Beware the rise of EU anti-populists
The EU elites’ fear of an imminent Fourth Reich reveals a great deal about their loathing of the European mob.
Earlier this month, the sci-fi comedy Iron Sky was released in Britain, featuring the return to Earth of a band of vicious Nazis in flying saucers. ‘In 1945 the Nazis went to the moon’, goes the movie trailer, which shows a giant swastika-shaped base on the moon. ‘In 2018, they are coming back.’
You have to wonder, given his recent comments regarding the rise of the right across Europe, whether Britain’s deputy prime minister Nick Clegg thinks he is inhabiting the same fantasy world as Iron Sky. In an interview with Der Spiegel, where he reaffirmed the Lib-Con coalition’s commitment to the EU, Clegg claimed that there could be ‘a whole range of nationalist, xenophobic and extreme movements increasing across the European Union’. Warning of an imminent ‘disaster’, he implied that lessons need to be learnt from Europe’s history: ‘We know this much from our continent: the combination of economic insecurity and political paralysis is the ideal recipe for an increase in extremism and xenophobia.’
Clegg is just one of many members of the political elite across Europe issuing warnings about this dangerous recipe. The ‘white savages’ in Hungary are frequently frowned upon by scaremongering EU elites, and now there is an increasing clamour about savages across Europe. Dutch MEP Emine Bozkurt has declared that ‘we are at a crossroads in European history’. In five years’ time, she says, there could be an ‘increase in the forces of hatred and division in society, including ultra-nationalism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism’.
In a recently published report, Jenö Kaltenbach, chairman of the Council of Europe’s European commission against racism and intolerance, warned that ‘xenophobic rhetoric is now part of mainstream debate’ due to the influence of far-right parties. Some academics and journalists echo this concern, with the Guardian talking about the ‘shock’ of the rise of far-right party Golden Dawn in Greece. Claiming conditions are ripe for the rise of the right, Nicolas Lebourg from the University of Perpignan recently declared that ‘Europe is a dry prairie waiting for someone to light a match’.
With the exception of Golden Dawn, whose leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos notoriously gave a Nazi salute when arriving into Athens city council last year, many recognise that the far-right parties which are apparently enjoying a resurgence have done much to ‘decontaminate’ their brands. These Nazis, it is suggested, are cunning wolves in sheep’s clothing. This led one reporter for Associated Press to confess her confusion: ‘Identifying the parties in question is itself confounding. Are they populist? Nationalist? Extreme right? That depends. They come in all shades.’
For some commentators, Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front – which gained 17.9 per cent of the vote in the first round of the recent presidential elections – has the best sheep’s clothing of them all. An analyst for the BBC remarked: ‘She is… very identifiably a modern French woman. With her two divorces, steely femininity and cigarette-roughened voice, she comes across as far more “normal” than most of her political rivals.’ (Indeed, Le Pen is evidently such a master of disguise that, as spiked has pointed out previously, if her rhetoric mirrored anything, it was the cultural paranoia of the far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, with her railing against the ‘princes of finance and the banking world’ as well as globalisation’s ‘deadly effects’.)
Tellingly, it is these ‘normal’ Le Pen-types, rather than the likes of the black-shirted Golden Dawn, that strike the most fear into the hearts of many among the European political and media classes. They are seen as cynically playing the ‘populist’ card in an attempt to gain mainstream recognition, so that even if they can’t win power they might earn the role of ‘kingmaker’ and lead politicians desperate for votes to pander to their ideas, thus ‘poisoning politics’. (An oft-cited example is Nicolas Sarkozy’s pandering to anti-Islam sentiment to try to scrape a victory ahead of Francois Hollande earlier this month.)
There is little the EU elites fear more than so-called ‘populism’. According to one commentator, ‘in conferences and dinner parties from Brussels to Bratislava, the topic of populism dominates conversations’. As Corrado Passero, Italy’s minister of economic development, declared earlier this year, ‘our worst enemy right now is populism’. Clegg echoed such concerns in his interview with Der Spiegel. ‘Frankly’, he said, ‘questions about the British debate on EU membership will just be a small sideshow, compared to the rise of political populism’.
Leaving aside all the hype, it’s worth looking at some facts. Golden Dawn only managed seven per cent of the vote in the national elections in Greece earlier this month; Dutch right-winger Geert Wilders is now widely seen to have blown his ‘kingmaker’ role after the coalition government he played an influential role in collapsed; and despite her much-discussed attempts at modernisation, Marine Le Pen only won marginally more votes than her father did in 2002 (17.9 per cent compared to his 16.9 per cent).
In the UK, the so-called ‘street populists’ in the English Defence League always struggle to mobilise more than a few hundred people for their demonstrations, and the British National Party has been all but wiped out in recent elections. More often than not, support for such parties increases when the impact matters less, not when it counts. This strongly suggests that a vote for such parties is usually a two-fingered salute to the mainstream, rather than wholehearted support for the doctrine of these parties. As one Golden Dawn voter told IB Times, ‘I just wanted them to get into parliament but not to be so big. I just wanted them in to rock the system.’
The casual equation of ‘populism’ with xenophobia, racism and even Nazism reveals much about the EU elites, and not a great deal about the actual views of the public. After all, that word – ‘populism’ – is commonly defined along the lines of the Collins dictionary as, ‘a political strategy based on a calculated appeal to the interests or prejudices of ordinary people’. Which raises a question: do Clegg and the many other politicians and commentators fretting about populism see xenophobia, racism and nationalism as being the default political prejudices of the public? From the public discussion, it would seem that if the ignorant, feral masses are not kept in their place by a liberal elite which understands their genuine interests, then concentration camps are just around the corner. As a Guardian editorial put it: ‘When Brussels or Berlin loses sight of [democracy], voters reach for simpler and uglier solutions.’
The widespread concerns being voiced by the political classes about the dangers of populism speak to an elitist disdain for mass politics. Trying to represent the uncontrollable electorates is seen to be cynically pandering to their proto-fascistic whims. The fear of the rise of populism, then, comes not from a genuine concern that a Fourth Reich is imminent, but rather from a terror of the public. The only solution is seen to be greater consolidation and centralisation of power in Europe-wide institutions in Brussels. These can then insulate the enlightened elite from the barbarian hordes roaming across Europe, so they can continue in their attempt to keep civilisation alive. The worst xenophobes are in fact among the European political elite, petrified of the ignorant, bigoted Others that make up the rest of the European populace.
The real problem facing Europe today is not populism, but rather a profound crisis of European democracy. The likelihood of Nazism making a widespread comeback in Europe over the coming years is as much a fantasy as is the idea that a gang of Nazis has been living on the moon.