Editor’s Note: This commentary appeared as part of an Insight on the News symposium on the question: “Should Americans Be Concerned About the Rise of Far-Right Parties in Europe?” Ivo Daalder answers in the affirmative. Karla Nieting contributed to this article.
There have been two disturbing developments in Europe in the last couple of months that conjure up images not seen there since the 1930s. First, across the continent there has been an upsurge of anti-Jewish violence—the burning of synagogues, the firebombing of kosher delis, the desecration of grave sites, attacks on Hasidic Jews, swastikas painted on Jewish schools and even anti-Semitic cartoons in mainstream European newspapers. In Berlin, this trend has led police to advise its Jewish population not to adorn themselves with Jewish symbols, such as wearing a Star of David or donning a yarmulke.
Second, the triumph in France of Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of presidential voting is only the latest in a series of electoral successes for far-right—and at times fascistic—political movements in Europe. The trend started in Switzerland in 1999, where new leadership in the Swiss People’s Party led to a campaign based on anti-immigrant, anti-European Union sentiment. The party nearly doubled its share of the national vote to 23 percent. A year later in Austria, there was a surge of support for Jörg Haider—who earlier in his career had praised Nazi employment policies and spoken of Nazi “punishment camps.” Haider secured 27 percent of the vote and a place in the government for his party.
Then last year, from Norway in the north to Italy in the south, far-right extremist groups scored one electoral victory after another. In Norway, Carl Hagen led his Progress Party to a second-place finish, leading to seats in the Cabinet. Umberto Bossi’s Northern League and Gianfranco Fini’s neo-Fascist Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance) entered the Berlusconi government in Rome. Pia Kjaersgaard’s Danish People’s Party became the third largest in Denmark, and though it does not form part of the governing coalition, the government needs its support on key issues. In Germany, law-and-order candidate Roland Schill, nicknamed “Judge Merciless,” captured almost 20 percent of the vote in local elections in Hamburg. And in Belgium, the Vlaams Blok—led by Filip DeWinter, who called Le Pen his “brother in arms”—won well more than one-third of the vote in the harbor town of Antwerp.
The trend continued this year with the former Marxist and openly gay Pim Fortuyn winning an astonishing 34 percent of the vote in Rotterdam, the Netherlands’ second-largest city. (Fortuyn was assassinated on May 6, nine days before national elections. Opinion polls taken before his assassination had predicted Fortuyn would have led the third-largest party in Parliament.) And, of course, there was Le Pen’s shocking second-place finish in the first presidential vote. While soundly defeated in the runoff, Le Pen still secured backing from 18 percent of the French electorate, gaining more votes than the first time around.
These developments have left the European political and intellectual elite, as well as much of the public, in profound shock. Le Pen and his European ilk represent the ugly side of Europe—a side many thought or hoped had passed with the defeat of the Nazis and fascists two generations ago. Their anti-immigrant message is deeply racist, xenophobic and fundamentally intolerant of diversity. They openly advocate sending foreigners—especially those of color—back to where they came from. Much of the ire is directed against Muslims, though many also have engaged in anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Le Pen most astonishingly has called the Nazi gas chambers a “detail of history.” Other candidates add their own anti-immigrant rhetoric. Hamburg’s Schill complained: “Unhindered immigration into Germany, especially of black Africans, people from the former Yugoslavia, Turkey and other Muslim countries has led to imported unemployment and imported crime.” Norway’s Hagen has claimed, “If you have too many immigrants, you have social conflict.” And the Danish People’s Party plastered posters around the country that pictured a young, blonde girl. It was captioned: “When she retires, Denmark will have a Muslim majority.”
The far right not only is racist, but also is profoundly anti-Europe. It sees the European Union (EU) as nothing more than a bureaucratic behemoth that is able to control national destiny with few, if any, checks and balances. While this sentiment neither is a new nor a far-right phenomenon, it increasingly has become part of the rhetoric used by far-right parties in their political campaigns.
What explains this rightist upsurge and increase in violence? The recent violence witnessed in European cities is closely tied to the escalating situation in the Middle East. However, the anti-Jewish violence that has been witnessed around Europe, and especially in France, has not come from the far right. Unlike the anti-Semitic violence of the 1930s, Muslim immigrant populations are primarily responsible for recent occurrences.
As for the popularity of the far right on the continent, there are a number of explanations. First, Europe is experiencing a natural swing in the electoral pendulum from left to right. Four years ago, 13 out of 15 governments in the EU were governed by center-left parties. Today most of them are governed by the center-right (with Great Britain being the major exception) and the tide may well turn in Germany and France in elections this year. Furthermore, the far right holds seats in government or provides coalition support only because the moderate center-right needs it to maintain its own hold on power, as is the case in Austria, Denmark, Italy, Portugal and Norway.
Second, there has been a failure to integrate immigrants into national societies. Many immigrants came to Europe decades ago, either from former colonies or as guest workers. New, local-born generations have been raised in the adopted countries, often in communities with high rates of unemployment and little hope for a better future—in some cases leading to violence. For example, many of the rioters in Britain last summer were the children of Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers brought to Britain to work in textile mills that since have been closed.
The immigrant communities remain in most cases completely segregated from the native population, creating ghettos in Britain, Germany, France and elsewhere that seethe with anger and often become sources of crime and insecurity to the local population. Low-skilled local populations often fear competition for jobs that immigrants represent, whether those immigrants are first, second or third generation. Others resent the fact that while they toil for meager wages, newly arrived immigrants and asylum-seekers live on social security financed by the majority native working population. As a result, key sections of European society fast are becoming easy prey for the far right, which offers them hope in the form of simple solutions and anti-immigrant sloganeering.
Third, national policy increasingly is being made by officials at EU headquarters in Brussels, rather than in Berlin, Copenhagen, The Hague, Rome or Paris. The European Central Bank now strictly manages monetary policy, often tying the economic hands of national leaders. And more and more of these Eurocrats have a significant say over a wide range of national policy—from immigration to the environment, social mores to agriculture. The result is a deep sense that the individual nation is losing control of its own destiny. It is a crisis of identity that the far right skillfully is exploiting with its appeal to the national character and cultural uniqueness and a growing opposition to an integrated Europe.
Finally, the mainstream political parties of both the center-left and the center-right have in many cases lost their political distinctiveness. Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac both ran campaigns remarkable for their indistinctiveness. In Holland, a purple coalition of reds on the left and blues on the right has governed for eight years. Throughout much of Europe, social-democratic and conservative parties alike favor the market economy, a strong social safety net and an internationalist foreign policy. None of the issues that proved so divisive a generation ago any longer motivates mainstream political parties.
At the same time, none of these parties has a viable answer for how to better integrate their immigrant populations or address the shift in power and control from national capitals to Brussels. For most mainstream parties, the issues of European integration and immigration are indeed taboo subjects. In Germany, for example, when the Social Democratic Party entered government in 1998, it adopted the strongly pro-European policies of the Christian Democrats. While it made progress on a policy that makes it easier for high-tech workers to apply for and obtain work visas, it has not really addressed the problems of integrating large groups of discontented Turks who have little incentive to apply for citizenship. In Germany as in other European nations, the field has been left wide open to the far right to exploit these grievances.
It is important, however, to keep the rise of the far right in perspective. To date, far-right parties and their supporters still only represent a small fraction of European political support. This corresponds often to no more than one-tenth and invariably less than one-fifth of the population. It also is important to remember how electoral systems can influence outcomes when interpreting particular voting results. In France, the 17 percent for Le Pen in the first round made him the runner-up; in Britain, a party that gains 17 percent in a nationwide poll is unlikely to receive a single seat in Parliament given its first-past-the-post electoral system. In Germany, where stories of skinhead marches easily gain headlines, a party must earn 5 percent to enter its parliament—something which the far right never has been able to achieve and the democratic socialists (the reformed Communist Party) have only barely managed despite strong support in the east. In short, Europe is not about to return to the 1930s; it simply has become too prosperous, too developed, too integrated and too democratic for that to happen.
Mainstream parties nevertheless have a responsibility to address the concerns that give rise to support for the far right. They need to find ways to integrate immigrant populations into their societies. They must close the democratic deficit that exists between local communities throughout Europe and the EU’s governing authorities in Brussels. Above all, they must begin to talk openly about the taboo issues of European integration and immigration—while of course continuing to denounce the racist and intolerant rhetoric of the far right.