Taking the politics of fear to a new low

Unable to inspire voters, the isolated, illiberal oligarchs of the EU are using the threat of fantasy fascism to try to force us to be pro-EU.

Frank Furedi

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The political class seems to have given up on formulating any positive reasons for voting in today’s elections to the European Parliament. Instead, it has reconciled itself to the fact that the institutions of the European Union (EU) lack popular legitimacy, and now acknowledges, more or less, that its ‘European project’ lacks content and meaning.

Surveys throughout Europe confirm that the public looks upon the EU with suspicion. Significant numbers of people also perceive it as a threat to their way of life. That is why the EU oligarchs, the Brussels bureaucrats who oversee this ‘European project’, have embraced the politics of fear. Unable to come up with positive arguments for voting, they have kickstarted a campaign of fear designed to scare people into casting their ballots.

‘If people don’t vote, the danger is that there will be more extremist parties or parties from outside the mainstream [in the European Parliament]’, warned Hans-Gert Poettering, president of the parliament. That is the main message of the EU oligarchy in this week’s elections: they are seeking, not a positive endorsement of mainstream EU parties, but votes cast to keep out the extremists.

According to the narrative of fear developed by the EU’s cultural and political elites, Europe’s way of life is threatened by the rise of a coalition of angry protest groups, hardened Eurosceptics and, worst of all, a powerful far-right, xenophobic, fascist-like movement. EU officials make frequent allusions to the economic instability of the 1930s that provided a fertile terrain for the emergence of fascism.

Many commentators now warn that the current climate of economic insecurity is likely to foster the kind of bitterness that will allow right-wing racist organisations to flourish. In such circumstances, apparently, it doesn’t matter whether or not you are happy with the mainstream parties; instead, voting for the mainstream parties is presented as a public duty to help keep extremists at bay. From the standpoint of such a negative morality, it doesn’t matter who you vote for, just so long as they accept the EU consensus.

One symptom of the profound moral malaise afflicting the EU is that even religious leaders have been recruited to front this negative scare campaign. Christian church leaders in Austria, Poland and Britain have spoken out against the parties of the far right. In Britain, the Archbishops of York and Canterbury have used their pulpits to denounce parties whose ‘core ideology is about sowing divisions in our communities’. British Muslim scholars echo this sentiment, warning that a low turnout could lead to ‘openly anti-Muslim’ parties gaining influence in Europe’s political institutions.

This campaign to panic people into voting relies on inflating the threat of marginal groups like the far-right British National Party and, even more ominously, on expanding the meaning of extremism. The term extremism tends to be used promiscuously today, to include anyone who does not share the cultural and political attitudes of the so-called EU mainstream. So the ‘extremists’ can include all eurosceptics, including those who, although they reject the EU, still regard themselves as pro-European. Indeed, EU bureaucrats often use the words ‘extremist’ and ‘eurosceptic’ interchangeably, as similar swear words designed to demonise their critics and opponents.

In this vein, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, warned that ‘the risk of abstention is that it allows eurosceptics and extremists to take over our debate and our future’. It’s unclear what debate Barroso is referring to, since his Commission is a no-go zone for public deliberation and serious discussion – but his intolerance for anyone holding sceptical views about the EU or the EC is clear for everyone to see.

The EU’s politics of fear seeks to brand opponents of the EU as the twenty-first-century equivalents of the militant anti-democratic forces that were responsible for the tragedies that befell Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. So it relies on the rhetorical strategy of guilt by association. The frequent conceptual leap from eurosceptic to extremist helps to expand the idea that we face a terrible threat from odious parties and individuals.

There was an imaginative example of this rhetorical fearmongering in an article in the UK Guardian this week, titled: ‘Anti-gay, climate change deniers: meet Cameron’s new friends.’ (1) The purpose of the article was to crucify UK Tory leader David Cameron for attempting to forge a league of conservative eurosceptics across Europe. By running through the political outlooks of various East European nationalists, the article established a casual link between anti-gay prejudice, racism, fundamentalist Catholicism and, of course, David Cameron. And just in case you missed the subtle point about how wicked these people are, the Guardian also threw in the contemporary heresy of climate change denial for good measure.

The message is that scepticism about the EU and climate change is akin to anti-gay prejudice and racism. All of these views are mixed together to create a nightmare vision of right-wing extremists threatening the European fabric. And, of course, the underlying message is that we should all get out and vote for those mainstream candidates who do win approval in the EU’s campaign of fear.

In the EU, the absence of political purpose and clarity about the future continually encourages the promotion of the politics of fear. Although the politics of fear reflects a wider cultural mood today, it did not emerge spontaneously: rather, fear has been consciously politicised. Throughout history, fear has been deployed as a political weapon by ruling elites. Machiavelli’s advice to rulers – that they will find ‘greater security in being feared than in being loved’ – has been heeded by generations of authoritarian governments.

Fear can be employed to coerce and terrorise and to maintain public order. Through provoking a common reaction to a perceived threat, it can also provide a focus for winning consensus and unity. Today, the objective of the politics of fear is to forge a measure of unity around an otherwise disconnected EU elite. Yet whatever its intentions, its main effect is to enforce the idea that there is no alternative. This message is clearly articulated by EU bureaucrats, who frequently argue that the alternative to the EU is chaos and disintegration.

It is probable that the EU oligarchy’s promotion of the politics of fear will endow the pro-EU campaign with some measure of coherence. It has certainly helped to divert debate away from the EU’s own record and vision. However, the EU’s reliance on negative morality will do little to contain public cynicism. Indeed, it will help to intensify the disconnection of the EU elites from the rest of society. And unfortunately, the scare tactics are likely to confirm people’s cynicism towards political life more broadly.

In such circumstances, movements that are able to politicise people’s anger and dissatisfaction are able to make significant headway. So it is not surprising that right-wing nationalist parties have gained momentum in countries like Holland, Austria, France and Poland. Unlike the mainstream parties, these protest parties have no inhibitions about exposing the democratic deficit that afflicts the EU. However, the support won by these movements should not be seen as a positive endorsement of a revitalised radical right, but as a result of the mood of political cynicism provoked by the behaviour of the EU oligarchy itself.

Frank Furedi is author of Politics of Fear (buy this book from Amazon(UK)) and Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown (buy this book from Amazon(UK)), both published by Continuum Press. Visit Furedi’s website here.

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