Debt and far-right populism could be a dangerous cocktail

Tue, Jun 22, 2010, 01:00

EUROPEAN DIARY:Resentment of rescue packages for struggling national economies could fuel resentment and the rise of the far right in other states

WIM ADRIAENS (31) clutched a glass of beer as he waited for Flemish separatist Bart De Wever to appear at a victory rally after the Belgian election.

Adriaens, who works for a regional minister in De Wever’s New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) party, cast the movement that wants to split Belgium into two countries in a positive light. “Please, don’t call us extremists,” he implored.

In the upper reaches of European politics, however, that’s exactly how the N-VA is perceived. High-level figures, though they are not inclined to say so publicly, see something decidedly worrying in the rapid ascent of the burly 39-year-old who now leads the most potent political force in Belgium.

De Wever presents himself as the respectable face of hardline Flemish nationalism. He is much more moderate than the xenophobes of the far-right Vlaams Belang movement, who fuse the cause of Flemish independence with anti-immigrant language.

Indeed, De Wever’s success last Sunday week came partly at the expense of Vlaams Belang, which lost seats.

He is not a man of the far right but he’s still a radical. He advocates the gradual dissolution of the Belgian federation by creating autonomous states for the Dutch-speakers of Flanders and the French-speakers of Wallonia. This, he says, could be as straightforward as the division of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the early 1990s, nothing more than a perfectly reasonable separation of two hopelessly mismatched communities.

Stop right there, say observers in the cabinet rooms of other EU countries. Comparisons are readily drawn between the increasing pull of De Wever’s uncompromising nationalism and the advance of nasty right-wingers elsewhere who mingle their nationalism with racial and religious intolerance.

Days before Belgians went to the polls, Dutch voters more than doubled the number of seats held by the anti-Islamist Geert Wilders. Well-known for his anti-immigrant views and his distinctive hair-dye, “Captain Peroxide” wraps his unsavoury rhetoric in the mantle of free speech. That didn’t stop the Dutch Liberal leader Mark Rutte, the election winner, exploring a coalition deal with his Freedom Party and the ousted Christian Democrats. Fully a week passed before the Christian Democrats finally said no.

There is more. Hungarian ultra-nationalists Jobbik took third place in a general election two months ago, their anti-gypsy rhetoric and association with a uniform-wearing militia no hindrance to success.

In French regional elections in March, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front staged a comeback by seizing 12 per cent of the first-round vote. In Italy, meanwhile, the xenophobic Northern League saw its national tally in regional elections rise to 13 per cent, from 8 per cent in the 2008 general election.

Earlier this year, the Czech Republic banned the far-right Workers’ Party after a court found it was racist, homophobic, xenophobic and linked to neo-Nazi groups.

But the rise of such forces is not universal. The far-right Slovak National Party barely made it into parliament in Bratislava earlier this month. In the Westminster election, Nick Griffin’s British National Party (BNP) failed to achieve a breakthrough. That said, the BNP still managed to increase its share of the national vote by 1.83 per cent to 514,819.

None of this is pretty, especially in the fug of a sovereign debt crisis. Even while much of the far-right action takes place outside the euro area, senior politicians express fear in private that the rescue of countries with wayward finances could be seized on by malign forces as an invitation to jingoistic dissent and worse.

The bigger the bailout the bigger the risk, the thinking goes. Of uppermost concern is fear of a reactionary response in Germany, where the €110 billion rescue of Greece did not go down well at all.

For all that there has been little evidence thus far of extreme right-wingers whipping up a storm over the euro. Still, political and diplomatic sources acknowledge that any large-scale draw-downs from the wider €750 billion rescue net could well meet resistance even in the political mainstream.

The scene is volatile. John Monks, head of the European Trade Union Congress, told the specialist website EU Observer that European Commission chief José Manuel Barroso harbours apocalyptic worries about the potential collapse of major European democracies.

Monks said: “I had a discussion with Barroso last Friday about what can be done for Greece, Spain, Portugal and the rest and his message was blunt: ‘Look, if they do not carry out these austerity packages, these countries could virtually disappear in the way that we know them as democracies.’”

Barroso’s people wouldn’t discuss what was said when he met Monks, but his remarks at a press conference immediately afterwards were open to wide interpretation.

“Without determination to act now, we put our European model of society at risk,” the commission president said.

Disturbing stuff, even if EU officials say Brussels is not at present unduly concerned about the far-right’s momentum. Although De Wever is in a different category, his party’s rapid rise is turning heads. Still less than a decade old, it won only a single seat in the 2003 election. This is one to watch.