In the Wake of Xenophobia: The New Racism in Europe

Europe was torn apart by fascism in the 1930s, and when the Second World War ended in 1945, remnants of extreme right parties re-emerged on the margins of politics. By the 1980s, when the forgetting had started, some began to pick up protest votes as immigrants became an issue, driven by tabloid journalists looking for a cheap story.

In the new millennium, there is a step change with new political racism in Europe. For one, Jewish conspiracy and Holocaust denial have given way to the clash of civilizations and Islamic fundamentalism. Secondly, traditionally fascist right-wing parties have chosen to dilute their message and their membership to "fascist light". No longer pure fascist parties, they have become right-wing populist parties, who embrace a broad church membership that stretches from ideological fascists to racists, xenophobes and the alienated working-class whites. They now use a language of nation and tradition, sovereignty and community, rather than eugenics, extermination and fatherland. Thirdly, they are deliberately narrowing the gap between themselves and traditional democratic parties as they dress down their rhetoric, and traditional parties steal these sound bites for electoral advantage as the new racist language leaks into the mainstream. Aided and abetted by Europe's Eastern widening, which has not proved a tool for tolerance, prejudices suppressed for decades by communist regimes have re-emerged to underpin new quirky racist, xenophobic and bigoted politicians and parties.

One example of the success of these new strategies in Europe is the introduction of new legislation to enforce tolerance, where it was once given freely. Another is that the extreme right has now the numbers and self-confidence to come out officially as a European political group. The establishment in 2007 of the Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty (ITS) group within the European Parliament saw the extreme right and racist parties from Austria, Belgium, France and Italy, as well as Bulgaria and Romania -- the two most recent accession countries -- link up, along with an orphan Member of the European Parliament (MEP), who was expelled from the United Kingdom Independence Party not for his views but because of allegations of benefit fraud.

A reflection of current trends is that there are more racist politicians among the current 785 MEPs than members representing the 15 million ethnic minorities and third-country nationals living in European Union (EU) countries, making them the Union's eighth largest country out of 27. The 19 members of the ITS group include leading lights of extreme right-wing parties across Europe and, despite the rhetoric, their real views are not hard to find. The ITS leader is French MEP Bruno Gollinisch, Deputy Leader of Jean Marie Le Pen's Front National, who was charged in January 2007 with Holocaust denial. Andreas Moelzer was the brains behind the success of Jorg Haider's Austrian Freedom Party, the same Haider who refused to condemn a terrorist bombing that killed four Roma. Frank Vanhecke is a leader of the Flemish Vlaams Belang party, which demands that immigrants must totally assimilate into Western culture or be repatriated. Yet all three are trying to reposition the ITS, claiming they are within the mainstream of European politics. One sign of this rebranding is the rejection of the "Europe of the Fatherlands" name for the group, with its echoes of Hitler and the Nazis, despite its earlier use for the joint newsletter of the majority of its current membership.

The rebranding had been driven by the success of far-right parties in Austria, Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands, where toning down public intolerance has paid dividends in the ballot box and in their acceptability as coalition partners for mainstream parties. At the European level, two have been so successful in escaping their neo-fascist history and roots, that they have joined the more acceptable and less controversial Union for a Europe of Nations in the Parliament. UEN is an incoherent mix of hard-right and moderate right-wing parties in a marriage of convenience, trading respectability for influence. The group includes the former neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) Party, founded by Giorgio Almirante, former Chief of Cabinet for the Minister of Propaganda in the infamous Salo Republic, relabelled as Alleanza Nazionale, alongside the deeply homophobic Liga Polskich Rodzin (LPR) or League of Polish Families, the anti-immigration party Dansk Folkeparti (the Danish Peoples Party) and Ireland's Fianna Fail.

Europe is a reflection of domestic success. In 2002, Le Pen, who believes the Nazi occupation of France was "essentially benign" despite the deaths of 70,000 French Jews in concentration camps, came second in the presidential election. In the 2007 election, his support was nearly halved, not because of his failure but because of his success in 2002. The other candidates stole his rhetoric and his voters, and were tough on immigration and crime, but not on its causes, while signalling in their opposition to Turkish membership in the EU that the future limits of Europe were to be religious rather than geographical. Vlaams Belang's leader Filip Dewinter proudly announced it was an Islamaphobic party, which was no barrier to it, narrowly failing to take control in 2006 of Antwerp, Belgium's second city, or increasing its vote in the 2007 national elections to win 17 seats, only one less than the Flemish Liberal Party, Belgium's largest. In Italy, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was prepared to incorporate his country's fascist and extreme-right wing parties into his electoral coalition in an attempt to hold on to power. Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of Benito Mussolini and founder of the neo-fascist Azione Sociale, was being touted for a Cabinet post. Mirko Tremaglia, who had proudly fought with the Republica Sociale Italiana -- the Italian version of the Waffen SS -- was already a Minister. In the end, Berlusconi lost to Romano Prodi by only 26,000 votes or 0.1 per cent of the total. In Austria, the split in Haider's Freedom Party was supposed to spell its demise, but the 2006 national elections saw the two win 15 per cent of the votes, while local elections in Germany saw the neo-Nazi Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands gain support at the expense of ex-communist Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus.

The rise of the far right is not limited to "old Europe". The current Slovak Government includes in its three-party coalition the Slovenská Národná Strana (Slovak National Party), whose leader, Jan Slota, would like to expel the Hungarian minority, comprising 10 per cent of the population. The Hungarian Truth and Life Party, headed by Istvan Csurka, is anti-Jewish and anti-Roma. Yet it is seen as part of the mainstream opposition to the Hungarian Socialist Government, despite helping to organize riots in an attempt to bring down the democratically elected government. In Poland, the ruling Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc, (Law and Justice Party) since 2005 has established an informal coalition with the LPR, which has poisoned the political environment with its Catholic fundamentalism and extreme nationalism. The infamous Radio Maryja, with its ultra-nationalism, homophobia and anti-Semitic reputation, has become a semi-official mouthpiece of the Government.

My own country is not immune. The British National Party (BNP) has become the fourth party, with 56 local councillors, and is on track to win seats on the Greater London Assembly in May 2008 and in the European Parliament a year later. It has cynically exploited terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom to promote Islamophobia. Following the July 2005 London bombings, BNP distributed leaflets showing the bombed bus, with the slogan "Maybe its time to listen to the BNP", and has repeated the exercise after the failed terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow this summer.

How do democratic parties in Europe start to push the extremists back into the political margin where they belong? Firstly, all parties must enforce a self-denying ordinance not to pander to the racists by echoing their message for short-term electoral gain, and, secondly, through action at the EU level. The fact is that while all EU Member States are signed up to its laws to combat racism and xenophobia, the level of implementation varies markedly from State to State. Having stronger and more encompassing anti-racist legislation would be welcome. The real challenge is to ensure that existing laws have bite at home, so that all of Europe's residents have the same rights and duties and are not divided by sex, race or nation.