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EU research highlights role of deteriorating working conditions in the rise of right-wing populism


Preliminary results of a European Commission-funded study, the SIREN project, presented today at a workshop in Brussels, show that growing insecurity and inequality in Europeans’ work life is contributing to the electoral success of right-wing populist and extremist parties. The study covers eight European countries (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Switzerland) and is based on more than 300 interviews and a telephone survey of 5,800 employed persons.

According to the survey, European workers were 50% more likely to experience a decrease in job security during the last 5 years than to experience improved security (27% vs 18%). Reported causes of frustration among employees are deteriorating work conditions, precarious employment and low income, but also rising stress levels and continual competition. Older workers are the most affected by negative changes in their working patterns caused by higher employment insecurity and worsening conditions in the workplace. Socio-economic change thus creates a class of “modernisation losers” who prove to be relatively more attracted by xenophobia and right-wing extremism. But the study also found that some who actually benefit from rapid although painful changes in the market place, “modernisation winners”, also pay a high price and develop an aggressively competitive political stance. The research findings highlight the need to realise the Lisbon agenda in its entirety and to strengthen Europe’s economic and social policies to help address the roots of far-right extremism.

“Right-wing populism and xenophobia threaten the very foundations of Europe, whose richness lies in diversity and tolerance,” said European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin. “But a simple condemnation of racist or intolerant political movements is not enough: we have to understand the origins of the malaise. EU research demonstrates that when faced with low working standards, job insecurity and an overall deterioration of quality of life, some people are attracted by far-right sirens. Creating more and better jobs, realising the Lisbon agenda in its entirety is vital”.

Socio economic changes and political orientation

Through a comparative analysis of individual reactions to socio-economic change and employment conditions, the EU study aims to stimulate debate on the flexibility and security of Europe’s social model. With a view to the alarming levels of xenophobia and anti-semitism and the increase in support for right-wing populist or extremist parties, the SIREN project provides an assessment of the extent to which changes in working life make people more receptive to right-wing extremism and populism as well as xenophobia, extreme nationalism and racism.

Flexibility, insecurity and worsening of social conditions

The study found that discontent contributing to electoral support for extremist parties stemmed from a series of causes including the restructuring of the private and public sectors, which has led to high levels of perceived job insecurity. Some 27% of the working population has experienced a decrease in job security over the last 5 years, while only 18% report an increase and 55% report stable job security. Older workers are particularly affected by increased employment insecurity and poor working conditions.

Cuts in welfare spending and fewer social protection mechanisms have also led to perceptions of greater social insecurity. Precarious employment and living situations also contribute to people feeling powerless, unable to plan for the future and more susceptible to extremist parties. Increased job competition, losses and stress in a deteriorating work climate also leads to people feeling a sense of injustice.

Not only “modernisation losers” are receptive to the extreme right

The findings confirm that socio-economic changes play an important role in explaining the rise of right-wing populism in European countries. However, the study does not indicate a simple relation between negative changes in work and attraction to right-wing populism. According to the study, not only “modernisation losers”, but also some “modernisation winners” are particularly attracted to the extreme right. The reasons are different for each of these groups.

Some “winners” turned out to be very competitive, to strongly identify with their company, to be attracted by individualistic views and hold the conviction that some social groups should dominate over others. Many “losers” showed strong feelings of injustice and held the conviction that people like themselves are not sufficiently rewarded for the work they do. This tended to foster a displaced aggressive reaction, leading to prejudice against immigrants and minorities and authoritarian attitudes.

Policy implications for Europe

Changes in working conditions by themselves do not always and necessarily lead to support for the extreme right. According to the study, such a reaction can only be understood when taking into account workers’ perception of political powerlessness and politicians’ perceived lack of interest in the workers’ world. Consequently the respondents’ perception of a lack of recognition of their problems in national and European politics has led to a crisis of representation.

Potential policies to be discussed at the Brussels’ workshop to help reduce xenophobia and racism and mitigate underlying social problems could include ways to remedy this representation crisis in companies, the economy and the political sphere as a whole. Other policies to be discussed include improving actual and perceived job security and working conditions in Europe; strengthening initiatives against racism and xenophobia and avoiding “scapegoating” by drawing attention to the actual causes of social problems; and working with the media towards guidelines to ensure the fair treatment of migrants.

Pedro Ramos | European Commission
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