By Maria Paz-Lopez
The recent rise of right-wing parties in European countries like France, Greece and the Netherlands has gone hand in hand with an economic crisis and garnered headlines. The rise of the right has inflamed certain anti-immigrant attitudes which unfortunately, no matter how painful it is to accept, were already present.
But European values at their best are also present. These include tolerance, deep-rooted democracy, a rich variety of languages and cultures, dialogue between governments and an inclination towards multilateral diplomacy. Especially central is a belief in the importance of the welfare state, which is linked to a widespread belief about the need to protect the weakest members of society. These characteristics grew out of the aftermath of World War II and the defeat of Nazi and totalitarian regimes and are not bound to fade away so easily.
In early May, socialist candidate François Hollande was elected president of France, beating former president Nicolas Sarkozy of the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front party. Sarkozy, eager to collect rightist votes in the second round of the polls, claimed that “Le Pen is compatible with the Republic”, an allegation that no other French president had dared articulate before.
But France will also always be the birthplace of one of the most vibrant anti-racist NGOs in the world, SOS Racisme, with its famous slogan “Touche pas à mon pote” (Don’t touch my friend). Founded in 1984 in Paris, it fights racial discrimination and pays special attention to the situation of France’s Muslim immigrants. It also has a Spanish counterpart in Barcelona.
In Greece, the success of the fascist party Golden Dawn, which says it wants to rid Greece of immigrants, is also deeply disturbing, and reveals how the European financial crisis may turn angry and frustrated citizens into extremists. Twenty-one members of Golden Dawn were sworn into Greek Parliament on 17 May after taking 7 per cent of the vote in elections held earlier that month. Since no party received enough votes for a clear majority and winning parties were unable to work together to form a government, that parliament was dissolved in accordance with Greek law, and re-elections will be held 17 June.
Yet at the same time, even in such an economically distressed country like Greece, the Greek Orthodox Church is offering food and shelter to the poor through a project called The Mission, and almost half its beneficiaries are immigrants. Churches are handing out 250,000 meals per day. It is true that more Greek citizens – hit by job losses, wage cuts and tax hikes – now stand in food lines with immigrants. But they are all being fed, and hopefully the fact that both citizens and immigrants are in need at the same time will not result in deeper social tensions.
Recent polls show falling support for Golden Dawn, indicating it may not enter parliament again.
As for the Netherlands, when elections were held 18 months ago, it was a shock to see the popularity of far-right Freedom party of Geert Wilders, best known for his anti-immigrant and anti-Islam stance. For many Europeans, the Netherlands had always been associated with ideas of tolerance and multiculturalism. However, that election was the first in an EU country after the Greek financial crisis, and it showed the first reaction of citizens to the nascent wave of austerity.
Wilders’ party came third in the number of votes received, and he agreed to cooperate with the minority liberal coalition government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who accepted Wilders’ support to stay in office.
Now that political scenario seems far away, as Rutte’s government resigned last April after failing to agree on cuts to bring the budget deficit within EU-mandated limits. New elections are scheduled for 12 September.
In recent months, polls have shown that the Freedom party is losing ground. Interestingly, last February, the Freedom party launched a website for Dutch citizens to file complaints about central and eastern Europeans “for general nuisance, pollution and labour market displacement”.
Almost immediately, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding accused him of “openly calling for people to be intolerant” and of violating EU laws of freedom of movement. Reding argued that problems should instead be solved through increased solidarity.
That seems to be the true spirit of Europe today, and with positive developments like these, there is hope that it will be strong enough to resist the pressures of a dreadful economy.
Barcelona-based author Maria-Paz Lopez is Senior Religion Writer at the Spanish daily La Vanguardia and chairs the steering committee of the International Association of Religion Journalists (IARJ).