Europe’s Wronged Turning Right
By Eric EllisApril 26, 2012
The grand European experiment is under threat. Does Nicolas Sarkozy’s electoral pain herald the end of Europe as we know it?
ON Tuesday evening this week, just after the BBC's flagship Six O'Clock News and as Londoners were settling into their evenings, Britain's National Party exercised its democratic right by airing a state-sanctioned five minutes of political campaigning on British TV.
The BNP broadcast wasn't as slick as the Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat marketing for the London mayoralty that will be decided on May 3.
Indeed, the BNP ad had the production values of those late-night TV commercials for soft-porn, home-delivery pizza and cheap electronics. At times the Cockney voiceovers seemed to emanate from inside a tin can.
But the message was plain and blunt. A succession of grumpy Londoners — some with tattoos and shaved noggins, some with kids and some with both — sullenly intoned that London would be a far better place — and a more prosperous place in this recession — without Muslims and immigrants sullying their now not-so-fair city in this Olympic year.
For the triumphant coda, the BNP introduced its candidate for mayor — an immigrant, one Carlos Cortiglia, who arrived from Uruguay in 1989. Islam, he claimed, was "destroying the country".
Polling at a laughable one per cent, Cortiglia isn't likely to challenge the scrutineers on May 3 and be elected on a wave of xenophobic Islamophobia.
But across the Channel, where a plethora of politics is suddenly exercising Europeans engulfed far more deeply in economic mire than even the Brits, a claque of sophisticated machine politicians espousing much the same message are doing very well.
They're riding a wave of disillusionment with Europe's liberal politics, a failure of government that has pushed parts of the continent to the edges of social collapse.
Since the crisis hit in late 2008, incumbent governments have been toppled or forced from office in all the core EU economies save Germany, where a relatively healthy economy helped Angela Merkel get re-elected as Chancellor in 2009.
So desperate politicians are stooping to conquer by playing populist xenophobe, blaming foreigners for all that ails.
With much of the Eurozone in a deep economic sclerosis that it seems unable if not clueless to shake, these divisive appeals to chauvinism are reverberating across the continent. Europe's severe economic strains have exposed deep schisms and a nostalgic yearning for the idealised, white Europe of yore, one that many lament has been discoloured by immigration and hobbled by grasping bankers, globalisation, unemployment and depressed communities.
It's a crusade that alarms Brussels, where European Union president Herman Van Rompuy this week denounced the "winds of populism" gusting across the continent.
In a tweet from Romania, Van Rompuy warned of "extremist movements" that could threaten one of the basic tenets of the EU, the freedom of movement across the bloc.
Last Sunday in France, President Nicolas Sarkozy seemed to become the latest leader vanquished by the economic crisis. His re-election bid was wounded, most likely fatally, by the far-right's best-ever showing in a French presidential poll, pushing Sarkozy to second after the Socialist candidate, François Hollande.
In doing so Sarkozy became the Élysée Palace's first incumbent in modern French history to lose in the first round. Hollande might have headed the weekend results but the occasion belonged to Marine Le Pen's extremist Front Nationale, which gobbled up votes Sarkozy had earmarked as his own.
Le Pen's strong and possibly king-making 18 per cent is persuasive in the post-poll horse-trading, and though she didn't make the decisive second and final round on May 6, the momentum is all hers. She will have a big say in who wins it.
So, gasping for clear air, what's a desperate pol to do? How about a bit of chien-whistling s'il vous plâit?
On Tuesday, Sarkozy stopped short of directly appealing to Le Pen for the endorsement of the near-fifth of France that embraced her anti-immigrant, anti-Islam platform, but only just.
FN voters mustn't be demonised, Sarkozy schmoozed, but "taken into account". In cosying further to the Le Pen right, he insisted he should "not feel I have to hold my nose" in doing so. It was "his duty" to address them, he said.
The rampant Le Pen is having none of it, at least not yet. Aged 43 to Sarkozy's 57, she feels those political winds are at her back, and the more anxiously Sarkozy panders to her core franchise the more she sees her movement consuming his. Playing a longer game, Le Pen believes Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement party will be ruined after May 6, even if this presidential cycle is delivered to the moderate left.
Positioning as the Everywoman, Le Pen has taken over from The Netherlands' Geert Wilders as the Euro extremist's poster child. But for how long?
On Sunday, as Le Pen was striving to bring down the government in France, the bouffant-topped Wilders was doing so in The Hague, after he walked away from negotiations aimed at introducing an austerity budget in line with the EU's stringent demands.
A darling of Australian politicians such as South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi, Wilders leads The Netherlands' third biggest party in parliament. His Freedom Party is not formally part of government but since 2010, Mark Rutte's centre-right coalition has relied on Wilders' support to pass legislation.
Like François Hollande's campaign in Paris, Wilders said no to these EU-imposed austerity measures. But unlike Hollande, Wilders vows to take it further and withdraw The Netherlands from the Eurozone. He's also hinted he'd like to see the back of the Dutch membership of the EU too.
Without Wilders' parliamentary support for the EU pact, which the main opposition Labour doesn't back either, the Rutte government fell — suddenly, heavily, and for a Brussels that is preaching an austerity mantra to failed Ireland and across the southern Mediterranean "garlic belt", alarmingly. The Dutch will now go to the polls on September 12 in what is shaping as a referendum on the EU's fiscal compact in a core Eurozone state, one of just four after Germany, Luxembourg and Finland to maintain a AAA credit rating.
Wilders' gambit comes as Nederlanders, like many across Europe, have been gripped by the testimony of the confessed Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik at his Oslo trial. Breivik has cited Wilders' virulent, anti-Islam rhetoric as an inspiration. Wilders has said The Netherlands should re-open its European frontier controls, and pull out of the Schengen open-border pact.
Earlier this year, a Wilders-backed website openly slagging Poles and other Eastern Europeans attracted thousands of supporters, straining intra-European relations. The Netherlands' September elections will be as much about immigration and what constitutes 'Dutchness' in a country of 17 million, one million of whom are Muslims, as it is about the euro and the economy.
Like the French, Greeks and Serbs also vote on May 6, and both these polls are being seen as a referendum on Europe — in Belgrade, about whether it has sufficiently reformed after years of ethnic conflict to join the EU; in Greece, about whether to leave.
In Athens, moderate Greeks are alarmed by the rise and rise of an ultra-nationalist movement called Golden Dawn. With a skinhead base and a red-black flag bearing an ancient Greek symbol resembling a swastika, Golden Dawn has embraced a narrative that resonates with the unemployed, now running at around 22 per cent in Greece.
After years at Greece's lunatic neo-Nazi fringes, Golden Dawn is transforming itself, with neighbourly food drives for the destitute and finger-pointing at Athens' Brussels-inclined liberal elite who, it says, made them so. Golden Dawn also blames joblessness on illegal immigrants, numbering as many as a million, who it pledges to expel. It's also proposed the death penalty for the corrupt. Golden Dawn is now tracking at about five per cent in opinion polls, enough for a handful of seats in May.
In his tweet this week, the EU supremo Van Rompuy warned that "nationalist and extremist movements are on the rise. Many of them blame 'Brussels' for bad news.
"There can only be one response," he said. "Telling the truth."
Movements such as Golden Dawn, Le Pen's, Wilders' and their imitators across the continent — now poised for a say in power — would say they are.
For more on Nicolas Sarkozy, read Philip Gourevitch in The New Yorker.