Ruth Wodak is a visiting Fellow at the Global Governance Programme (RSCAS), and Emerita Distinguished Professor and Chair in Discourse Studies at Lancaster University.
In Europe, the influx of asylum seekers last year was initially accompanied by an outpouring of heartfelt public sympathy. Ordinary citizens offered up clothes, toiletries and even their spare rooms to asylum seekers.
But in recent months, policymakers, reacting to their polities, have hardened their stance to favour the expulsion of refugees rather than open arms. Fears of ‘bogus’ or criminally minded asylum seekers have proliferated in the news, especially in the wake of the Cologne incidents at New Year.
Working on this sea-change in public attitudes is Ruth Wodak, a visiting Fellow at the Global Governance Programme at the RSCAS, and Emerita Distinguished Professor and Chair in Discourse Studies at Lancaster University in the UK. She will also be a speaker at the 2016 State of the Union.
She has recently published the book The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean, which explores the shift of right-wing populist messages and rhetoric from the margin to the centre of current media debates.
Speaking to EUI Times, she explains, “I’m very interested in the way the hegemonic discourse has shifted in Austria and Germany from welcoming refugees to a polarisation of attitudes towards refugees, and with respect to Austria, a shift in policy. It’s not just mood swings, but a significant shift and change since January 2016. Since then, the government has launched the building of borders fences in Austria, set a maximum limit of asylum seekers to be allowed into the country for 2016, and closed the Balkan route. This new strategy in asylum policies is strongly connected to the fear that right wing populist parties would win at elections. Specifically in Austria, a phenomenon can be observed that I call normalisation – mainstream parties are moving to the right to accommodate policies of the extreme right in order to keep the voters. But this strategy is not successful – as is visible in the Austrian case in recent years – because usually people vote for politicians they can trust, and not for a government that shifts strategies 180 degrees. Such parties then it lose trust and voters.”
Wodak’s research explores the ways in which right-wing populists evoke imagined notions of ethnic homogeneity which exclude immigrants. “Identity constructions always imply sameness and difference. The question is how do you evaluate and define the range of differences? Separate but equal? Right wing populism deals with difference in a very negative way.”
Migration has become such a potent hot-potato in recent years, perhaps in part because it exposes the fragilities in constructions of national identity. Migrants and refugees also provide a convenient scapegoat for wider perceived societal ills ― “The extreme right always needs and thus constructs a scapegoat. It is part and parcel of their rhetoric”, as Wodak points out.
There emerges therefore a deep and glaring contradiction, in that as Wodak declares, “Europe is a continent of immigration. In a globalised world, how can we suddenly have closed borders? It’s a complete contradiction. All our nation states are countries of immigration.”
But in a European milieu increasingly hostile to the huddled masses at its borders, whether Wodak’s message will permeate policy debates seems, for now, unlikely.