Since its foundation, the EU has been a target of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. The majority of these theories previously existed on the margins of political thought, until the 2015 Refugee Crisis brought them to the forefront of European political debate.
We all remember the appalling scenes from 2015: countless human tragedies, whether it was reports of families hiking through the Balkans to seek EU asylum or yet another capsized boat in the Mediterranean. For far-right conspiracy theorists, however, these scenes were emblematic, not of a human rights disaster, but rather of an invasion orchestrated by a global elite and the EU; one with the aim of replacing the white European population with migrants from Africa and the Middle East. This far-right conspiracy theory is based on outrageous, racist theories and has its roots in the darkest chapters of European history, but has sneaked into the established modern political debate.
For far-right conspiracy theorists, migration poses a threat to ‘white’ Europe, taking the form of the ‘Great Replacement’ theory. According to the conspiracy theorists, the migration we see today is orchestrated by a global elite intending to destabilise the European nation states, and ‘replace’ the existing populations with migrants from the Middle East and Africa. The EU has especially been a target in this theory, because it is seen as an instrument to increase the incoming flow of migrants that they believe will destroy national cultures and change the fabric of Europe.
The ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory has several branches, one branch suggests that the EU’s liberal elites want to replace the more conservative parts of the populations, while others believe it is a Jewish elite that wants to preserve power by replacing the white populations of Europe. The latter theory has roots that trace back to the early 20th century, when similar theories were used to consolidate anti-Semitic policies and attacks. The common thread for them all is the perception that the elite wants to replace them through migration to preserve power and suppress European cultures. The ‘Great Replacement’ theory is without any historical basis and is highly racist and antisemitic, but has worryingly garnered attention from political opponents to recent EU migration policies.
"Conspiracy theories’ entry into established political thought risks undermining our democratic institutions, sowing further divisiveness..."
Autumn 2015 Group of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan on their way to the EU using the Balkan route via Croatia and Serbia
Last year, a new migration plan proposed by the European Commission was called into question by far-right media pundits who viewed the proposal as a smokescreen for a replacement plan. ‘The Great Replacement’ theory gained prominence during the Brexit debate, where 31% of Leave voters believed that such a plot existed. In Hungary, the orchestrated invasion theory is centred around George Soros, a Hungarian-American philanthropist with Jewish roots who is seen as the number one enemy for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Research shows that up to 51% of Hungarians believe that Soros has a plan to bring migrants to Hungary, which will undermine Hungarian culture and society. The continuous attacks on Soros by Orbán have alarmed Jewish organisations, who have expressed concerns over rising anti-Semitism in Hungary. Orbán’s language echoes many phrases used by conspiracy theorists: he has labelled migrants as terrorists, Muslim invaders as a poison.
Similarly, conspiracy theorists have consistently dubbed the 2015 Refugee Crisis an ‘invasion’, where illegal ‘swarms’ of economic migrants are brought into the EU. This charged language serves to justify bigotry and xenophobia, and also, crucially, to present migrants as sub-human and “other” in an obvious attempt at fear-mongering. Orbán is an influential politician in the EU and when he uses this language, it gives further attention to these theories, and clearly allows these conspiracies a foothold in established European politics.
Conspiracy theories’ entry into established political thought risks undermining our democratic institutions, sowing further divisiveness, and increasing xenophobia and racism already present in European societies. The EU stands out as the perfect target for conspiracy theories: an overly complex system distanced from the citizens it serves and established by the European elite, it lends itself easily to these unsubstantiated theories.
The EU needs to address these theories head on, with the vocal support from its member states. The governments in the EU need to distance themselves from these unsubstantiated statements and similar rhetoric and call out figures like Orbán for using it. Populism scholar Jan-Werner Müller argues in his essay, “How can populism be defeated?”, that we need to challenge this use of ungrounded conspiracy theories in order to expose their obvious shortcomings.
In short, European politicians need to actively challenge the use of conspiracy theories, expose their lack of evidence, and use rational arguments to combat the irrational. At the same time, we also need to establish an inclusive and diverse public sphere, where those sceptical of migration and the effects of multiculturalism feel represented as well. Of course, it needs to be a sphere which values facts and challenges arguments; this scrutinization of conspiracy theories is essential to squash their spread.
"Conspiracy theories will always exist, but European politicians and the EU need to ensure that they do not become part of the established political debate in Europe."
Mithymna, Lesbos, Greece Thousands of abandoned lifejackets left by migrants and refugees at a garbage dump site
Conspiracy theories will always exist, but European politicians and the EU need to ensure that they do not become part of the established political debate in Europe. Victor Orbán has with success, and without great opposition from other European politicians, used discourse that resembles that of far-right conspiracy theorists.
If European politicians allow this to continue, it will cause irreparable damage to the EU as a credible organisation and lead to greater divisions in Europe. We need to reestablish a constructive and critical public debate, where the use of conspiracy theories is seen as a liability rather than an asset. The most troubling part of conspiracy theories is their encroachment into legitimate political discourse, but by exposing their logical flaws and bigoted roots, the EU can combat their spread.
A TOOL ?
The Trial of Social Media
Boasting billions of users, addictive social media apps are facing a new charge: a failure to effectively patrol misinformation on their platforms. Facebook and Twitter have escalated the mass distribution of conspiracy theories, but they did not invent them. So where does the responsibility for our conspiracy epidemic lie and what are the dangers of having less permissive policies?