European conservatism is on the rise. A socially conservative coalition led by Giorgia Meloni easily won Italy’s general elections, a right-wing bloc edged Swedish elections and nationalist movements are gaining significant ground in Central and Eastern European countries such as Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
The right’s booming popularity tends to be attributed to the effects of the war in Ukraine, and it’s true that parties putting national interests first exert a strong appeal in an economic crisis. Yet another factor in the swing to the right is going largely unnoticed: Europe’s problems with illegal immigration have returned with a vengeance following the removal of pandemic-era travel restrictions, and attendant problems with violence and organized crime are causing major concerns.
The increase in illegal immigration is so severe that some travel restrictions are being reintroduced. The Czech government has taken the extraordinary step of introducing border controls with neighboring Slovakia to try to stem a flow of illegal immigration from the East. The government said the number of illegal immigrants entering the country has increased by 1,200% year-on-year, and is now “significantly higher” than during Europe’s catastrophic migration crisis in 2015. Austria has followed the Czech government’s lead by also introducing border checks with Slovakia.
Austria’s interior minister said the main goal of the checks is “to fight organized smuggling.” The Czech police have arrested a record number of smugglers this year, and in the first eight hours after the new Czech-Slovak border controls were introduced, 120 migrants and seven smugglers were detained. Police had to fire warning shots to stop a van carrying dozens of migrants, and the Czech interior minister suggested if the situation doesn’t improve, the army may have to get involved.
Similar problems are being faced by Hungary, a key southern entry point to the EU’s Schengen Zone from Serbia. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has attracted stern criticism — and legal action from the EU — for his heavy-handed approach to migrants, many of whom are unceremoniously deported to Serbia. But the Hungarian authorities justify their actions by pointing to startling figures: They claim to have detained almost 190,000 illegal border crossers so far this year, and 1,400 people smugglers.
The share of nationalities among those detained has changed since the pandemic. Whereas the majority of migrants were previously of Syrian or Iraqi origin, there is now a far broader spread, including large numbers from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Morocco and Tunisia. The government argues that it is under no obligation to accept migrants from these countries, as by reaching Serbia they had already escaped any troubles they faced in their homeland.
On Monday, leaders from Hungary, Serbia and Austria met in Budapest to discuss the dire situation at the EU’s southeastern border. After the talks, Orbán said steps to reduce migration flows should include a strengthening of Serbia’s southern border with North Macedonia and the creation of “hotspots” for asylum applicants located outside the EU.
Orbán’s government emphasizes the negative impact of illegal immigration on local communities. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó claimed “illegal migrants are behaving more aggressively, they are carrying weapons, they are shooting at us and at each other.” In light of violent skirmishes between huge groups of migrants and Polish police last autumn, and a shoot-out between rival migrant smuggling gangs in a Serbian border town this summer — which left one person dead, a 16-year-old girl critically injured and several police officers hurt — it’s hard to simply dismiss such concerns.
But progressive forces in Europe tend to do exactly that. When Meloni stoked controversy in the run-up to Italy’s elections by sharing a video of an African migrant raping a Ukrainian woman in an Italian city, saying, “I will do everything I can to restore security to our cities,” opponents accused her of “clickbait voyeurism” and a “horrendous” campaign.
Yet Meloni’s willingness to highlight and discuss a topic that causes significant popular unease was key to her success. It was the same story in Sweden; the controversial Sweden Democrats became the country’s largest right-wing party by running on a promise to combat crime by significantly tightening immigration laws, responding to social problems others were unwilling to tackle head-on.
Europe’s renewed migration crisis isn’t just a law-and-order problem. It also puts pressure on local infrastructure — schools and hospitals, for example — and threatens jobs. Plus, it feeds arguments about the preservation of national identities that are becoming a defining feature of European politics.
A speaker at a recent anti-EU demonstration in Prague railed against the “Islamization” of Europe, to huge cheers. His rhetoric echoed that of Orbán, who draws on Hungary’s history as a frontier of Christian civilization to portray Islamic migration as an existential threat, both to Hungary and Europe as a whole. Orbán’s pronouncements on cultural mixing often seem designed to provoke furious responses from progressives, which only strengthen the loyalty of his own supporters. And in their eagerness to downplay the effects of illegal immigration, progressives are bolstering Europe’s other socially conservative forces, too.
By refusing to acknowledge crime linked to illegal immigration and questions of national identity posed by large migration flows, they reinforce an aura of honesty growing around conservatives.
Hemmed in by war in Ukraine and a looming economic catastrophe, Europe is entering a period of profound turmoil. In response, voters are turning to Christian conservative movements that promise to protect their traditional identity and values.
Strengthening national borders is seen as necessary for achieving these goals, because while illegal immigration may not be the biggest problem facing Europe right now, it is once again becoming impossible to ignore.
William Nattrass is a British freelance journalist and commentator based in Prague.