at the American elections held on 8 November 2016 and the UK’s vote to leave the EU, hailing both as a victory for their own anti-immigration, anti-EU and anti-Islam stances and vowing to push for similar results in countries such as France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Hungary, Germany and Sweden. The European public is no different from the rest of the world in the sense that it is also becoming more and more polarized between various Manichean readings of society, as in the antagonist dichotomies of “us/them,” “pure people/corrupt elite,” “privileged/underprivileged,” which are interpellated and hailed by populist discourse. 

The interviews and supporting evidence revealed that populism is not only a male phenomenon, but it has also become popular among women and LGBTI+ groups taking an oppositional stance against the perceived place of women and LGBTI+ individuals in Islam. The growing popularity of populism among women and LGBTI+ individuals is also observable through their increasing roles in the leadership of populist parties such as the FN in France, and the AfD in Germany.


The purpose of this article has been to address the influence of populism on the European public’s migration agenda. It is often presumed that the affiliates of right-wing populist parties are political protesters, single-issue voters, “losers of globalization,” “Fascists,” “neo-Nazis,” or ethnonationalists. It is also often the case that the analyses of right-wing populist parties and their voters are not differentiated. Both levels of analyses often overlap in the literature, and both actors (parties and voters) are framed in identical ways as if they are both anti-democratic, “Fascists,” and “neo-Nazis.” This article was not about the organized right-wing populist parties, but rather about their voters. The picture seems to be more complex than it is often assumed.

Populist party voters often come from remote, rural and mountainous places in Europe, which are believed “not to matter” anymore for the political centre. Those voters are dissatisfied with and distrustful of mainstream elites, and most importantly they are hostile to immigration and rising ethnocultural and religious diversity. They mostly suffer from ongoing processes of deindustrialization, regional disparities, demographic decline, ageing populations and the disconnect between the centre and the periphery. While these citizens feel economically insecure, their hostility stems mainly from their belief that immigrants are threatening their national culture, social security, community and way of life. Migrants and refugees are perceived by the followers of the populist parties as a security challenge threatening social, political, cultural and economic unity, and the homogeneity of their nation. The main concern of these citizens is not only the ongoing immigration and refugee crisis, but they are also profoundly anxious about a minority group that is already settled in Europe: the Muslims. Anti-Muslim sentiments have become an important driver of support for right-wing populist parties and movements. This means that appealing only to concerns about immigration, such as calling for immigration numbers to be reduced or border controls to be tightened, is not enough. The root causes of such fears have been explained in this article with reference to the interviews conducted with the supporters of right-wing populist parties in Germany, France, Italy, Greece and the Netherlands.

Populist parties seem to be investing in worsening economic conditions, public attitudes to immigration, attitudes in general, and prejudices towards Muslims and Islam, and capitalizing on public dissatisfaction with the response of mainstream elites to these issues. The views and ideas they espouse cannot be dismissed as those of a marginal minority. It seems that these parties are here to stay. The latest success of the Brothers of Italy, and Sweden’s Democrats in the 2022 general elections in Italy and Sweden, and now the success of the rural-based BBB party (Farmer Citizen Movement) in the Netherlands in 2023 is a good indication of this prognosis. Public concern over immigration and rising cultural and ethnic diversity, anxiety over the presence and compatibility of Muslims, and dissatisfaction with the performance of mainstream elites on these issues are unlikely to subside.


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[1]The fieldwork was composed of 100 in-depth interviews conducted in five countries within the framework of a Horizon 2020 project entitled CoHERE: Critical Heritages (Grant agreement No. 693289. For more information see the project website:

[2] The fieldwork of this research consisted of 160 in-depth interviews conducted in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands in two rounds during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021. The research is conducted within the framework of an extensive project supported by the European Research Council’s Advanced Grant Research scheme (Grant Agreement No. 785934). For more information see the project website:

[3]For more information on the Chatham House Survey see, last entry 12 March 2023.

(Header photo: Italy Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni pictured during a meeting of the European council, at the European Union headquarters in Brussels, Thursday 29 June 2023. BELGA PHOTO NICOLAS MAETERLINCK.)