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.