Testing times for Europe, as far right move closer to centre-stage

This week mosques have been bombed in Sweden, in Dresden thousands of anti-immigrant marchers demand a halt the ‘Islamisation of the West’, and in Paris ‘Charlie Hebdo’ is attacked

 ‘In Germany establishment parties have ruled out co-operation with Pegida, the German acronym for “Patriotic Europeans Against Islamisation of the West”.’ Supporters of the Pegida movement waves flags while they gather for a march in their first Berlin demonstration,  following  marches in Dresden.  Photograph:  Carsten Koall/Getty Images

‘In Germany establishment parties have ruled out co-operation with Pegida, the German acronym for “Patriotic Europeans Against Islamisation of the West”.’ Supporters of the Pegida movement waves flags while they gather for a march in their first Berlin demonstration, following marches in Dresden. Photograph: Carsten Koall/Getty Images

 

Barely a week gone, and 2015 has already not proved a good advertisement for European tolerance and multiculturalism. Mosques have been bombed in Sweden, in Dresden thousands of anti-immigrant marchers demand a halt the “Islamisation of the West”, and in Paris 12 die in the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Grist to the mill of the purveyors of hate. “When will Rutte and other western government leaders finally get the message: it’s war,” Dutch anti-Islamist Gert Wilders, currently up on incitement charges, railed on Wednesday. More fuel on the fire.

All reflect the same unhappy story of failed integration of Muslim communities into Europe and the poisonous effects of the growing gulf of misunderstanding and extremism opening up among both assimilees and assimilators. All raise the same difficult questions about how Europe’s mainstream parties should take on the challenges that are certain to arise.

2014 was a good year for the radical right. In the UK the rampant Ukip successfully drove its two big issues , immigration and “Brexit”, on to the political agenda with the desperate Tories rushing to embrace new curbs on migration and promises of “EU reform or else ...”

Success in shaping the political agenda was rewarded by political success for poll-topping Ukip in the European Parliament elections last May, a success mirrored by that of Marine Le Pen’s Front National, which came out on top with 26 per cent – a historic score which has shaken the mainstream parties of left and right. Significantly, both have moved to toughen up their image on immigration.

Entering government

In Italy they have already done it. In Norway ( I know, not EU) a right-wing government already includes the anti-immigrant Progress Party, now the country’s third party. In Denmark centre-left prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt has been losing popularity, and in some polls the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party comes out top with over a fifth of the vote. In the Netherlands, Wilders is leading in the polls despite the incitement charges.

And yet two important developments, in Germany and Sweden, suggest that accommodating the far-right is not the only strategy to deal with their seemingly irresistible rise.

Nazis in pinstripes

Angela MerkelDavid Cameron

Just as crucially she and her party, as well as business leaders and unions, have been prepared to argue publicly that immigration is a good thing both socially: Germany has a fast-ageing population: and economically: immigrants pay far more tax than the social welfare benefits they are allegedly sponging. Would that a courageous Tory politician would explain to Nigel Farage that same truth.

As John FitzGerald wrote recently in this paper, contrary to widespread misapprehensions, one recent survey (NIESR) shows immigration is not just a short-term gain for the UK economy. “The researchers found that the foreigners in their sample were 4.5 per cent less likely to claim benefits than the native population. They estimated that, if the UK government had achieved its targeted reduction in immigration, aggregate and per-capita GDP would be significantly lower in the long term than if immigration continued at its current rate.”

In Sweden the minority Social Democrat government had opted for an early election in the face of “impossible” parliamentary arithmetic that allowed the far-right Sweden Democrats a policy veto. To cut them out of the loop, prime minister Stefan Löfven agreed with the conservative opposition a pact that will see his budget – and any possible subsequent conservative minority government’s budget – through. He then cancelled the election, which polls showed was unlikely to shift the balance anyway.

It’s an innovative arrangement that might be studied by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, as they too face into a deeply uncertain election and the likelihood of a majority-less Dáil.

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