The Right Wing in Europe

by Amy Edgington


This is a brief overview of trends I have noted from an unsystematic attempt to keep track of what’s happening. Most of my information comes from Germany, since that is the only foreign language I read fluently.

Immigrants of color are the chief scapegoats of the right-wing.

“Of color” should be emphasized. In some cases in Germany, relatively dark-skinned people of German descent have been attacked as “foreigners.”
Africans, Turks, North Africans, Asians and Roma are the most frequent targets. Attacks against Jews, Jewish memorials and cemeteries are on the rise. Other groups attacked by neo-fascists are gays, the homeless, left wing youth and people with disabilities.

Violence is primarily committed by young people.

Many of these youth are poor, unemployed, alienated. Although it is important to address the social problems of these youth, far more attention, money and sympathy is being directed towards this aim than towards improving the far worse conditions for immigrants or towards addressing the root causes of racism.

Mainstream political parties have responded by moving to the right, particularly on immigration issues.

Predictably, far from defusing right-wing violence, this has only served to legitimize the racist sentiments that underlie it. Violence continues to grow and peaceful demonstrations opposing violence against immigrants have declined in size and frequency.

Explicitly right-wing parties have gained enough support to enter parliaments in most European countries, sometimes gaining enough power to lead the government—as in Austria and Italy.

Each parliamentary government is formed somewhat differently, but in some, parties can enter parliament with only 5% of the vote, and small parties must often be included in ruling coalitions. Right-wing parties have made large gains in almost every European country, primarily with anti-immigration platforms. The European Union recently narrowly averted a move to impose economic sanctions on countries exporting illegal immigrants to Europe.

Extreme right-wing parties are routinely banned in Germany; possession of Fascist propaganda and public display of Nazi symbols, gesture or language are prosecuted as crimes. The political wing of the Basque movement was recently banned in Spain.

It’s unclear to me whether these measures (given recent history) are the political equivalent of stopping people from yelling ”Fire” in a crowded theater, or whether they are actually counter-productive to building democracy. In any case, the German police and military are well known for harboring many neo-fascist sympathizers and for enforcing the law more vigorously against the left-wing and anti-fascists.

While Western Europe is prosperous, Europe faces some daunting economic and social problems, which the right-ring exploits.

These problems include housing shortages and high population density, high unemployment, failing infrastructure, aging populations, declining tax bases and rollbacks of social safety nets. Immigration is being blamed as the chief cause for these problems, when in some cases immigration could actually help solve some issues, and when globalization, unfettered capitalism, IMF and World Bank policies are more clearly to blame. The right is also careful to ignore the legacy of European colonialism and the role of current US military and foreign policies in causing the upsurge in immigration.

Historically in much of Eastern and Western Europe the concept of nationality is racially based.

This is most explicit in Germany were until recently citizenship was restricted exclusively to those who could prove German descent, no matter where they were born or how long they resided in Germany. These laws have been only slightly modified by a narrow margin and the modifications are being challenged in court.

Rising nationalism, particularly in Eastern Europe is accompanied by religious and ethnic violence.

Aside from the obvious examples in the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union, persecution of Moslems, Jews, Roma and Sinta people (called “gypsies”) are on the rise all over Europe. Ironically, people of German descent returning from the former USSR cause a large portion of the immigration “problem” in Germany.

Right-wing extremists and religious fundamentalists have formed international alliances, sometimes strange ones, often facilitated by the Internet.

White Power skinheads in the US have been inspired by racist skinheads in Britain, Neo-Nazis in the US have supplied their German counterparts with propaganda they couldn’t legally print in Germany. Stranger bedfellows are the German right-wing extremists and Islamic extremists, who collaborate in attacking Jews and “Israeli sympathizers.” The right-wing Sharon government has found it’s most enthusiastic supporters among the Christian right in the U.S.

While “immigration” is the code word for “race” in the mainstream right, “criminal” is increasingly used as the code word for “immigrant.”

Asylum seekers are legally barred from almost all employment, denied benefits, then blamed for entering “black market” economies (drug trade, prostitution, etc.). Increasingly, the trend is towards incarceration of asylum seekers (under deplorable conditions), criminalizing the whole class.

Democracy is a recent experiment in most European countries, and multi-racial, multi-cultural democracy is a brand new idea.

On the other hand there are historical conflicts based on religion and ethnicity, war and conquest, dating back for centuries, that affect current attitudes in ways that are not always obvious to Americans. For instance, right-wing Serbs dredge up the history of Turkish invasion and conquest to stir up hatred of Albanian Moslems in Kosovo. Immigrants crossing from Morocco into Spain face a hostile population which has not come to terms with its history of 700 years as a multi-ethnic society under Islamic rule, followed by Christian re-conquest and forcible conversion, execution or expulsion of both Muslims and Jews.

Although anti-racist, anti-fascist organizations exist, the European left is in disarray, divided into many factions, plagued by in-fighting and competition for turf, and marred by violence.

The fall of the Soviet Union has discredited the socialist vision for many, leaving the left without a pro-active program. There has been no movement with a tradition of non-violence similar to the US civil rights movement. In Germany, at least, there is no coalition-building or even communication between feminist, gay, labor, anti-racist groups. Coalitions between immigrants (even “legals”) are difficult to build due to language and cultural differences. Very little written by immigrants themselves appears in the European media—their problems are continually framed and commented on by other “experts.”

The left can be co-opted into aiding the right’s agenda, by focusing on single issues and ignoring others, especially race.

A recent example would be the attempt supported by animal rights activists in Belgium and Holland to ban kosher slaughter as “cruel.” Anti-globalization activists find themselves allied with others who have nationalist or ethnic supremacist agendas. Through decades of work, the labor movement has influenced the educational system in Germany, requiring years of schooling and certification for virtually every occupation, a “victory” which has wound up solidifying class immobility for Germans and closing employment to anyone educated outside Germany.

I worry that the some of the strong support for the ecology movement is based on less than savory German obsessions with “purity.”

Right wing candidates and parties re-package themselves as charismatic moderates concerned with working class issues, family values, etc.

To me the most chilling and successful examples of this re-packaging, is the candidacy of the right wing, openly gay Dutch candidate Pim Fortuyn. He defended his call for an end to Moslem immigration as a defense of western liberal democratic values. Moslems, he said, should be excluded because of their regressive attitudes toward women and gays (and not because he was a racist). An animal rights activist assassinated Fortuyn and the “sympathy vote” moved his party into the second most powerful position in the right wing ruling coalition.

Many European societies exhibit a powerful social cohesiveness, a high degree of social wealth and a high quality of life, but this cohesiveness is based on racial/ethnic identity and the exclusion of others.

The problems as yet unaddressed by the European left are to redefine a “beloved community” based on inclusive democracy and to move the discussion of racism beyond guilt over wrongdoing to the issues of privilege and power.

Since 9-11 there is increasing discrimination against Moslems and people from the Middle East, as well as acceptance of increased police repression.

Concern for “security” has become the new cover for racism and for the move to the right. All Muslims are being branded as extremists/terrorists.

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