The modern European paradise, despite crisis and much global lament, still attracts huddled masses from other parts of the world. The pitiful African barges off the Sicilian coast and the untold thousands from the Middle East, South Asia and the Horn of Africa clamouring for entrance at Greek, Bulgarian and other eastern frontiers testify to the unbroken promise of a brighter future in Europe.
There can be no doubt that in such disparate countries as Greece, France, the Netherlands and Finland, rabidly nationalist and openly xenophobic parties have made remarkable strides towards acceptance, partly in response to this human tide.
In other European countries the nationalist fringe is part of a greater political scene, often present in the right wing of otherwise mainstream political parties, or of party coalitions. Such is the case in, for example, Austria, Sweden and Switzerland. The UK’s Nigel Farage is also part of this rogue's gallery. The nationalists use sentiment against immigrants and refugees to stoke anti-European fires which they believe will prepare the ground for their ascent to political power. Borderless Europe, a resounding success in political, historical and economic terms, is thus abused as a xenophobic vehicle.
An interesting exception is Germany, where the far right is not able to break out of its extreme fringe existence. An anti-European ‘egg head' party scored gains in the last national election, but not enough to give it much momentum. Germany’s continued economic prosperity plays a part but more important is the fact that the new right in Europe fights now under a nationalist and alleged socialist (to attract voters from the left) flag. This historically tainted combination still carries a huge ‘verboten’ sign which makes a large majority of Germans recoil. There might be a parallel in the Asia Pacific, where the Japanese, if recent discussion on The Interpreter is any indication, appear ready to rebuff the efforts of its otherwise popular government to constitutionally re-muscle the military.
But the nationalist tide in Europe is powerful and some prophets of doom are already wondering whether the twin drivers of nationalism and economic woe will again lead to a 1930s situation.
That is unlikely. As shown in part 1 of this essay, lessons of history can be told (education), headed off (social security for all), and applied (peaceful and borderless Europe) in a way to make a repeat performance virtually impossible.
However, rising political support for xenophobic parties will lead to a bigger backlash and increased internal confrontation. A small but telling example is playing out below my Parisian window and has made it into the world’s media.
A high school student, allegedly the daughter of a Roma family from Kosovo, was plucked out of a school bus when the family was expelled from France as the alleged father had been lying both with regard to his family status and their origin. Immediately, thousands of protesting high school kids poured onto French streets, including from the ‘Lycee’ across our street, clamouring for their colleague Leonarda to be brought back. Mindful of the past (eg. the beginning of the 1968 student unrest which ultimately brought De Gaulle down), French authorities scrambled, with the president himself ‘reviewing the case’ and handing down the solomonic judgment that the girl could rejoin a French school but her family had to stay out.
Needless to say that all are furious now, the right claiming that Francois Hollande denigrated the hallowed traditions of the world’s second oldest republic by getting involved with an administrative act, the left howling that a student was ‘abducted from school, the sanctuary of all children’ and Leonarda, apparently neither 15 years old nor academically inclined, insulting the French president on prime time TV.
But of course, playing to xenophobic fears and then having to allay the reaction is no European specialty. I would respectfully submit that Khalid Khoser’s stern reprimand in these pages regarding policy towards boat refugees by both major Australian parties was not entirely unjustified.
It will take more than select pages from the xenophobic song book followed by feverish bouts of political correctness for European governments and authorities to beat back the nationalist groundswell. Structural reform in southern and eastern Europe triggered by northern European-led austerity is a first important step.
The root of the problem is what acclaimed American author Anne Applebaum calls the dead weight of an authoritarian past. We tend to forget that Greece had its military junta through the mid-70s, Italy fascism and then the political influence of the mafia through to the 90s, Spain had Franco and Portugal Salazar, not to mention the totalitarian or at least authoritarian past through to 1990 in eastern Europe. All are still struggling to liberate themselves from autocratic behaviour by politicians, undemocratic political traditions, old boy networks and crony capitalism inherited from the bad old times.
As has been the case in Europe since the Second World War, the way forward is a focus on economic prosperity (including the fulfillment of social promises made to the voters such as universal health care and pensions) and political unity, which alone can guarantee the old continent a seat at the global table into the 21st century. An important building block towards this aim is the eurozone. This is why the euro will endure and will bring more of Europe in its wake, not the opposite. The pundits foreseeing various disaster scenarios have been and will be disappointed because they focus on economic or fiscal narratives. Europe is a political construct.