Europe enveloped in murky politics of austerity

VIDYA RAM | Updated on May 09, 2012 Published on April 29, 2012

A right-wing upsurge is not the only feature of Europe's political landscape.

What to make of the recent developments in France where the xenophobic anti-immigration, anti-euro National Front party of Ms Marine Le Pen scored a whopping 18 per cent in the first round of the presidential elections on April 22 — its best electoral performance to date at the national level?

It's the latest in a series of apparent successes for right and ultra right-wing parties in Europe since the financial crisis struck, compounding fears that a rise in nationalism and anti-foreigner policies could undermine the very foundations of the European project.

Mr Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Freedom Party, whose antipathy to immigrants in general and Islam in particular were broadcast to the world in his infamous documentary, Fitna, this week proved to be more than a mere thorn in the side of the coalition he was a part of. His decision to walk out of crucial austerity talks triggered a political crisis that brought about the collapse of the government.

Even Germany, which last year rebuked Denmark for its decision to reintroduce border controls which were seen as undermining the Schengen Agreement (which allows for the free travel across countries and has been a fundamental part of the European project since the 1980s), is showing its willingness to push for measures that would allow individual States to introduce temporary border controls.

The move — a joint initiative by France and Germany — has been widely seen as an attempt to strengthen the French President, Mr Nicolas Sarkozy's election chances in the face of populist forces.

Extremist movements

The overall climate is certainly troublesome enough to spur Mr Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council (and a man rarely given to dramatic rhetoric), to warn that “nationalist and extremist movements” were on the rise in Europe. “Regrettably, the winds of populism are affecting a key achievement of European integration,” he tweeted earlier this week.

Times of crisis, particularly economic downturns, have long been seen as a trigger for rightward shifts and nationalist upsurges. Harsh conditions of life and high unemployment provide fertile ground for those wishing to exploit feelings of discontent and fear for the future, with the targeting of scapegoats a familiar strategy. (Perhaps the most extreme example of this was the exploitation of the dire conditions of the Great Depression by Hitler's National Socialist party in its rise to power).

Such concerns were expressed early on in this crisis: for example, in 2009, a US Homeland Security report warned that the financial crisis, powered by the ease of communication through the Internet, could create a “fertile recruiting environment for right-wing extremists.” “Growing concerns over austerity programmes due to the economic crisis, immigration and multiculturalism issues, combined with disillusion with mainstream politics, may lead to an increase in violent right-wing activities,” warned EuroPol, the European police force, in its TE-SAT 2012 report on EU terrorism published this week.

Economic factors

But while there are worrying aspects to recent political developments in Europe, it is important not to overemphasise the power of the right as a political force. Anger over perceived mismanagement of the economy; frustration and, increasingly, fury at cutbacks and other austerity measures: these are what seem to be currently driving parties in — and out — of political office. Since the start of the crisis in 2008, no less than nine governments across Europe, from Finland to Ireland, have been swept out of office as a direct or indirect result of austerity measures. By no means have these always been ousted by parties of the right.

Take Denmark, for example. Here, a right-wing coalition government which for a decade had embarked upon some of the toughest anti-immigrant policies in Europe, including a border clampdown, was voted out of power in September 2011 — speared by its own austerity drive and programme of cuts to Denmark's generous welfare system.

It was replaced by a centre-left coalition headed by Social Democrat Ms Helle Thorning-Schmidt. Significantly, the same elections saw the anti-immigration Danish People Party, which had formed part of the outgoing coalition, garner its lowest vote ever in its more than twenty years of existence.

No rallying point

A much-hyped meeting coordinated by Britain's anti-Islamist English Defence League in the Danish city of Aarhaus at the end of March this year proved to be anything but a rallying point for Europe's far right: its paltry turnout was dwarfed by that of protestors.

Even in France, Ms Le Pen appears to have recognised that electoral success entailed raising issues beyond those traditionally taken up by the far right. While her anti-immigration stance remains well understood, she made sure to infuse her campaign and public performances with strong doses of anti-austerity rhetoric.

When giving her crucial election spot broadcast on French television, she did not even mention immigration. Instead she focused on the need for jobs and growth, and attacked the rising cost of living — a bread-and-butter approach that she knew would appeal beyond her traditional power base.

Many political commentators in France believe that those voting for her in the first round of the two-stage presidential poll included some who were registering a protest vote against Mr Sarkozy. Some of these voters are thought likely to support Mr Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party candidate, in the run-off on May 6.

Meanwhile, appealing to National Front voters has become the name of the game to both men left in the ring. Both Mr Sarkozy and Mr Hollande have made concessions to anti-immigrant sentiment. In a speech in Tours, the President-candidate accused Mr Hollande of “insulting” National Front voters. Unlike the left, he said, he did not “hold his nose” when speaking of far-right voters.

“I have heard you”, he told those who had voted for Ms Le Pen, promising “precise commitments” on immigration and the threat of Islam to French “identity”. “Protectionism is not a rude word,” Mr Sarkozy said, when it came to rescuing French jobs and French identity from “European frontiers open to all the winds.”

Govts in trouble

In other parts of Europe, right-wing governments are having a tough time of it. In Romania, the centre-right government of Prime Minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu collapsed on April 27 following a no-confidence vote over its rigorous austerity programme, while over in the Czech Republic, the right-of-centre government of Petr Necas won its vote of confidence, but only just.

In Spain, where an economy in free fall left voters so disillusioned and desperate that last November they voted into power the right-wing government of Mr Mariaono Rajoy, the new rulers now confront a tidal wave of pressure.

With unemployment rising to an astonishing quarter of the working population in the first three months of 2012, and with public spending cuts inflicting ever deeper wounds, room for manoeuvre is limited and bold, election-hour promises sound increasingly hollow.

Rather than flaunting the big, bold colours of extremism, Europe seems cast in the far murkier shades of the politics of austerity. Across the continent, incumbent governments, including those of the right, peer uneasily into a future whose cheerless opacity can only thicken as the economic crisis rolls on, the hardship bites deeper — and the anger mounts.

Published on April 29, 2012
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