Friday, August 12, 2011

europe's turn to the right

TheNation | Right-wing gunmen are a rarity in postwar Europe. There have, of course, been instances of right-wing violence. In the 1990s, gangs composed mostly of former East German youths, prey to neo-Nazi fantasies, set upon Turks and other clearly identifiable immigrants, beating people up in the streets and torching refugee shelters.

One reason radical right-wing parties were marginalized for a long time in Europe is that they were simply too disreputable. It was worse than uncouth to agitate openly against minorities, let alone to flirt with ideologies that had caused the death of millions. Even to suggest that large-scale immigration could be a problem was considered racist until not so long ago. In such countries as Belgium, Austria, the Netherlands and France, mainstream parties have tended to gang up against radical right-wing parties, blocking them behind what the French call a cordon sanitaire. On the whole, voters for the far right hovered between 10 percent and 15 percent—more than is desirable, perhaps, but few people worried that they would ever get much more.

The cordon first began to crack in Austria and Italy, during the ’90s. This was not so much because Austrians were rediscovering their Nazi sympathies. Indeed, by the late ’90s most politicians on the democratic far right in Europe had tried to distance themselves from Nazi or fascist antecedents. The reason for the Freedom Party’s success was that the Social and Christian Democrats had been in government too long. People voted against a sclerotic establishment. Many Italians felt the same way about the Christian Democrats, who had been propped up for decades, with the help of the United States, to keep the left out. But once the Christian Democrats finally lost power, it wasn’t the left that leapt into the vacuum but Berlusconi, backed by neo-Fascist and anti-immigrant parties, such as Fini’s National Alliance and Umberto Bossi’s Northern League.

Governments of the European Union were outraged in 2000, when the Austrian Freedom Party garnered enough votes to form part of a coalition government. Boycotts were threatened. Austrian officials were snubbed. This was a mistake. It only helped to burnish the right’s anti-establishment credentials. After all, the AFP was democratically elected, as were the right-wing Italian parties in 1994.

Perhaps being part of a government had a civilizing effect. In 1995 Fini disavowed his party’s Fascist heritage. But when it comes to immigration and, especially, “the Muslim problem,” Fini and his right-wing allies in Berlusconi’s coalition, as well as the Austrian AFP, are if anything even more ferocious than before. In this, they are not alone.