Monday, December 19, 2011

Left, Right, Left: The Unsteady Political Allegiances of Migrants in Western Europe

In his talk “Breaking up the Family? Migrants, Homophobia and the Political Left in Europe” at the University of Illinois on October 25, Patrick Ireland discussed the shifting political allegiances of migrant populations in several European countries. In Western Europe, migrants of non-European origin have traditionally supported left-of-center political parties. However, recent trends have seen center-right parties making considerable gains in migrant support. To attract migrants, the center-right has made the case for itself as a defender of traditional cultural values, contrasting itself with the socially progressive center-left. The uneasiness of migrants with modern European secular values (particularly the acceptance of homosexuality and protection of gay rights) has prompted them to increasingly throw their support behind the political right.

Despite these trends, most migrants still see leftist parties as the defenders of their interests. As migrants tend to belong to the lower socio-economic strata of society, their economic interests are naturally better served by the left. Further, to borrow terminology from noted political scientist Ronald Inglehart, these migrants belong to societies with materialist (as opposed to post-materialist) values, and are thus likely to place greater importance on economic (rather than social) issues. Finally, the European center-left has traditionally been more supportive of immigration than the center-right, and some latent xenophobic sentiments still linger in many parties of the right. Although migrants no longer monolithically support the left, it is unlikely that their allegiances will migrate en masse to the right.

If migrant populations are not truly at home either on the right or on the left, one question naturally follows: why don’t more West European migrant groups organize politically by forming their own parties to represent their interests? Such parties could combine leftist economic policies, social conservatism and migrant-friendliness into a single platform that would strongly appeal to migrant voters. Ethnic minority parties have already enjoyed considerable success in Eastern Europe. Parties representing the Hungarian minorities of Romania and Slovakia and the Turkish minority of Bulgaria have not only enjoyed steady electoral success, but have also participated in several coalition governments. Perhaps this would be the best avenue for migrants in Western Europe to engage their political system and to defend their interests.

Dan Koev is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science and an EU Center FLAS fellow. His research interests have a regional focus in Europe and include ethnic politics, Euroskepticism and human rights. He is currently working on his dissertation, which deals with ethnic political mobilization in Europe.


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