European Affairs

Last week’s atrocities in Norway were an act of far-right violence on a scale unknown in Western Europe in the post-WWII era, and they have scalded European politics with sudden fear about the possible extreme consequences of anti-Muslim populist rhetoric.

The subject of populism’s themes and political impact is treated in this European Affairs article (which was written and going to press before the massacres). This article does not deal with violence of the sort that has just occurred: it documents the spread of anti-Islamic attitudes among the European electorate and the entry of small far-right wing movements into national parliaments alongside mainstream political parties. As they have gained ground, they have increasingly challenged mainstream leaders’ ability to champion Europe’s social cohesion and traditional values such as toleration and to mobilize strong consensus on difficult decisions shaping the EU to meet its economic and international challenges.

The fall-out of the savage massacres in Norway on the course of European politics will take time to become clear. Already, far-right leaders (many of them mentioned in this European Affairs piece) have distanced themselves from the Norwegian killer’s acts. Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party said the killer was a "violent and sick character;" France’s Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant National Front, said that the Norwegian slaughter “is the work of a lone lunatic who must be ruthlessly punished;" the killings were condemned by the Danish People's Party, the Sweden Democrats and the True Finns, all of them anti-immigrant and nationalist parties represented in the national parliaments of Denmark, Sweden and Finland – all countries considered to be open and progressive Nordic societies like Norway.

Norway’s atrocity is an unfathomable step beyond the anti-immigrant stance of these political movements, but the murderer’s purported views against the "Islamization of Western Europe" echo the core theme of anti-immigration parties gaining ground across the EU.  From Sweden to Italy, populist politicians have won votes and influence with the message that Europe is letting in too many people especially Muslims – who they claim do not accept Western values, who cause crime and unemployment and undue strains on social services. The rise of the populist right is pressuring mainstream political leaders to accommodate extremist views and demands in all these countries. (This New York Times article adds some nuance to this statement, portraying how mainstream parties in Sweden have sought to compete with nationalist parties – the Sweden Democrats – in part by co-opting some of their core themes.)

Norway is an oil-rich exception to these pressures on jobs or living standards. But even in this small, well-off country, populism has grown alongside recent immigration trends giving Norway a 12 percent population of (largely Muslim) immigrants and their children. Extremists often blame governments in this and other Nordic countries for being too liberal – “too lax,” they would say – in their attitudes toward this influx. A rare counter-attack against extremist movements occurred in Sweden some five years ago when all the countries’ newspapers published the same special issues carrying photographs of the leading Swedish neo-Nazis in hopes that they would be stigmatized and marginalized in their communities.

Now the shock of events may trigger a European backlash against toleration of islamophobic propaganda and racism. But the political fall-out will be complex. It may include sterner penal attitudes: many European justice systems have shunned the harsh punishments meted out in U.S. courts for political violence. In fact, there are some grim similarities between Norway’s “long wolf” mass-killer and home-grown, right-wing American psychopaths who have carried out atrocities in the U.S. in recent decades. The Norwegian terrorist apparently learned some of his violent ideology and even bomb-making techniques from American extremists on the web. For Europeans, part of the shock from Norway comes from a realization that the ideological violence they abhorred in American life has germinated in Europe, too that “it can happen here.”

Certainly, leaders at all levels in Europe and the U.S. will undergo soul-searching about the rise of the far-right in the EU and the dangers of populism. Current counter-terrorism efforts by European governments have focused on possible Islamic attacks, but now Europe’s police agency, Europol, has announced a 50-man taskforce to look into non-Islamist threats of homegrown terrorism..

Voicing the initial reactions of many Europeans from beyond his own left-leaning group, Norwegian writer Aslak Sira Myhre said that the mayhem must shake Europeans into reacting against anti-Islamic extremism that has often been dismissed as marginal. He notes that the killer was a fellow Norwegian who until 2005 had been an active member of a populist party that was a growing rightwing force in Norwegian democratic politics. He left them and sought his ideology instead among the community of anti-Islamist groups on the internet. Now, the Norwegian writer wrote in an Oslo paper, “ all Western leaders have the same problem within their own borders. Will they now wage war on homegrown rightwing extremism? On Islamophobia and racism?”

The author praised Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg for his response to the outrage: Our answer to the attack should be more democracy and more openness, he said, adding that “there is good reason to be proud [of Norway’s leaders]. Contrasting this reaction to America’s bellicose reaction to the 9/11 attacks, he said that Norway should follow the examples of Britain and Spain in their measured responses to attacks they suffered from Muslim extremists. But, he said, “after the most dreadful experience in Norway since the Second World War, we need to go further. We need to use this incident to strike a blow against the intolerance, racism and hatred that is growing, not just in Norway and not just in Scandinavia but throughout Europe.” His words foreshadow lengthy processes to come of political debate and leadership challenges.


By Garret Martin         --         Editor-at-Large at European Affairs

The break-through success of the nationalist True Finns party in parliamentary elections in April provided the latest reminder of the growing influence of right-wing populist parties across Europe. While these parties vary from country to country, they have all benefited from a same gloomy socio-economic environment, relied on similar tactics and have often shared common anti-immigration platforms.

Often starting with small nationalist groups in different countries, such extremist views are no longer confined to small scattered groups. Nowadays, once-isolated individuals can find themselves linked into wider like-minded communities thanks to the internet that creates common audiences across Europe and indeed across the Atlantic. (There are similarities with the U.S. situation in which Tea Party stalwarts resist any compromises on taxes and other fiscal issue among traditional leaders of the main American political parties.)

The crucial environment in terms of real politics remains nation, where small parties are now able to gain enough strength to undermine the old dominance of left-right parties that rotated in and out of power in coalitions that all accepted a basic consensus on European integration. That is now changing significantly. Like the True Finns, Jobbik in Hungary and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands are among the radical right-wing populist parties on the rise since the onset of the global financial crisis and the sovereign debt woes afflicting the continent.

This voter environment, marked by discontent and anxiety linked to the economic crisis, could subside if EU leadership succeeds in restoring a stronger sense of optimism. On the other hand, the success of the populists, if sustained, could present a serious danger for mainstream European politics to reach consensus on tough collective decisions and action. Not only could the once-fringe xenophobic movements across Europe push mainstream political parties further to the right, but they could also undermine EU unity and integration.

The outcome in Finland gives a sense of the problem, and the shock and sense of alarm spreading among many political observers. The True Finns captured 20 percent of the votes (and 39 of 200 parliamentary seats) in a staggering swing from the previous elections in 2007 when they had only gained 4.1% of the votes and five seats. Their success capped a campaign based on opposition to immigration and to eurozone bailouts. Finishing in third place, they emerged as a major player in once-stable, pro-European Finnish politics. The episode illustrates a trend in which many of Europe’s working class and lower-middle class voters have turned to populist parties. As explained by the Irish Times, “globalization and European integration have brought few apparent benefits but have exposed them through immigration to greater competition for jobs and public services at a time of increased economic insecurity.”

Indeed, European citizens are facing a myriad of challenges, with at the forefront a sluggish economy and growing unemployment – jumping from 7% in 2007 to 9.5% in 2011 for the EU as a whole. They are worried about the sustainability of the welfare state in a context where, as Der Spiegel argues, “Europe is aging, and other, younger regions of the world are catching up. Many people are worried about the future in a globalized world, one in which the balance of power is shifting.” Moreover, most Europeans do not trust politicians to act honestly, nor do they trust their government to solve their country’s problems, according to a major survey conducted by The Guardian in the United Kingdom, France, Poland, Germany and Spain.

However, the rise of these populist parties cannot be viewed as solely a reaction to the gloomy socio-economic context, or to the fact that they are stepping into a -void created by the loss in vote-getting appeal of major parties (what the Economist calls “the big tent” parties – a phenomenon described by the Economist as the long-term decline of the natural parties of government in Western Europe. Populism is hardly a novel phenomenon in Europe, with the National Front an electoral force in France for the last twenty-five years; instead, the novel trend is that these parties, and their leaders, have tried in recent years to distinguish themselves from their predecessors. According to Simon Tilford, chief economist at the London-based Centre for European Reform, "the far-right movements that we're seeing – not all of them, but a few of them – pose a greater challenge than those we saw in the 1980s and 1990s. They're expressing extreme positions but in a far more polished way, and there's a danger of such views becoming more socially acceptable."

These populist parties, in some cases not even in existence a decade ago, are certainly pursuing astute strategies to appeal to a wider audience. They are often headed by young, charismatic and media-savvy leaders, such as Timo Soini for the True Finns, or Geert Wilders for the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. Like Marine Le Pen, who took over the leadership of the National Front from her father in January, they want to project a more respectable image for their parties. Having dropped the more overt xenophobia and anti-Semitism of her father, Le Pen is trying to re-position the National Front as a party defending the values of the French republic as government based on the principles of a strictly secular society (laïcité)

Moreover, while the major populist parties are certainly a varied group, they have usually relied on similar tactics in order to make their cases to the electorate, which initially is largely based on working-class voters. As Derek Scally points out in the Irish Times, these common features include first of all a strong dose of anti-elitism. Populist leaders are consciously cultivating their ordinariness to contrast with other more aloof politicians and to emphasize their “plain speaking” as an antidote to political correctness. Second, they often resort to a stark nationalist “us versus them” rhetoric, praising a better past when their country used to be free of foreign influences. Finally, these right-wing leaders are not averse to ideological opportunism. Thus, Geert Wilders is successfully combining an anti-immigration stance with positions normally associated with the left side of the political spectrum – such as his support for gay rights and his opposition to raising the retirement age.

The populist parties across the continent also tend to be united by a strong euroscepticism. They have adeptly tapped into the important voter pool that views the EU as too technocratic, too complex and not transparent enough – sentiments echoed by the “no” votes on the Dutch and French referenda on European Constitution in 2005 and then in the initial Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. Systematically, these populists have attacked the EU as undermining national sovereignty, blamed its open-border policies for letting outsiders in and denounced the eurozone bailouts. In May, Denmark went one step further when its government, in order to appease the populist Danish People’s Party and guarantee its support on a budget package, decided to restore 24 hour border control. By doing so, it “became the first member to seriously challenge the [European] union’s crowning achievement: the free movement of goods and services across borders”

The most significant common trait of these far-right parties, however, remains their commitment to an anti-immigration and anti-Islam platform. It has been a key factor, perhaps even the major one, in their rise in the European electorate. The same five-nation Guardian poll revealed a plurality amongst those surveyed who opposed people from outside the EU coming to the EU to look for work; and according to Norwegian social scientist Elisabeth Ivarsflaten, in her 2007 study , What Unites Rightwing Populists in Western Europe?, “no populist right party managed to receive more than five per cent of the vote…without mobilizing grievances over immigration better than all major parties.”

The far-right leaders have targeted immigrants, and especially Muslims, as presenting a multi-faceted threat to Europe. That has involved, in times of economic hardship, routinely denouncing immigrants as an economic burden and a strain on resources – as well as depicting them as the group most likely to abuse social benefits. In the 2010 elections, the Sweden Democrats ran a campaign ad showing an elderly woman being almost run over by women in burqas pushing their strollers. As the women hurried toward a desk labeled “Government Budget,” a voice-over stated that “on September 19, you can pull the immigration brake, and not the pension brake.” Journalists in the European media say that  the editors of these papers and websites now publish letters that would have been thrown into the wastebasket even a few years ago. At the Norwegian Center Against Racism, a staff member said that the changing climate affects everyone – and that “racism,” once a powerful concept,  has now lost its power to stigmatize to the point where he and his colleagues do not even use the word anymore.

As a staple tactic in their scare tactics, populist parties dangle the specter of Eurabia, or a warning of a bleak future where Europe would become Muslim-dominated through a combination of immigration and high birth rates. Such fear-mongering appeared on display in Italy when the Northern League posted election materials with a picture of a Native American Chief, accompanied by the words: “They were not able to put rules and order on immigration and now they live on the reservation.” Similarly, Marine Le Pen likened Muslims praying on the streets of France as akin to Nazi occupation.

These same populist leaders have tried to argue that this alleged Muslim takeover presents a fundamental threat to Europe’s identity, emphasizing their supposed inability or unwillingness to integrate in European societies. Geert Wilders, inparticular, has gone to great lengths to stress the complete incompatibility between Western values and Islam, denying the possibility of any sort of modus vivendi: “If we do not stop Islamification now, Eurabia and Netherabia will just be a matter of time . . . We are heading for the end of European and Dutch civilization as we know it.” Of course, the terrorist attacks on 9/11 in the U.S. and  subsequently in Europe, have only given more ammunition to the proponents of a violent clash of civilizations argument.

Far-right populist parties are on the march across Europe, and they may not have peaked yet. Certain polls are suggesting that Marine Le Pen could make it to the second round of the 2012 French presidential elections, eliminating incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy in the process. In Austria, Heinz-Christian Strache’s Freedom Party is polling very close to the two leading parties ahead of major elections in 2013.

Flexing its newfound electoral muscle, populism has pushed European politics and debates further to the right in regards to Islam and immigration and also widened the area for tolerating racist incitement. Wilders was recently acquitted of inciting hatred against Muslims when he was charged over near-hate speech equating Islam with fascism. Danish immigration laws are now particularly restrictive, under the influence of Pia Kjaersgaard’s Danish People’s Party.  Belgium and France recently outlawed the wearing of the full-veil burka in public. Switzerland banned the building of minarets in 2009;. Last year Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron all went out of their way to publicly denounce the failings of multiculturalism.

By doing so, according to Justin Vaïsse, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, and Jonathan Laurence, a Professor in Political Science at Boston College, these three Western leaders not only undermined successful efforts in the last decade to integrate Muslim communities but also aided forces that are  “feeding the very fire they hope their speeches will contain: a growing far-right populism based on the rejection of Islam.”

Furthermore, the growing strength of populism and the resurgence of nationalist feelings could weaken European solidarity. As pointed out by Charles Kupchan, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Europe might “struggle to speak with one voice – in terms of projecting military and diplomatic power abroad, as well as setting economic policy,” and thereby fail to fulfill the goals of the Lisbon Treaty.

At this juncture, the potential for cooperation between populist parties across Europe remains small, considering their attachment to nationalist ideals. And they have seen their fortunes ebb and flow in the past, unable to survive the failings or disappearance of their charismatic leaders – as in the case of the Pim Fortuyn list in the Netherlands – or chastened by the exercise of power, as happened to Jörg Haider’s Austrian Freedom Party in the early 2000s. It is one thing to tap into popular discontent but quite  another to participate in governing. This pattern, showing populist parties being forced away from  their radical roots as they try to enlarge their role in parliamentary politics, is a hopeful possibility for evolving politics in EU nations.

The traumatic shock of events in Norway may prove have a salutary effect on electorates and leaders alike, renewing their determination to regain political momentum in the EU to take steps toward closer union and action on joint goals of economic integration and strengthened democracy.

Garret Martin is an Editor-at-Large at European Affairs.