racism in europe

October 6, 2008

European political leaders should do more to counter the appeal of the far right

THERE was much wailing and gnashing of teeth among liberal commentators after Austria’s election on September 28th. Two far-right parties, led by Heinz-Christian Strache (pictured left) and Jorg Haider (on his right), took 29% of the vote between them. Even more disheartening, a third of the country’s new young voters (the voting age has just been lowered to 16) backed them.

Austria has form. In 1999 Mr Haider’s far-right party won 27% of the vote and entered a coalition government that was briefly boycotted by its European partners. This time, not least because the two far-right leaders hate each other, neither is likely to be invited into the government. But although flavours of the far right vary widely, Austria is by no means alone. The Swiss People’s Party of Christoph Blocher is the biggest party in Switzerland. Belgium’s Vlaams Belang party remains strong in Flanders. Denmark’s government depends on the backing of Pia Kjaersgaard’s anti-immigrant People’s Party. In Italy the Northern League, part of the ruling right-wing coalition, is explicitly xenophobic.

All of this is obviously to be deplored. The harder question is what to do about it. The Austrians argued that by including Mr Haider in government they would defang him, a trick the Swiss later tried to play on Mr Blocher. For a time it even seemed to work (though the European boycott merely annoyed Austria’s voters). But the far right has since won back even more electoral ground. Elaborate steps to exclude the far right do not seem to have been any more effective. The Vlaams Belang has benefited from the other parties’ decision to keep it out of government. In Austria, Germany and the Netherlands, extreme parties of both left and right tend to gain votes when the big parties form grand coalitions in the centre.

Tackling the roots

The far right has prospered most when mainstream political parties have belittled or ignored the concerns of ordinary people about such issues as immigration. It does less well when political leaders accept its existence and try to respond to its supporters’ concerns. That points, for example, to reassuring voters that immigration is under control, not just to explaining why it can be beneficial. This is how the Conservative Party has neutralised the far-right vote in Britain. In the 2007 French presidential election Nicolas Sarkozy did the same to the National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, who got into the run-off in 2002. Mr Sarkozy ate into Mr Le Pen’s support partly by talking tough on immigration and crime.

This, however, must not include pandering to voters’ racism and xenophobia. No respectable party should run on an anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim platform. Instead, political leaders should speak out loudly against all forms of prejudice. They should try to ensure that criticism of Israel does not blur into hostility to Jewry, for instance; and, equally, they should do their best to ensure that legitimate fears of Islamist terrorism do not translate into a prejudice against Muslims. Austria’s politicians could make a useful start by dropping their strident opposition to the notion that Turkey, a mainly Muslim country, might ever join the European Union. Promoting the belief that the EU ought to be an exclusive Christian club is likely to promote racism, not quell it.