This question was at the centre of the EU-backed SIREN study which examined the links between changes in working life and political swings towards right-wing extremism and radical popularism.
As the French and Dutch elections in 2002, and recent European elections so clearly showed, Europe has seen an unexpected strengthening of right-wing extremism and radical populism. But was it really unexpected and, if not, what might explain this problematic political shift? The SIREN project asked itself more or less these questions when it set about studying how changes in working life, labour markets and social security affect European political orientations.
|Understanding where working and political life intersect|
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“It is frequently assumed that people who have problems coping with the dynamics of social change are particularly receptive to right-wing extremism or radical populism,” the project notes. But recent evidence suggested to the research team that some of the most glaring gains for the right have not been in countries with high unemployment. “Therefore, the simple equation of economic disadvantages and political consequences is not valid,” the team postulated, in 2001, at the start of the three-year study.
After conducting interviews in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Switzerland, SIREN revealed that European workers have been feeling, over the past five years, increasingly frustrated about working conditions. The stress they experienced was made worse by feelings of job insecurity caused by looming unemployment and the strain on income of increasingly competitive labour markets. This foreboding translated into expressions of racism, populism and xenophobia – sentiments espoused by extreme right-wing parties.
Fine-tuning social policy
Funded under the EU's ‘Improving human potential' activities, part of the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5), SIREN's initial findings were presented during a workshop on xenophobia and racism that took place in Brussels on 24 May. The project has published its recommendations for fine-tuning policies in the areas of employment, labour markets, social security, anti-discrimination and education. It also plans to run a series of workshops around Europe, in spring, to further examine the policy implications of their findings.
“Right-wing populism and xenophobia threaten the very foundations of Europe, whose richness lies in diversity and tolerance,” commented Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin at the launch of the results. He said more needed to be known about the reasons for this growing problem. “EU research demonstrates that, when faced with low working standards, job insecurity and an overall deterioration of quality of life, some people are attracted to far-right sirens. Creating more and better jobs, realising the Lisbon agenda in its entirety is vital,” he said in a statement to mark the publication of SIREN's results.
Among the socio-economic problems identified by the study as triggering this political drift are cuts in welfare spending and fewer social protection mechanisms leading to greater social anxiety; precarious employment and living situations contributing to people feeling powerless and less able to plan for the future; and increased job competition, losses and stress in a deteriorating work climate causing feelings of social injustice.
“The magnitude and pace of social change, not least brought about by globalisation, structural economic change and new technologies, has had an impact – directly or indirectly – on the lives of nearly all European citizens. Especially changes in working life often contain threats and opportunities that not only affect economic and social status but also the personal and social identities of individuals,” the project concludes.
EU and project sources