Far right success blamed on lack of communication on EU

 

Following the murder of Pim Fortuyn, Denis Staunton, European Correspondent, examines how the far-right is winning support by tapping into fears about immigration and job security.

The murder of Dutch far-right politician Mr Pim Fortuyn has brought to a tragic end one of the shortest and most unusual political careers in recent European history. A former sociology professor, Mr Fortuyn was unknown outside the Netherlands until two months ago. But the success of his populist, anti-immigrant movement in winning one-third of the vote in Rotterdam's city elections in March catapulted the 54- year-old politician into the international spotlight.

Far-right leaders exert an irresistible fascination on the European media and Mr Fortuyn, an openly gay man with a somewhat absurd, flamboyant lifestyle, was every feature writer's dream. Once voted the best-dressed man in Holland, he travelled in a chauffeur-driven limousine, often accompanied by his two spaniels, Kenneth and Carla.

He couched his opposition to immigration in the language of individual liberty, arguing that Islam, which he characterised crudely as a "backward" culture, threatened his country's liberal attitude to gay rights and the status of women. Compared to the crude bombast of Austria's Mr Jörg Haider and the snarling racism of France's Mr Jean-Marie Le Pen, Mr Fortuyn's more sophisticated rhetoric seemed to provide a new, unexpected voice to the European extreme right.

The Dutchman disliked being compared to Mr Haider and Mr Le Pen, insisting that he was not a racist and pointing out that some of his most senior aides were from ethnic minorities. Within the spectrum of Europe's far-right, Mr Fortuyn was undoubtedly a moderate, stopping short of calling for the repatriation of immigrants and suggesting that illegal immigrants who had lived in the Netherlands for more than five years should be granted Dutch citizenship.

Despite their differences, however, all of Europe's successful far-right movements share certain qualities. They appeal above all to working class or unemployed voters and curbing immigration almost always forms the centrepiece of their political programme.

They blame immigrants for rising crime and claim that foreigners are taking jobs from the indigenous population. Asylum seekers are a favourite target for rightwing extremists, who prey on popular resentment over the use of taxpayers' money to house, feed and clothe refugees and to educate their children.

On economic issues, Europe's far-right parties tend to favour protectionism over free trade and to resist the market liberalisation that has created such uncertainty among low-paid workers. Mr Fortuyn, for example, wanted to reduce Dutch bureaucracy and curb the number of sick days taken by Dutch workers. But he promised to inject enormous amounts of government money into public services and eschewed much of the language of free market liberalism.

The third issue that most European far-right groups agree on is European integration, which they oppose. Mr Le Pen wants to take France out of the euro-zone and to restore the French franc.

Mr Fortuyn supported the internal market but opposed further political integration. In Italy, the leader of the Northern League, Mr Umberto Bossi, is a fierce critic of Brussels. And Mr Haider loses few opportunities to attack the EU politicians who imposed sanctions on Austria when his Freedom Party joined the government there.

IN Brussels yesterday, the Minister for Finance, Mr McCreevy, suggested that the recent success of the far-right in Italy, France, Denmark and the Netherlands was partly due to the hectic pace of European integration, which had left many European citizens behind. He argued that, to prevent voters from backing anti-European populists, EU leaders should rein in their visions for Europe's future.

Mr McCreevy is not alone among European politicians in criticising the political obtuseness of Mr Romano Prodi's Commisssion. The German chancellor, Mr Gerhard Schröder, travelled to Brussels last week to tell Mr Prodi that the Commission should take more account of political reality in the member-states when taking initiatives.

But there is an alternative explanation for the rise in support for anti-EU populists which blames mainstream politicians for failing to make the positive case for Europe. Mr McCreevy acknowledged yesterday that Irish politicians failed to make an energetic case for the Nice Treaty during the last referendum campaign. And Mr Jacques Chirac and Mr Lionel Jospin were careful to avoid the subject of Europe during the French presidential election campaign.

In Berlin today, Mr Schröder will join a debate on national identity with prominent German intellectuals. A thoroughly pragmatic politician with an acute instinct for the popular mood, the chancellor is reported to have developed a keen interest in questions of national identity and patriotism. Following meetings with a number of historians, he appears set to make national identity an issue in September's federal elections.

Mr Schröder's vision of Germany's role in the world centres on the concept of "national responsibility" which sees his country taking an active part in international affairs.

But the chancellor's internationalism is combined with a determination to defend Germany's national interests within the EU and to protect German industry from the harmful effects of economic globalisation.

Mr Schröder's strategy of addressing voters' insecurities without resorting to xenophobia has done little to halt his Social Democratic Party's slide in the polls. But it may have halted the success of the far-right, especially in eastern Germany. In a recent election in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, the far-right German People's Union, which had won more than 12 per cent of the vote four years ago, was so depressed about its prospects that it did not field a single candidate.