Perspectives | Environment

When xenophobia and environmentalism converge

By - 13.06.2024

Will a rising far-right lead to more eco-fascism?

Hard-right and far-right parties have secured more seats in the 2024 European Parliament (EP) elections than ever before. These parties, who make up the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and Identity and Democracy (ID) groups, will hold roughly 25% of the seats, up from under 20% in the previous parliament. This power shift could have far-reaching future consequences in the European Union (EU) and in the Western Balkans.

Over the past years, the far right has thrived electorally across the EU, significantly altering Europe’s political landscape. Hard-right and far-right parties are parts of ruling coalitions in an increasing number of EU states. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party won Italy’s 2022 election, while Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party won the most seats in the Dutch parliament in 2023. 

Some political scientists attribute the surge of support for far-right parties in Europe in part to the current cost-of-living crisis, which is characterized by heightened economic disparities. This crisis has created discontent that far-right movements have successfully exploited, as some voters question whether traditional center-left and center-right parties effectively represent their interests in the face of rising inequality and economic anxiety. 

Far-right movements often instrumentalize economic insecurity by shifting blame for good job scarcity and welfare strain onto immigrants, steering the electorate toward right-wing parties. Such parties leverage these sentiments, criticizing mainstream parties for their perceived mishandling of migration management and failure to serve the people’s interests. They also advocate for increased ecological protection, blaming immigration for its supposed environmental footprint.

The political center under threat

In this context, mainstream parties worry about losing votes to populist and extreme-right movements. Leaders from the Social Democratic left to the Christian Democratic right in many EU countries have responded with new strict immigration laws, demonstrating their commitment to addressing immigration control that fuels the rise of far-right movements. 

For example, French President Emmanuel Macron, who portrays himself as a centrist, supported a stringent immigration bill passed by the French parliament, with significant backing from Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally. The bill could be viewed as a nod to the far-right, or an effort to defang the critique that the political center is not doing enough on migration, in a domestic political context in which Le Pen seems poised to seriously challenge for the presidency in 2027. The law introduces harsh measures such as reducing welfare benefits for migrants.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a social democrat, has also voiced support for harsher migration policies. “We have to start deporting [migrants] on a large scale,” Scholz said. Ricarda Lang, a co-leader of the Green Party in Germany and Scholz’s coalition partner, has called for the government to produce a plan “to avoid more and more people arriving” in the face of the success of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right party officially suspected of extremism by the German court system. Lang has further argued that instead of “finger-pointing,” the coalition must do “what [it] can do” to defeat AfD at the polls.

By legitimizing radical framings associated with the far right, mainstream political leaders may embolden the very forces they try to combat.

Yet it’s possible that mainstream parties’ efforts to shift their position on immigration in the hope of curbing the extremist vote will backfire, strengthening the radical right rather than defeating it. By legitimizing radical framings associated with the far right, mainstream political leaders may embolden the very forces they try to combat.

The need for more strategic and comprehensive responses is evident, urging these parties to consider the long-term implications of their actions. Will these promises about a tougher stance on migration and asylum effectively address the electorate’s concerns without further fueling the the far right’s rise?

The rise of far-right environmentalism 

As the effects of climate change become difficult to ignore, global warming’s dire consequences have resonated with a growing number of voters, particularly among younger generations. This comes at a time in which young voters are increasingly dissatisfied with existing political options and turning to newer parties, including far-right ones that connect problems of unaffordable housing with immigration. 

Similarly, while environmentalism has become associated with the political left, ongoing political shifts are challenging the assumption that environmentalism is solely a leftist concern. Far-right parties increasingly embrace ecological concerns, presenting their version of a green ideology that echoes rhetoric pioneered in the early 20th century by thinkers such as Madison Grant, who married environmental conservation with eugenics, racial separation and restrictionist immigration policies.

The intersection of far-right ideology and environmentalism is termed “eco-fascism” or “green nationalism.” According to researchers Iris Beau Segers and Manùs Weisskircher, this ideology is built on the foundations of nativism, ethnonationalism and xenophobia, connecting notions of supposed environmental purity with “purity” within the “regeneration of an imagined community” based on racial homogeneity. 

Yet far-right parties, despite recognizing ecological issues, oppose international conventions on climate change and prefer to focus on demographic arguments to justify xenophobic laws against racialized migrants.

Yet far-right parties, despite recognizing ecological issues, oppose international conventions on climate change and prefer to focus on demographic arguments to justify xenophobic laws against racialized migrants. Unlike the environmentalism of the left, in which systemic solutions are sought through policy responses advancing climate justice and decarbonization of the economy, the far-right environmentalist vision is based on ethnonationalism because it is imbued with tropes of racial purity and white supremacy that frame immigrants as invasive forces with ecological footprints.

Some populist radical right parties embrace green nationalism by advocating for environmental protection at the local level. They highlight the preservation of natural resources for the native population and oppose immigrants as an ecological threat. Some far-right parties propagate eco-fascism, framing migration as the primary driver for environmental degradation. Therefore, they advocate for stronger anti-immigration measures. For instance, in France, Le Pen has claimed that migrants “do not care about the environment” because they do not have a “homeland,” while Jordan Bardella, the president of National Rally, has linked borders to environmental protection. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally,” said Bardella in 2019.

Wealthy states in the Global North are already spending two times more on militarizing their borders than investing in climate action.

The urgency of the climate migration issue is often overshadowed by the focus on demonizing immigrants and fortifying borders. This way, far-right leaders use eco-bordering as a technique to conflate immigration control with environmental protection by framing climate refugees as an ecological threat, thus justifying increased spending on policies aiming to fortify “Fortress Europe.” Wealthy states in the Global North are already spending two times more on militarizing their borders than investing in climate action. 

The World Bank projects that there will be over 216 million internally displaced climate migrants by 2050, and populations in the Global South will bear the brunt of climate catastrophe. Importantly, the World Bank’s projection focuses on internal displacement, rather than people being displaced to new countries. Harsher immigration measures in the Global North may mean that individuals most impacted by climate change will be forced to adapt within the confines of their country of origin, particularly because climate-related distress is not recognized as a ground for seeking asylum under the 1951 Refugee Convention. 

Securitized governance, prompted by fear of mass movements of climate-induced migrants, will further the criminalization and immobilization of people in need. The harsh realities of climate change, including desertification, water scarcity, floods and extreme heat, force individuals to abandon their homes and communities. Poorer and vulnerable communities are disproportionately impacted, but have increasingly few places to seek refuge in an era of increasingly stringent immigration restrictions. The sad irony is that far-right parties may justify such restrictions by invoking environmental concerns, a luxury that those fleeing from climate catastrophe will not be able to have.


Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0

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