The effect of the 2015 refugee crisis on the share of attitude radicals


Many changes have taken place on the European continent in the last decade, the most pivotal of which was, arguably, the migration crisis of 2015. The crisis affected many countries, some more dramatically than others, with governments having to answer to concerned and often unsatisfied populations. Accordingly, we chose to analyse the scores of the Demand for Right Wing Extremism (Derex) index in some of the most affected countries. This analysis is written by Farah Rasmi, student at Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto and intern at Political Capital.

Political Capital’s Derex index is an analysis of a selection of data based on the European Social Survey (ESS). The index is composed of four categories (Prejudice and welfare chauvinism, Anti-establishment attitudes, Right-wing value orientation and Fear, distrust and pessimism), and measures the size of the group in a given country, who belong to at least three of the four categories, and, therefore, can be considered to be susceptible to far-right ideologies and political messages. Political Capital calls them “attitude radicals”.

The countries considered in this analysis are the following: Austria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The Derex data analysed here are the results of the ESS field work conducted throughout 2016 and 2017 contrasted with previous results in order to portray the changes. For all the countries, with the exception of Italy, the comparison will be between 2014/15 data sets and 2016/17. Italy’s most recent ESS was in 2013 and thus, those results will be the reference point.  It is important to note that most of the field work was done before the most recent wave of elections. Therefore, while they do not reflect the effect of those elections, they are still quite telling and often surprising considering the circumstances in each country. The most important and relevant category to the current analysis is that of the Prejudice and Welfare Chauvinism (PWC). That said, important changes occurred in each of the categories. The following analysis will provide a comparative evaluation of the 11 countries in each of the four categories.

In the survey, the PWC questions selected by Political Capital Institute aim to investigate xenophobic and homophobic tendencies, most of them are centred around migrant related issues. For instance, one of the questions is, “To what extent do you think [country] should allow people from the poorer countries outside Europe to come and live here?” The results show an increase in anti-immigration sentiments in Austria, Poland, Hungary, Sweden, Czech, and Italy. The most dramatic change was an increase of 12 percentage points in Hungary between 2015 and 2017, going from 54% to 67% in a little less than two years. The average increase in the other countries was 3-4 percentage points in the same time frame with the exception of Sweden and Italy. Sweden only saw an increase from 4 to 5%, and Italy had an increase of 11 percentage points between 2013 and 2017, a longer period but a significant increase nonetheless. Interestingly, and rather surprisingly, France, Germany, Netherlands, Norway and the UK all saw a decrease. In fact, France went from 25% to 21% despite the various attacks and the general impression of frustration in the Country. The most significant decrease was in the UK where PWC decreased from 27% in 2015 to 14% in 2017.  As a whole, the countries with the most refugees, Germany and Sweden, did not present any radical changes in this category, whereas the countries with less refugees, and are at best transit states, (i.e., Hungary, and Czech) have seen a big increase in PWC sentiments.

Anti-Establishment Attitudes (AEA) present a category in which the satisfaction with the political institutions is in question. The survey evaluates the people’s dissatisfaction with the political and legal systems and their distrust of the political institutions and their elite. As such, it is not a question of what type of government, but rather whether its voters are satisfied with the results at large. The survey includes questions such as: “On the whole, how satisfied are you with the way democracy works in [country]?” This category saw an almost unanimous decrease from the earlier data set of anti-establishment attitudes with the exception of Italy, Sweden, and Norway. The first two had an increase, while Norway remained the same. Italy only had a 1 percentage point increase between 2013 and 2017, which could entail general fluctuations over the years but a broad hovering around the 33-34% level. Sweden had an increase of 2 percentage points, which is also part of a general fluctuation in the last few years in the range of 4-6%. The most significant decrease was in the UK, Poland, and Hungary where anti-establishment attitudes went down by 6 percentage points in the first two and 4 in the latter. It is important to note that the surveys in the UK were done well after the EU referendum and this change might be a result of the Brexit vote.

The third category, Right-Wing Value Orientation, also saw a general decrease with the exception of an increase in France, Austria, and Hungary. This category evaluates the citizens’ need for obedience and order, commitment to traditionalism and the far-right self-definition. Survey questions included: “In politics people sometimes talk of “left” and “right”. Where would you place yourself on the scale, where 0 means the left and 10 means the right?” The most significant result was a decrease of 13 percentage points in Italy between 2013 and 2017 which despite the big year gap is still quite important. In view of current events, such a decrease in Italy could be deemed surprising. Other countries with decreased right-wing values are Czech, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden and the UK, with an average decrease of 1 to 3 percentage points. The countries that witnessed an increase had an average of 1 to 3 percentage points increase as well between 2015 and 2017, a statistically insignificant outcome within the current political framework.

In the last category, Fear, Distrust, and Pessimism (FDP), the overall sense of physical and economic security of the citizens is evaluated. That is, discontent with personal life, economic status, physical insecurity, and interpersonal distrust. The questions included: “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole nowadays?” and “On the whole how satisfied are you with the present state of the economy in [country]?” On average, there was a general decrease or stagnation of the FDP sentiments. France, Hungary, Netherlands, Poland, and Czech had a decrease, whereas Italy, Austria, Norway and the UK remained the same. Among the aforementioned, the average decrease was between 3 and 4 percentage points, with the exception of the Netherlands and France, which had a 1 and 2 percentage points decrease respectively. On the other hand, Germany and Sweden had an increase of 2 and 1 percentage points respectively. This is perhaps statistically insignificant due to the fact that both states had similar fluctuations in the last few years. 

These changes were summarized largely in the Derex Score, which had 5 of the abovementioned states at the same result as the previous years, 5 at a decreased score and only Italy at an increase of 1 percentage point from 2013 to 2017. While the changes in the Derex score may seem insignificant on a larger scale (due to them being of a 1-3 percentage points change) the specific changes in the categories are important. Italy’s results were altogether quite shocking due to the unexpected changes that occurred (or did not occur). The dramatic increase in PWC and decrease in Right-wing orientation, contrasted with the small 1 percentage point Anti-establishment increase are all extremely interesting results meriting further evaluation. It is also important to highlight that certain countries had a much higher percentage average in all categories compared to others. For instance, changes in countries like Sweden, Norway, or the Netherlands were restricted to just under 15% in all the categories in the years evaluated. Whereas Hungary, Czech Republic, and Italy were at 20% and higher in almost all categories as well. Hungary’s PWC even reached 67%, an incomparable result.

The general expectation when thinking of right wing extremism, is that countries such as France, Germany, and the UK would have had a significant increase in the PWC results due to recent events of the migration crisis, but they all decreased. Moreover, countries with citizens that are said to highly overestimate the number of refugees in their nation and that are in fact merely transit nations, had a dramatic increase. Also, quite telling were the anti-establishment attitudes, a general impression of current politics would have us expect an overarching dissatisfaction. Yet, at varying degrees of importance, the statistics show a potential increase of satisfaction. That said, the results from the upcoming surveys might be even more eye-opening due to the most recent changes in the political scene.