Europe marches toward the ‘populist’ right

If those thuggish elements within European society continue to gain support, it is a matter of time until they will start turning on one another

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg
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More than three months after the British people voted to leave the European Union, the much-awaited British decision to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty has (almost) been announced. In a speech to her Conservative Party conference, Prime Minister May told the delegates that sometime in March next year her government will start the process of departing from the EU. It remains to be seen whether departure from this political union will push the rest of the EU closer together, or will signal the beginning of its disintegration.

Regardless of the merits in favor of this political union or against it, it is accompanied by the rise of nasty and dangerous radical right-wing politics, which combine populism and ultra-nationalism –not an unfamiliar sight in modern European politics.

Across the union and its 28 members, populist-nationalist parties are using the legitimate democratic processes to increase their popular support and representation in national parliaments and in the EU parliament. They promote an agenda that attempts to drive a wedge between communities, and falsely blame immigrants and minorities for almost all the ills of their societies.

If those thuggish elements within European society continue to gain support and seats in parliaments, it is just a matter of time until they will start turning on one another. It might not be a re-run of the 1920s and 30s, but there are painful similarities in the language, with the backdrop of a prolonged economic crisis and austerity, to serve as a severe warning to us all. The changing discourse is between the pathetic to the very dangerous.

In a self-defeating act of sheer folly, the UK government barred a number of leading academics from the London School of Economics from serving as expert advisers on Brexit. Their only wrongdoing was that they were not British citizens. This represents the xenophobic nature of Brexit, which is creeping into the British society. It also insinuates that those who are not British nationals do not have the country’s best interest at heart, and in this case not even professional integrity.

It is important to recall the first half of the 20th century, and how the rise of Fascism in Europe derived from the unholy trinity of economic hardship, led to strong anti-political establishment and scapegoating of ‘the other’

Yossi Mekelberg

Worrying signs

There are worrying signs of increasing racism in the UK in the post-Brexit referendum. Intolerance is evident through an increase in verbal abuse against migrants by bigoted racists empowered by the debate and the decision to leave the European Union. An attack on a group of Polish men in Harlow, Essex left Arkadiusz Jóźwik dead and has all the hallmarks of a hate crime.

Nevertheless, the poisonous atmosphere in Great Britain is just the tip of the iceberg of the march of ultra-nationalist movements ever closer to the centres of power and influence in Europe. In almost all elections across the continent there is an increased representation of these parties in parliaments. They may represent different shades of right wing ideology, but they have much in common and none of it is good news.

It is important to recall the first half of the 20th century, and how the rise of Fascism in Europe derived from the unholy trinity of economic hardship, led to strong anti-political establishment and scapegoating of “the other”.

These parties manage very effectively to connect and exploit between unemployment, especially among the young, political violence, and the impact of globalisation on national identities. The influx of Syrian refugees, as a result of the horrors of the conflict in Syria, is cynically used by these parties to gain support among the disenchanted and marginalised in European societies. It is not only Syrian refugees and migrants that suffer from xenophobia.

According to the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre, Roma people, which have been persecuted for many centuries, are on the receiving end of both arbitrary measures by the government and violence by vigilantes. Figures also indicate that anti-Semitism has increased as well in different parts of Europe.

Misrepresentation, exaggeration, spreading of fear, not to mention sheer lies, are the ammunition ultra-nationalists fire to gain power. Fascism has always employed the tactics that if a lie is repeated enough times there will soon be enough people believing it is true. These tactics surely work and change Europe’s political landscape. In Austria last April, Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party was within a hair’s breadth from becoming the country’s president.

In December a re-run of the elections may well see in Hitler’s country of birth, of all places, a person who blamed the increase in gun ownership by his countrymen on immigration. In France Marine Le Pen of the National Front is expected to reach the second round of the presidential elections after her party won nearly seven million votes in the 2015 regional elections. From Sweden and Finland in the north to Italy, Greece and Cyprus in the south, ultra-nationalist parties are consolidating their political power base which will undermine the European Union and its neo-liberal ideas.

On the ruins of Europe in 1945, emerged a new generation that vowed that the continent would never allow for tyranny and national-chauvinism to ever raise its head again. They were judicious enough to understand that the military defeat of Nazism and Fascism was not enough, but it was for them to offer an attractive, successful and diametrically opposite alternative. This alternative is shaky at the moment, going through an economic and social crisis and is under attack by extreme nationalistic movements.

It is for the European Union to assertively respond with a strong sense of self belief in its core values and a readiness for renewal. Otherwise the continent may descend into very dark days resembling those before the establishment of the European Union, ruled by the Orbáns, Farages, Wilders and their like.

Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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