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28 April, 2012  ▪  Michael Binyon

Ultra-Right Movements Intensify In Europe

30 ultra-right parties are now active in Europe. They gain votes in elections, get through to parliaments, affect decision making and even sign agreements with traditional conservative political forces

The court testimony of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian who carried out the bombing and shootings that left 77 people dead last year, has been as chilling as it is horrific. In clinical detail, the self-confessed mass murderer has described how he deliberately targeted the cowering children on the island, even plotting to behead a former Prime Minister, as "self-defence" in a war against Muslims in Europe. Many Norwegians want to stop him using his trial as a publicity platform. Others insist that his testimony is a vital warning and should be heard. Norway and the wider world, they say, should understand the violence, intolerance and extremism now gripping growing numbers on the far-right in Europe.

The Breivik massacres are a brutal awakening for Europe's politicians, who have tended to ignore the growing Islamophobia and opposition to immigration even in countries traditionally liberal and tolerant. In Scandinavia, across central Europe and especially in France, as Marie Le Pen has just shown in the French elections, hundreds of thousands of people, especially the young, are rallying to parties that promise an end to the influx of immigrants and refugees, a harsh crack-down on Muslim activists and a new emphasis on Europe's ethnic "purity" and Christian identity.

Across Europe there are now some 30 far-right political parties that are winning votes, entering parliaments, influencing mainstream politicians and even signing agreements with traditional conservative parties - as has happened in the Netherlands. Few of these groups openly espouse the more extreme ravings published in Breivik's manifesto. But all share similar core beliefs, and all, like Breivik, are spreading these through right-wing websites.

Extremist parties on the right are mainly motivated by their visceral opposition to immigration (especially of Muslims), to ethnic diversity and to multiculturalism, which they believe is a danger to European culture and identity. They appeal to latent nationalism, are hostile to pan-European institutions such as the European Union, and have no time for liberalism or "soft" social policies.

Most of the younger far-right leaders are careful, nevertheless, to avoid old-fashioned anti-semitism. They know that the horrors of the Holocaust still leave a dark stain on all far-right movements, and in most countries "hate speech" and openly anti-semitic agitation is now a crime. Today's generation of far-right activists has moved away from copying Hitler's ideas - though it has adopted many of his tactics to win support among the young, the disaffected and the unemployed. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the former leader of the National Front in France, was an old-fashioned fascist; his daughter, however, has campaigned more on resentment of the large number of Muslims in France, frustrations over unemployment and opposition to European integration.

Nationalism is still a powerful force among far-right groups, which seek to whip up pride in past glories and hatred of any curbs on the right of the majority to enforce its views on minorities. Countries that once had strong fascist parties before the Second World War are proving easy targets for the right. In Hungary, allied to the Nazis during the war, the Jobbik party has made clear its contempt for post-communist democracy. "We are not communists, fascists or National Socialists," said Gabor Vona, one of its leaders, in January. "But - and this is important for everyone to understand very clearly - we are also not democrats".
The party received 17 per cent of the vote in elections two years ago. And although the mainstream press gives it little publicity, it disseminates its views effectively on Facebook and other social networking services. And far from being a party made up of social misfits or losers, studies have shown that most of its supporters are young, have jobs, a secondary education or even a degree. This profile is also true elsewhere: most of those who vote for populist right-wing parties in Europe come from the middle classes, and are people afraid of economic and especially social change, according to a study made recently by the University of Nottingham, in England.

In Germany and Austria there has always been considerable concern for historical reasons, especially abroad, about the growth of right-wing extremism. Other members of the EU boycotted Austria in 2000 when the Conservative party went into coalition with the Freedom Party, led by the charismatic far-right Joerg Haider. In Germany, concern has been growing not only at the recent  success of the NDP party but also at the activities of fringe movements that have been targetting Turks and other immigrants, burning down hostels and attacking families - with little official investigation or hindrance. And mainstream parties are picking up some of the right's ideas. Thilo Sarrazin, a highly respected German Social Democrat, published a book in 2010 in which he said Germany would become poorer and lose its identity as well as its potential because Turkish and Arab immigrants had a lower IQ. He said his ideas were supported by a third of Germans, who believed that the state should limit immigration and the practice of Islam. He was sacked from the SPD, but only a year later Chancellor Angela Merkel, from the ruling conservative CDU party, echoed some of his views when she declared that multiculturalism had failed.

In Greece, now suffering rising unemployment, social upheaval and despair as a result of the harsh economic austerity measures, anti-foreigner right-wing groups have been growing fast. They blame Albanians, Muslims and any other foreigners in Greece for taking Greek jobs and undermining Greek morale. Comparisons are being made with the appeal of the Nazis during the economic collapse of the Weimar Republic.

But it is the growth of extremism in traditionally liberal climates that is alarming many politicians. In 2009 Swiss voters approved a ban on the building of any minaret on mosques in the country. Finland's new party, True Finns, has sprung from nowhere to capture a significant share of the vote on a platform of hostility to outsiders and to any EU bailout for the weaker southern members of the EU. Sweden, Denmark and Norway have also seen a rise of the far-right. And the biggest upset has been in traditionally tolerant Netherlands, where Geert Wilders, a politician who has denounced the Koran as an evil book and called Islam a "totalitarian ideology", won 15 per cent of the vote in 2010. His Party for Freedom is now the third biggest force in Dutch politics. His views on Islam are so extreme that he was recently banned from entering Britain. Before that, after the assassination in 2002 of Pim Fortuyn, the gay anti-Muslim campaigner, there were widespread attacks on mosques in the Netherlands and anti-Muslim riots that shocked many Dutch voters. All governments since then have promised to curb immigration and crack down sharply on Muslim clergy preaching intolerance.

Britain, too, has never had a strong party on the far right, but has recently seen the growth of far-right movements that are winning votes largely on their anti-Muslim platform. The British National Party failed to win any seats in parliament at the last election, but is represented in the European Parliament in Strasbourg. And a new group, the English Defence League, has organised street marches against Muslims and acquired a strong following on the football terraces. Its membership is so far small, but it has attracted a large following on the internet - as have other far-right groups elsewhere.

Earlier this month, the English Defence League organised the first pan-European conference of far-right parties in Aarhus, Denmark. About 200 members from several countries met and voted to form a European Defence League, to protect Europe from Islamist extremism. Most of these parties have denounced what Breivik did, but cannot escape association with him, as he has specifically cited his links to far-right groups in Britain as a main influence on his political views.

Part of the blame for the rise of the far-right lies with traditional political parties that have sidestepped awkward questions about immigration and the integration of minorities. Most are now adapting their policies to respond to popular pressure. David Cameron, Britain's Prime Minister, said recently, like Merkel, that multiculturalism had failed, and called for a much stronger assertion of British values and British identity.

Muslims in many European countries have been alarmed by the trend. Some have responded by urging fellow Muslims to do more to denounce extremism in their midst and report suspected terrorists to the police. But many have denounced what they call a wave of Islamophobia, and have hunkered down in their own communities, isolating themselves from the mainstream. The perception that the far-right is goading attacks on Muslims has also enouraged militancy and extremism among many young Muslims in Western urban centres. France saw an eruption of violence in the Paris suburbs three years ago.

But the murders by the Toulouse gunman in March have reawakened fears of al-Qaeda terrorism striking again in Europe. And across Europe, governments are fearful that another Breivik may be waiting somewhere, encouraged by far-right xenophobia and ready to take fearful revenge on what he sees as the new danger to his country's national identity.

 


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