European Affairs

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Europe Turns Right

As a rising wave of conservative parties ousts Europe's socialist establishment, voters throughout the European Union seem to be motivated by the same concerns: the need for security in a globalized world, which is destablilizing traditional cultures, and the fear of unemployment. These common trends confirm, albeit in an unexpected way, that economic and monetary integration leads to political unification, as Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, the Fathers of Europe, predicted.

As a result, it has become even more important to assess the complex nature of the changes that are occurring. Blaming European countries individually or collectively for the rise of far right parties is not the answer. Part of what is happening is the traditional phenomenon of "changing the guard."After a period in which center-left governments prevailed in most EU countries, voters are perfectly entitled to opt for conservative alternatives.

Spain, Austria, Italy, Portugal, Denmark, Norway, France and the Netherlands have now turned right. The outcome of the German elections this autumn remains to be seen, although local elections already indicate a strong showing by the right. In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair appears to owe his longevity in large part to his success in steering the Labor Party toward the right and to the somewhat outmoded anti-European stance of the opposition Conservative Party.

The far-right movement seems to have gained an unexpectedly stable base by winning the support of some 10 percent of European continental electorates. It is traditional conservative parties, however, which have actually gained power. In some cases, as in France, these traditional parties refuse to work with the far right as a matter of principle. In other countries, such as Austria, Italy, Denmark, Portugal and Norway, the traditional parties collaborate with the far right in order to gain power. In Spain, the traditional conservatives are strong enough, and conservative enough, to secure a majority by themselves.

A clear and objective analysis of the success of the far right is the only way to prevent its support from multiplying, especially since many right-wing voters would prefer other options. In fact, when governments turn to more conservative policies in the traditional sense, the extreme right seems to lose ground, as in Austria.

Most far-right parties, with their extreme nationalism and exaggerated fears of immigration, would have remained insignificant were it not for a growing populist movement in Europe. It is precisely because the far-right parties are marginal, and spurned by the political establishment, that they have recently attracted so many votes of no confidence by citizens protesting against the elitist approach of their leaders. Voters are expressing their frustration with leaders too busy with their own grand political schemes to recognize the daily practical difficulties experienced by the general populace

Toward a common immigration policy

The European Parliament rightly refused to hear Mr. Le Pen in plenary session in May because his basic ideas are unacceptable to almost all its members. But perhaps the Parliament and the European Commission should devote greater efforts to working out a serious and more credible European immigration policy. The free movement of people has become an accepted principle among the signatory countries of the Schengen Agreement (which include all the EU countries except Britain and Ireland). But each country still manages its external frontiers its own way. While the increasing number of illegal immigrants is a problem, so are legitimate asylum-seekers, who now number around 22.3 million worldwide, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The EU countries should decide on common rules for granting asylum. Already, they are discussing the prospects for a common system for policing their borders.

Two traditionally strong ideologies are on the decline in Europe. On the one hand, nationalism is losing ground to Europeanism and internationalism. On the other hand, socialism has suffered from the end of the Cold War and the increasing acceptance of free market philosophies. Mr. Le Pen made his real progress in France between 1988 and 1995, when he advanced from 16 to 27 percent of "working class" votes. He gained support in what used to be the turf of the Communist Party, in areas suffering from inequality and what the left calls "the money-based values of today's capitalist society." Even some immigrants, victims of crime in their neighborhoods, voted for Le Pen. France, a country with a long tradition of immigration, is becoming multiracial - five million of its 60 million inhabitants are foreigners, and 12 million have at least one foreign parent or grandparent.

One should remember that at the turn of the last century a huge crime wave on the East Coast of the United States was attributed to Irish immigrants. It is widely estimated that Europe, with its aging population, will need more than 50 million immigrants to swell its workforce during the next 50 years to sustain tax revenues and finance pension schemes. This prospect should be enough to encourage the Parliament and the Commission to convince national governments of the need for a serious common immigration policy. Such a policy would facilitate the integration of immigrants and cool down populist reactions to the multiracial and multicultural world of the future.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number III, Issue number II in the Spring of 2002.