Rise of European Right Wing Populist Nationalism: Is Europe on the brink?

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The 100-mile long chain-link and razor-wire fence in Hungary’s southern border vividly reflects the rising tide of extreme right wing populist politicians across Europe with their retrograde xenophobic, racist ideologies accompanied by increasing attacks on European liberal values symbolised by open markets, open borders, globalisation and the free movement of people. The fence has sealed off Hungary and has also sounded the death knell for the Schengen regime and the open internal borders within Europe, so symbolic of the ideals and benefits of European integration and the European Union.

2. Toroczkai, the Mayor of Asotthalom, a Hungarian town on the border of Serbia through which the fence runs, has become an ultra nationalist star of far right European politics with his calls to keep Muslim migrants out of Europe and to safeguard “Europe’s security and Christian values”. The desperation to safeguard the “good life” (dolce vitae) also symbolises the new European paradox: that the migrants who search for this good life, now represent to an increasingly greater number of nervous Europeans, the greatest threat to their precious European values and life style.

3. Has Europe reached the brink? Is the European Commission, instead of providing imaginative leadership, merely pushing for greater centralisation and unimaginative responses? From January to October 2015, more than 1.2 million migrants illegally entered the European Union. Europe was totally unprepared for the migrant crisis. Many European countries refused to accept even modest quotas of refugees within their borders. The recent attacks in Paris strengthened the hands of those who insist that open borders imply Europe’s vulnerability to terrorism and terrorist attacks. The recent regional elections in France are a barometer for the popular mood. At one point Marine Le Pen and her far right National Front (NF) seemed to be winning two of France’s regional elections. This did not happen in the second round because the French Socialist Party under President Hollande manoeuvred with the other centre right mainstream party to keep the FN out of power. However, the FN won more than 6.8m votes, a record high and an 800,000 increase on the first round. The party has tripled its number of regional councillors, and it will have a presence on all regional councils. In four regions, it is now the main opposition party.

4. Presidential elections in France are not due until the first half of 2017, but there are some important conclusions that can be drawn from these elections which have far reaching implications for Europe.

  • President Hollande, despite losing, could be one of the election’s few winners and eventually style himself as the best contender against Le Pen in a presidential race.
  • Former President Sarkozy’s centre right party now faces a complex primary race to determine who leads it into the election. Sarkozy is being challenged by Alain Juppe. The outcome of that contest is far from certain.
  • Another imponderable is how the centre right would vote in a second round Presidential election with a runoff between a Socialist and FN candidate. Sarkozy’s advice in these elections to centre-right voters going into the second round was to back neither the Socialists nor the FN. This was short sighted and negative. Had the Socialists taken the same approach, the FN most probably would have clinched two to three regions. In 02, the Socialists had voted for Jacques Chirac so as to defeat Mr. Le Pen. While it is hoped that the French voters from the Socialist and Centre Right parties would do the same in 2017 and unite against the National Front candidate, this is not certain, given the current popular mood in France.
  • 5. 2015 has been a difficult year for Europe. Beginning from the Euro zone crisis and a possible Greek exit, Europe moved to a summer of increasing discontent with waves of migrants moving to safe havens within Europe, to an autumn and winter of terrorist attacks with difficult decisions on how to address the Syria issue as well as European Union’s relations with Russia and President Putin. Europe’s internal and external contradictions were reaching crisis point. Meanwhile there was increasing talk of the possibility of Britain leading the European Union, which Marine Le Pen has defined as “similar to the fall of the Berlin Wall”.

    6. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel? Faced with multiple external crises, Europe should not turn inwards. A policy of “Splendid Isolation” is not the solution. Right wing populist ideologies need to be vigorously combated. Denigrating and demonizing Europe’s significant Muslim minority population will only result in further social alienation, resentment and rise of Islamic fundamentalism. This is what the IS wants. Europe’s Muslims are all European citizens. They need to be mainstreamed so as to defeat Islamic terrorism and to ensure the victory of Europe’s liberal values. These values are universal, not necessarily Christian values. The European Commission needs to reform itself and do some thinking “out of the box”.

    7. There are those who argue that Europe has always emerged stronger and more integrated and united after a crisis. History however does not repeat itself. The magnitude and scale of the present problems facing Europe require a mature and coordinated response, especially from the young voters. Ultimately, the extreme right, whether populist or xenophobic or fascist, can only be defeated through the ballot. Europe must vote in future elections for moderation, for tolerance and for open and inclusive societies. This is the only way Europe can save itself and it’s Union from disintegration, anarchy and chaos. Europe must rise to the occasion.

    (The author is a former Indian Ambassador and the views expressed are personal)