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Austerity is Breeding Radicalism in Europe Again

As austerity bites, European politics is turning nasty, fast. The smart, cosmopolitan, enlightened Brussels elite and the well-groomed, well-bred moderate national political leaders have completely trashed Europe. The people are angry. Unfortunately, Europeans in the past have made incredibly stupid decisions when they are angry: Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler… the list goes on.

Take Greece. “Greek society at this point is a laboratory of extreme-right-wing evolution,” Nicos Demertzis, a political scientist at the University of Athens, told the NYT. “We are going through an unprecedented financial crisis; we are a fragmented society without strong civil associations [and with] generalized corruption in all the administration levels.”

Golden Dawn, an ultranationalist group known for violent clashes with immigrants in Athens and Nazi salutes, is now campaigning in the streets for seats in parliament, becoming more visible at a time when more centrist parties stay at home in fear of a backlash. Polls indicate that Golden Dawn has enough support to enter Parliament during national elections on May 6. Greece’s two leading parties — the Socialist Party and  the New Democracy Party — are seeing their popularity plummet and in response have veered to the right, tapping into anti-immigrant and nationalist sentiment among Greece’s voters. Last month, Greece’s Ministry of Citizens’ Protection and the Ministry of Defence announced the establishment of thirty detention centers across the country for illegal immigrants, each able to accomodate 1,000 prisoners. Separately, the Socialist health minister suggested illegal immigrants might be required to undergo checks for infectious diseases.

It’s not just Greece. In France’s presidential race, all three leading candidates are tapping into fears about immigrants and appealing to right-wing causes. Marine Le Pen has attacked President Sarkozy for not doing enough to prevent illegal immigrants coming to France. During a speech in Marseille she said “These are foreigners more and more sure of their rights, who arrive each year to impose their way of life. Marseille knows about this. The customs and way of life are openly displayed, or imposed on the French, in a way which seems to be more and more a form of provocation or arrogance.” Sarkozy himself has also tilted right: his administration pushed a law through parliament that banned women from wearing the burqa in public; Sarkozy announced the burqa was “not welcome in France.” His government has enacted laws that make it harder for Muslims to gain citizenship and deported a number of Roma communities. In public, Sarkozy has promised to change the constitution to make it easier to expel illegal immigrants and called for stricter monitoring of legal foreign residents. Interior Minister Claude Guéant, in a clear reference to Islamic societies, told a conservative student group that not all peoples are equal, stressing the need for France to “protect our civilization.” Sarkozy refused to distance himself from this statement. Even Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande, who once advocated giving amnesty to all illegal immigrants in France, has risen to the top of the polls in part by appealing to far-right voters (not his traditional base) and tapping into anti-immigrant sentiment while attacking President Sarkozy’s economic policies.

Victor Orban’s conservative government in Hungary has severely curtailed personal freedoms and the power of independent judicial and media institutions. Two members of parliament from Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party, known for anti-Semitism and threats against Roma communities, burned EU flags at a recent rally, comparing the EU’s interference in the domestic economy to the Soviet occupation of Hungary decades ago. Another lawmaker has been urged to resign after flagrantly anti-Semitic remarks in parliament.

This is not a happy trend. Bad things happen when European politics shifts drastically toward radical ideas. The European left and the European right can both turn ferociously ugly.

European elites generally want to blame their ignorant and benighted peoples when ugly sentiments erupt into the political sphere. But it is the elites who have failed. They have utterly failed on immigration policy: they blindly opened the gates without thinking through what they were doing, and they have made such a hash of European labor and currency policy that people will be mocking their follies for decades to come.

Most of us older folks grew up in the hope and belief that the fifty years of political folly, blind hatreds and economic cluelessness that led Europe to the disasters of 1939-45 had finally been cured — or perhaps that the diseases had just burned themselves out. And whatever their defects, institutions like NATO and the European Union show that some lessons have been learned. But the last few years have started to raise some doubts.

The state of Europe today is not good. Germany, a country whose economy is in relatively good shape and whose political leadership rose to the challenge, eventually, of rebuilding German unity after the fall of the wall, now bears a heavy historical burden to lead a troubled continent out of its deepest crisis in two generations.  Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats were the party responsible for the greatest European achievements of the 20th century. Konrad Adenauer, still under appreciated in his homeland and little remembered outside it, was a much greater statesman than Charles de Gaulle and was perhaps the greatest German statesman of all time. Let us hope that this legacy can inspire Germany’s Christian Democrats to equally wise leadership today.

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  • vanderleun

    “Most of us older folks grew up in the hope and belief that the fifty years of political folly, blind hatreds and economic cluelessness that led Europe to the disasters of 1939-45 had finally been cured — or perhaps that the diseases had just burned themselves out.”

    Older folks may think so but the ancient ones knew: “Live in hope, die in despair.”

    Not surprising at all that Europeans want to run the purge program yet again. Some might say it was overdue. Long overdue. Others might say, as they do here, “Oh, no, not again!”

    But either way, as we learn in the Holy Book of Frank Zappa: “Ain’t no way to delay that trouble comin’ everyday.”

  • The Reticulator

    It’s bound to come to something like this. You can’t have a welfare state without a police state.

  • Bart Hall (Kansas, USA)

    I think the true underlying message is that by-and-large conservatism provides social order and economic health. When a society swings off either of those — and Europe has done for both for almost two generations — order disintegrates and the economy crashes.

    People then look to re-establish healthy social and economic conditions but the longer and deeper the rot has gone the more inclined people are to push the pendulum too far in the other direction.

    A second Obama term will do that here, which is the most cogent reason to send the man packing. To see justifiable Jacksonian fury unleashed domestically against over-fed, over-educated coastal lefties and their groupies in the self-appointed wannabe elite … will not be pretty.

  • Anthony

    The civilizing process – Leviathan and Commerce – appears coming unglued in sectors of EU. Which brings to mind commentary from Blaise Pascal: “what a chimera then is man…what a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction…judge of all things…repository of truth…the glory and the scum of the universe.”

  • Matthew Brotchie

    Allan Bloom seems to have prophesied this in a reply to Fukuyama’s original End of History article. WRM, I INSIST you read this and if we’re lucky enough, make comment.

  • noel sundby

    I couldn’t disagree more. The move to radical positions in Europe started long ago and were to the left. What we see is a response to that radical move. And it’s not necessarily to the right. Greece, for instance is in chaos, not because they are shifting to radical right wing ideologies, but because the radical left wing policies are not working and people are demanding the utopia promised to them by the radical leftists that got them into the mess they are in. Any so called shift to the right is just a smoke screen used by the idological left to shift blame from the socialist ideology they still, unbelievably, cling to like lemmings over the cliff, unable to critically examine the underlying problems inherent in their belief system. Fascism has been so misrepresented by the libetal west as a right wing phenomenon we collectively believe it. But it’s not that cut and dryed. Fascism is a hybred of socialism and capitalism and has elements more associated with totalitarian ideologies that exist in the far left. I’d go on but I think I made my point.

  • Neville

    This is the inevitable result of European political elites working together for decades to marginalize any and every political movement that raised any question they did not want discussed (e.g. limits to immigration, limits to how much power is ceded to EU bureaucrats, and so on).

    Eventually after the main parties come to look very much alike, they become entangled together in some awful crash that trashes their credibility, and the public has nobody else to turn to except ‘fringe crazies’. At that point the elites do what they always do, which is blame the ordinary citizens, the very people they have been working day and night to exclude from political power.

    As you say, this is an old story in Europe that has led before to some very ugly outcomes. Unfortunately the vestiges of deference and aristocracy which still infest European culture allow these same elites to emerge from their hiding places after each catastrophe, and step smoothly back into all the positions they held before.

  • BigSoph

    But they have great vacation packages, phenomenal job protection – there is no way the government would let these people lose these things.

    The writing is on the wall.

    And it is all in Arabic

  • Kenny

    Why do you say emerging low tolerance for illegal immigrants is ‘harsh.”

    It’s not harsh; it’s common sense — and it’s long, long over due, especially when you look at the type of illegal immigrants you’re talking about. They are true aliens to European culture & society. Quite frankly, such people don’t belong in Europe.

  • jackbenimble

    Most Americans want our immigration laws enforced too and polls show we have felt that way since long before the economic crisis. I really don’t think wanting a society governed by the rule of law makes us dangerous radicals.

    Now, radicalism may be on the rise in Europe. It would not surprise me. But if the best examples of it are people demanding and voting for leaders that will enforce their borders and protect their culture, their jobs and their taxpayers from the scourge of mass immigration, I guess I am not too concerned about it. The so-called centrists should have been doing this all along as it is just good governance.

  • Punditarian

    Resistance to the gradual invasion of Europe by settlers who openly seek to impose their law on a demographically disappearing native population is “right wing” only by default.

  • Corlyss

    Well, seems the European romantic search for the halcyon days of the Holy Roman Empire never tires of disgorging tyrants and dictators. Maybe there’s something wrong with their underlying premise, i.e., that the HRE was Edenic in either security or prosperity and that the resulting multiple states governed by their own populations is a bad thing to be fixed rather than enjoyed.

  • eon

    In France, Hollande’s main campaign points boil down to (1) expand every social program and create even more, (2) tax the rich at %100 to pay for (1), (3) demand bailouts from the World Bank (read; USA) to make up the difference between (1) and (2), and (4) also make Germany “pay its fair share” to the EU- or else.

    I somehow get the feeling Hollande thinks the Treaty of Versailles was a good idea. Or else he is astoundingly ignorant of European history in general.

    On the plus side, if he gets elected and puts his grand plans into operation before November, we can get a good look at a laboratory-level experiment in the sort of thing we’re likely to see here if Obama is re-elected. Note that it would be a plus for the United States, not France or the EU.



  • Richard F. Miller

    Henry Kissinger used to quip whenever someone began preaching about the virtues of Europe, “Europe? Show me an address.”

    Given Kissinger’s personal history, the remark is not at all enigmatic. Europe’s constituent elements are tribal. Unlike the United States, it was not founded on “an idea.” In fact, Europe wasn’t “founded” at all. Its tribes and their various identities pre-existed the founding of anything–the principality, the nation-state, and the EU. The tribes did become larger and better armed, jostled for territory, reached longer or shorter “hudnas” and then jostled again.

    While many Americans rightly believe (and bemoan) the European rot making its way our way, they overlook the flow in the opposite direction. Brussels elites merely ape an American idea: a united Europe.

    It won’t happen.

    A sow’s ear into a silk purse, and all that.

  • J R Yankovic

    “European elites generally want to blame their ignorant and benighted peoples when ugly sentiments erupt into the political sphere. But it is the elites who have failed. They have utterly failed on immigration policy: they blindly opened the gates without thinking through what they were doing, and they have made such a hash of European labor and currency policy that people will be mocking their follies for decades to come.”

    Bullseye. Again and again, it seems that nothing stokes the flames of the European “ugly” right and left quite like the highhandedly visionary (and yet curiously shortsighted) policies of modern Eurocrats. And yet just 10 years ago, as Maastricht Europe continued to gain steam and momentum, it must have all seemed like some irresistible tide of history. Makes me wonder what our present “irresistible tides” are. In any case, I wouldn’t blame the “folly-mockers” of the future if they recalled the European meltdown as just one more legacy of that Golden Decade of Folly, 1995-2005.

    And kudos to Corlyss @ 12 for, IMO, very skillfully dissecting the element of twisted “Carolingian” nostalgia that I think has always been a key ingredient of even the most forward-looking plans for a united Europe.

  • Magginkat

    Europeans please ignore people like Bart Hall (Kansas, USA. He is obviously a listner of Fox News, an organization that is pure propaganda and one of, if not the main reason that the U.S. is headed for the same downfall as other countries practicing “the austerity program”. You cannot eliminate jobs over & over & expect people to exist on nothing. What a shame that we have such sorry, greedy, self-serving leadership every where we look these days.

  • Greg R. Lawson


    Your argument regarding greed and elimination of jobs has merit, however, your derisive dismissal of Mr. Hall’s comment is not only rude, but extraordinarily narrow in its own right.

    Greed cuts all ways. Mr. Mead’s consistent description of the flaws in the “Blue Model” highlight the manifest failures of that system.

    The bottom line is there are no easy answers and, frankly, we’re all a bit of the villain here. When each of us looks into the mirror, we want what we want and many are quite happy to take it away from others. While this may be true of some in the upper echelons, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking the same lust for money and power don’t infect those on the lower end just as acutely.

    The struggle between elites and the mass is as old as civilization itself. Even if you overthrew one set of elites, the new elites will inevitably ossify into a caricature of that which it threw off initially. That is the cycle of history and also what it means to be a human in all its morally mixed, grayish hues.

  • Steve0

    LOL, Magginkat! Nice parody of a confused leftist!

  • Vilmos

    We have a wonderful phrase in Hungarian: If the acceptable politicians don’t deal with the problems of the average voters, then the average voters will turn to the unacceptable politicians.

    As the article says, the real culprits here are Europe’s elites who decided to know better than anybody else and forced their half-baked ideas on the continent. And the real losers will be those immigrants who actually wanted to integrate into Europe and become an European. When the rush comes, the mob won’t ask silly questions “are you integrated?” but simply blow them away. Thanks for the elites’ social engineering.


  • John Burke

    A big part of the current problem is that maintaining or regaining an historically routine degree of economic sovereignty and border control have become “radical ideas” in the space of a single generation. And the top-down EU structures don’t allow for any deviations. I don’t think there is anything radical about, say, Italy preferring not to welcome huge numbers of Roma who set up camps where they feel like and go on the dole. Any objectors are branded racists by Italian Communists.

  • Jim.

    Admitting uncontrolled numbers of people into your country that will consume your generous welfare state benefits without providing a similar amount of tax revenue counts as a “war on arithmetic”.

    Please stick to events of actual violence against law-abiding immigrants and minorities when you decry “extremism”.

    Simply saying the welfare state of your country can’t support arbitrary numbers of people to enter into the system without a stake — that’s not extremism, that’s arithmetic. Simply saying that there should be jails to house people who break particular laws is not “extremism”, it’s arithmetic — and humane, considering what jail overcrowding can do.

    Europe has to make some changes. It’s going to be poorer, and if it plans to preserve what it can of its welfare system (and reduce youth unemployment while they’re at it) by reducing the number of legal immigrants to what they can afford, and attempting to drop the number of illegal immigrants to zero, that’s hardly inhumane.

    That’s government doing what it has to do, what it’s supposed to.

  • J R Yankovic

    As usual some valid and articulate points from Jim. Must admit, though, I also enjoyed this one:

    “While many Americans rightly believe (and bemoan) the European rot making its way our way, they overlook the flow in the opposite direction. Brussels elites merely ape an American idea: a united Europe. It won’t happen.”

    No, it won’t. At least (if past history is any indicator) not without the cement of some tyranny or dictatorship.

    Still in all, you can hardly blame ANTI-tribal, IDEA-driven visionaries for trying, can you? No doubt the misery, confusion and alienation they create is all part of some higher learning experience. On to the next level, as they say.

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