Tuesday, 28 July 2009
If I say 'the extreme right is on the rise in Europe' what comes to mind?
Neo-nazi gangs on the rampage, xenophobic orators and angry mobs, racist slogans, fear and violence? Ed Norton as Derek Vinyard running through European backstreets and various renditions of the famous teeth-on-sidewalk scene? Ed Furlong bleeding on a bathroom floor and whatnot? Right. Yes. Me too.
Yet, although racist violence is sadly occurring all over Europe, the rise of the ultra-right seems to have taken a more sanitized form this time. Suits and somber rhetoric. Anger has ceded its place to patronising goodwill and the ability to tap straight in the heart of your average euro-Joe-public whose comfort zone has shifted sharply to the right and who is eager for a politician who will defend him and his.
The latest EU election brought in more openly nationalistic candidates than ever before. And what should have been a contradiction in terms – anointing an insular nationalist to represent you in a multi-national institution – is a fact. Europe is moving to the Right.
Social scientists are not surprised. High immigration levels, a global financial crisis and rising unemployment are invariably a bad cocktail. In times of crisis scapegoating becomes a team sport and the more different you look the more likely you are to be blamed for whatever is going wrong in your vicinity.
Rationality doesn't come into it. Just as the Jews were single-handedly responsible for both capitalism and communism in the eyes of Nazi propagandists in the 30s and 40s, similarly, your scapegoat of choice is to blame for poverty, unemployment, crime, pollution and the demise of the welfare state. Add to that the appeal of blaming Europe for anything you can't directly blame your government for and what you have is a full-bodied nationalistic, anti-immigrant and anti-EU movement sweeping across Europe.
Now this is bad news in itself. The EU as a set of institutions evolved from a pan-European need, post World War II, to marshal all existing resources and cross-border institutions and fuse them into the ultimate bastion against fascism. The vision was one of pluralism, inclusion and openness. And, no, ultra-rightists didn't feature in this plan. There was no role for them in this scenario, no place at the table.
But now they have turned up for dinner and the question is what do you do with them?
You can ignore them. Pretend they are not there, hope they go away. That is what Britain did a few days ago when a government champagne reception for the country's 72 MEPs pointedly excluded the BNP's Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons. NFI-ed. There. That restores the cosmic balance and, if asked, we'll roll our eyes and say that the weakness of our first-past-the-post electoral system is that localised support can occasionally see a very unlikely candidate elected. We do assure you all, however, that there is no wider sociological significance to this election.
Thus goes the official British line.
Only there is no denying there is a wider sociological significance to this election and that significance is EU-wide. Ultra-right parties are on the rise. Ultra-right priorities are on the ascendency. Ultra-right language is in common use.
And here we are trying to figure out What Is To Be Done.
In France and Belgium the main parties have their routine worked out. When unsavoury right-wing elements attract popular support, the system colludes to keep them out. I personally kind of like that but, let's not kid ourselves, it is undemocratic to the extreme. The people have spoken, it seems to suggest, but they are talking gibberish so we'll ignore them for now until they talk sense.
But how will they talk sense if you change nothing in the way they live and the way they learn? Change is needed but change takes time and time is at a premium so rather than hatching long-term social strategy, our leaders simply ignore the misguided populace and hope for the best. Meanwhile they don't even bother to lead by example. On the contrary, they make the most of a bad situation, neutralising the bad guys or simply playing ball with them and giving themselves a popularity boost in the bargain.
Sarkozy in France, Berlusconi in Italy and sadly many others across Europe 'neutralise' the ultra-right by borrowing their language, embracing their agenda and stealing their supporters. That is seen as 'sanitizing' the extreme right because the unsavoury individuals are kept away from power, the people are kept in check – and meanwhile the mainstream is suffused with the language of antagonism, exclusion, insularity.
Le Pen was kept away from office even though he recently garnered 47% of the vote. And before you say that a small injury to democracy protects the essence of la Marianne, let me remind you that Sarkozy's social and immigration policies only differ from Le Pen's in one thing: tone.
Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, Poland and Slovakia the extreme right are colonising Parliament en masse. They know the tricks. They speak the right language and respect the law. They do not advocate violence, they do not incite pogroms. But they are using the institutions they have access to – domestic and European – to 'protect', to close, to limit, to measure, in short to push forth the agenda of the extreme right clad in a language of understanding and evenness.
The extreme right has had a make-over. Derek Vinyard is nobody's poster child anymore. The face of the extreme right wears a suit and speaks the polished and value-neutral language of power. They are here, they mean business and they have a following. And it's that last bit that nobody seems to be dealing with. Their following.
According to the Guardian the new European Parliament sports 'Hungarian gypsy-haters, French Holocaust deniers, Dutch Islam-baiters, Austrian antisemites, Italian racists, and Flemish separatists, as well as Griffin, for whom Islam is a cancer and who wants boats of illegal immigrants sunk at sea'.
And editorial after editorial laments the existence of these parties. And nobody speaks of their voters. Because those who berate the ultra-rightists never fail to canvass their voters when elections near.
Co-optation, collaboration or Berlusconi's 'big tent' party are nice ways of saying that the mainstream is happy to get into bed with the ultra-right if it means getting more votes. Berlusconi's party has thus embraced latter-day fascists and anti-muslim groups such as the highly racist Northern League. Similarly, in Poland the opposition Law and Justice party has risen to prominence by, among other things, embracing antisemitic, anti-German and ultra-Catholic messages. Across Europe, in national and European elections the Right carries the day. It may be disguised, sanitized or in-your-face, ultimately it makes little difference as when it comes to the bottom line in questions of immigration, social policy, European integration, welfare, law and order and nationalism the flavour is the same.
Europe is moving to the right because its voters will it and its politicians make it happen.
It is a bit late in the day to be wondering what is to be done. Especially when those wondering are the same people riding the wave of change and benefiting from the electoral maths of an ever-increasing insularity among Europe's voters.
Europe is turning to the Right.
That's because politicians are leading and voters are following.
That's because voters are demanding it and politicians are complying.
Europe is taking itself to the Right.
And nobody is to blame but us.
And nothing can be done unless we do it.