On August 31, thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq, and northern Africa huddled in European railway stations and crowded roads. From Greece to Italy to Macedonia to Hungary, nation after nation had shut its doors to the asylum seekers even as international pressure on Europe to alleviate the acute humanitarian crisis mounted. Just as the situation seemed to reach a breaking point, German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a bold declaration, promising that any refugee who reached Germany could claim asylum there and asserting: “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, then it won’t be the Europe we wished for.” Yet, this façade of internationalism belies the competing counter-narratives brewing across Europe — a Europe which, in its present state, can only fail on the refugee question.
Merkel’s proclamation occurred against a backdrop of demonstrations led by Pegida, or “patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident.” Containing within its very name elements of xenophobic propaganda, the party has attempted to mobilize popular resentment against migrants. Every Monday since October, 2014 Pegida demonstrators have marched through Dresden, shouting such slogans as “No sharia in Europe!” Tellingly, just days after her initial statement, Merkel introduced border controls designed to curb the influx of migrants under the pretext that “urgent security reasons” had forced her hand — the very same rhetoric employed by those governments that had refused to take refugees from the start.
Indeed, over the past several years, Europe’s political narrative has been hijacked by populist movements that tend towards racial and ethnic nationalism, anti-immigration policies, and the construction of an exclusive European identity. Of Merkel’s two statements, her second strongly hints at the disillusionment brewing across the continent. The unfortunate truth is that this statement was also the more pragmatic one. The shootings at Charlie Hebdo and the dozens of reports documenting marginalized youth from migrant communities joining extremist groups like the Islamic State are just two indications that Europe is utterly incapable of cohesively assimilating its immigrants. Consequently, though admirable for its humanitarianism, Merkel’s promise to incorporate the latest influx of refugees into German society can only fall flat. Before looking to solve the migrant crisis, Europe must address its internal political contradictions to prevent the ghoulish slogans of populist, nationalist groups from becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.
Populism By Any Other Name
Pegida is just one name on a long list of nationalist-populist parties that have emerged as a potent, even defining force in European politics, including the National Front, Golden Dawn, Podemos, Syriza, and the United Kingdom Independence Party. These groups have been rocketed to prominence by a wave of socioeconomic malcontentment. Europe’s anemic recovery to the 2008 economic crisis, and the common misconception that new waves of migrants are to blame for these financial woes, have bred anger, confusion, and fear among Europeans. Stubbornly high unemployment and the elimination of long-standing welfare state services threaten to inflame these poisonous conditions even further.
Nor is this pointed increase in populist nationalism confined to only one side of the political spectrum. Political lines increasingly seem to be drawn in contradiction with traditional left-right distinctions. Instead, parties are offering overlapping ideological platforms. Greece provides the paradigmatic illustration of this trend. For decades, PASOK, Greece’s major center-left social-democratic party, and New Democracy, its center-right counterpart, together dominated Greek politics in a pattern characteristic of most stable democracies. Yet, after 2008, Greece’s economy entered a steep decline, even when compared with the poor socioeconomic conditions that plagued the rest of Europe.. Government debt crises abounded, shattering the public’s faith in both moderate, mainstream political juggernauts. Populist nationalist parties which swept in to fill the void left by this disillusionment made quick work of the situation. In the June 2012 elections, PASOK won just 33 seats in the Hellenic Parliament, just a fifth of what it held in 2009. Though somewhat less dramatically, New Democracy too has been thoroughly eclipsed by the new insurgents.
The neo-fascist Golden Dawn party, which espouses ultra-nationalist, xenophobic, and expansionist rhetoric, currently holds slightly over six percent of the seats in Greece’s Hellenic Parliament, having come in third both elections held this year. It also holds three out of 21 Greek seats in the European Parliament, even though most of its leadership is incarcerated. On the other side of the conventional left-right split, Alexis Tsipras’ Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) won a solid plurality of the Greek vote in the September round of parliamentary elections, forming a coalition government with the more rightist, but also populist Independent Greeks. Indeed, upon close examination, the platforms of so-called “radical left” and “radical right” populist parties often have more in common that not. That is not to say that Golden Dawn and Syriza, for instance, are indistinguishable. The former is almost apocalyptic in its rhetoric whereas the latter has tried to capitalize on frustration to promote a message of radical change which would benefit all Greeks. Shortly after it formed a government last March, Syriza even proposed to shut down immigrant detention centers and grant citizenship to second-generation migrants born in Greece. As the influx of refugees grew and the financial situation worsened, however, the Greek public and members of Syriza’s own coalition balked at these proposals, forcing Tsipras more into step with the Independent Greeks and other populist groups.
There is, of course, a difference between anti-Eurozone nationalism and more ethnic, anti-immigration nationalism. Essentially all contemporary European populist parties embody this first characteristic. With the regards to the second, Jobbik, the third largest party in the Hungarian National Assembly which describes itself as “principled, conservative and radically patriotic and Christian,” and Golden Dawn are far better examples than, say, Syriza, which is not decidedly ethnocentric in nature. Still, Jobbik’s appeal to Euroskepticism, call for national resurgence and independence (through increased state spending and withdrawal from NATO), and demand for increased social services for elderly voters are still eerily similar to Syriza’s own platform.
Fanning the French Flames
Merkel’s divided response to the developing refugee crisis is representative of the current dynamics of European politics as a whole. Europe is replete with the interplay of narratives and counter-narratives. As French PresidentFrancois Holland marched with millions of demonstrators across Paris last January in a show of solidarity against the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a counter-rally unfolded on the coastal village of Beaucaire, France. This rally, one-thousandth the size of the Paris march, would have gone entirely unnoticed if not for the woman who spearheaded the demonstration: Marine Le Pen. Le Pen is the leader of the National Front, perhaps the party most emblematic of Europe’s new breed of populist nationalism. While her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founded National Front in 1972, the party remained marginalized until Marine took the helm. In contrast to her father’s explosive rhetoric, Marine has focused on rebranding the National Front and bringing it into the mainstream of French politics. Her efforts coincided perfectly with growing disillusionment and frustration among the French electorate. Whereas Hollande proclaimed in his rally that “Paris is the capital of the world,” Le Pen’s tone was just the opposite: at her event, she declared, “this is our home.”
According to Le Pen, lax immigration laws offer a fertile breeding ground for radical Islam. In a New York Times article she authored, the National Front leader points out that “tons of weapons from the Balkans enter French territory unhindered” and “hundreds of jihadis move freely around Europe” thanks to Europe’s “dogma of free movement.” She describes further that “the massive waves of immigration, both legal and clandestine, our country has experienced for decades have prevented the implementation of a proper assimilation policy”. Legislatively, Le Pen has suggested that the French government strip all French-born terror suspects of citizenship. She also proposes that police control be reestablished along border regions and calls for a “French first” policy on welfare benefits and employment opportunities. With this rhetoric, she has taken French politics by storm. The National Front took first place in the French 2014 European elections, claiming 25% of the vote; the party made a similarly strong showing in the last departmental elections (the elections for France’s administrative regions); and in most recent polls of presidential favorites, Le Pen herself is ahead of sitting president Hollande.
Germany has yet to produce a political figure like Le Pen who is capable of systematically rebranding exclusionary politics into a viable mainstream force. Nonetheless, the stage is set for such a character. More refugees came to Germany in September, 2015 than in any other month during the last ten years. A poll conducted by Infratest Dimap during this period showed that only 54 percent of the respondents were satisfied with Angela Merkel’s performance — a drop in 9 percentage points since the last such poll and her lowest approval rating in almost four years. Concurrently, the number of respondents who said they were scared of “so many refugees” rose from 38 percent to 51 percent. Seemingly in response to these popular pressures, the German government introduced new legislation at the beginning of October to clear an easier path towards deporting asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected. A few months ago, it would have been hard to imagine the Bundestag considering such a proposition.
In light of these circumstances, Merkel’s doubling back on her initial determination to welcome the refugees is best described as realistic. Many counter-demonstrators to anti-Islamic rallies in Germany have noted that hostility towards immigrants is increasingly less confined to a small group of political radicals. Jurgen Kasek, the Dresden chair of the Green Party — which has helped organize many counter rallies against Pegida — commented on the first anniversary of Pegida’s weekly demonstrations that: “We have experienced a year in which divisions have become more deeply entrenched in society, a year in which the situation has become ever more radical and when anybody expressing a different opinion — media representatives, for example — are no longer safe on the streets on Mondays.” New York Times contributing editorialist Jochen Bittner further noted that many German Muslims themselves have expressed a frustrated “victim status” in two forms: first, in the sense of “Germany’s history is not my history,” and second, in the sense of “I’ll never fully belong to your nation anyway, so why should I take on its burdens as you do?” Clearly, these two notions are not necessarily representative of the Muslim immigrant experience in Germany as a whole. Still, Germany’s failure, mirrored across Europe, to fully incorporate this group into society in a productive way is clear. The Charlie Hebdo tragedy was born of similar circumstances. Accepting new refugees would only compound the present predicament.
Even Pegida is relatively mainstream in comparison to the German National Democratic Party (NDP), a full-fledged neo-Nazi organization. Part of what makes the situation so dangerous is that counter-narratives, in Europe’s rather toxic political environment, are much more compelling to disenchanted voters than moderate platforms. The NDP has been able to play the part of a Trojan Horse, infiltrating Pegida at various levels and pulling its narrative farther and farther to extremes, even as this balancing act allows the NDP to enter center stage. Populist nationalist groups are not only, then, the hijackers of centrist European politics, but are also being hijacked themselves by ever more radical voices.
Lessons From the Past?
A common trope about the rise of fascism is that had Western democracies recognized the danger these populist nationalist groups posed early on and then taken a concerted stance against them, Hitler, Mussolini, and other xenophobic leaders would never have assumed dictatorship. Unfortunately, this strategy has failed to turn the tide against the continent’s latest iteration of ethnic-nationalist populism. Merkel has condemned Pegida, the NDP, and even other governments driven by like-minded ideologies with little discernable effect; Le Pen’s popularity has continued to rise in the face of Hollande’s incessant critiques of the National Front; Danish People’s Party and Swiss People’s Party won pluralities just this past week.
To be fair, the observers who have drawn parallels from the current situation in Europe to the right-wing populist governments born of the 1930s worldwide economic crisis are alarmist. However, both the current breed of European populism and its historical counterpart trend towards the intangible and visceral rather than the specific and rational. Populism arises when there is a failure of existing political and discursive practices to adequately address voters’ concerns. The politico-economic conditions of contemporary Europe have generated anxieties that remain unresolved. The erosion of the social welfare state, the fracturing of the European Union, rampant unemployment, and major demographic shifts (which have come mostly in the form of Middle Eastern and North African migrants) are the real, hard problems with which European politicians need to engage. Launching into diatribes against more radical political opponents does little to deal with Europe’s socio-economic failings and only serves to fan the populist flame.
Since the factors fueling the appeal of populist-nationalist parties are systemic, it is likely that any policies specifically enacted to stymie their influence would be futile. If anything, such measures would just bolster the perception that mainstream political parties are doing little to improve the living standards and ease the fears of their constituents. The rather unattractive reality is that the best means of pushing such groups back to the fringes is to starve them of the fuel which propels their rise. The fractured eurozone, obsessive austerity programs, and broken mechanisms for assimilating immigrants have formed the void from which populist nationalism has resurfaced. These systemic issues must be resolved if the void is to be plugged and they are to be driven back to the fringes.
All this is not to say that the rise of a German equivalent to Le Pen’s National Front is imminent. Since 1945, Germany has been an ardent supporter of political and cultural pluralism, and has adopted a detailed system of Holocaust education that begins in early grade school. Merkel’s approval ratings are not at the lowest point in her tenure as chancellor, and reactionary political groups like the NPD remain on the fringes of German society. Still, there are unmistakable signs that these fringes are creeping inward. What makes Pediga so frightening is not that it stems from Germany’s traditionally xenophobic, neo-Nazi parties, but rather that it has exploited feelings of mass resentment from a younger German population, largely dissociated from the events of and preceding World War II. Until the German government manages to quell this unease while also addressing the marginalization of its migrant population, the draw of slogans like “No sharia in Europe!” can only be expected to grow.
Philip Clark is an undeclared freshman.