Europe: Facing The Extreme – Analysis


Amidst a profound economic and financial crisis, Europe’s leaders must not ignore the rising popularity of extreme right-wing parties and radical anti-immigrant movements, and the threat they pose to multi-culturalism.

By Bedrudin Brljavac

“Extremists and populist movements are exploiting people’s fear of those who are not like us. We can see the consequences in the form of terrorism and racially motivated violence” – Kjell Magne Bondevik


The EU is slowly approaching the end of the integration process which started in the aftermath of World War Two. A significant number of member states are facing a damaging financial crisis, which is destabilizing and fragmenting the EU as a whole. With Italy, Spain and even Portugal all facing a fate similar to that of Greece, the future of the European idea is at stake. As the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, pointed out, Europe is threatened with its gravest modern crisis and the EU’s future is uncertain. There is, however, a greater challenge to the idea of a democratic, open and multicultural Europe; namely, the emergence of extremist political parties and movements across the continent.

When Europe’s leaders decided to establish the European Community in the fifties, a prime aim was not only to prevent further war, but to marginalize extremist political forces through mutual dialogue and institutional integration. Many Western scholars and policy-makers shared the belief that democratization and integration would eventually render nationalism obsolete. With a number of international organizations upholding and protecting human rights and freedoms, European governments have declared zero tolerance towards extremist parties and movements. However, the European Council president, Herman Van Rompuy, recently issued a stark warning against growing nationalism, populism and anti-democratic forces, suggesting that the threat to peace in Europe remains a key issue.

Several EU member states have seen growing support for right-wing populist groups. Analysing the European elections in 2009, Waterfield claims that “as well as picking up two seats in Britain, anti-immigrant, extremist and previously fringe parties stepped into the political vacuum with significant gains in the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary, Finland, Greece and Romania”. Trends show that, amidst the current economic crisis, far-right extremist parties are exploiting the anti-immigrant, islamophobic and xenophobic card, and are playing an increasingly important role in government decision-making. As Goodwin notes in the ‘New British Fascism: The Rise of the British National Party (BNP) (Extremism and Democracy)’:

“contrary to assumptions in the 1980s and 1990s that the emergence of PEPs [populist extremist parties] in Europe could be nothing more than a flash in the pan, these parties continue to rally large and durable levels of support. They have joined national coalition governments. They have surfaced in countries with a tradition of extremist politics, as well as those that were previously thought immune. They emerged before the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 and the recent financial crisis.”

Even in Sweden, one of the world’s leading democracies, a far-right party won parliamentary seats for the first time in the 2010 elections. The Sweden Democrats (SD) – renowned for their anti-immigrant and anti-Islam views – received 6% of the vote, or 20 of the 349 seats. In the Netherlands, the two biggest winners in the 2009 European Parliament elections were the two most outspoken parties – Geert Wilders’ nationalist anti-EU party, and the firmly pro-EU social-liberal party, D66 (Kievit, 2009). Furthermore, in the June 2010 Dutch elections, Wilders’ party more than doubled its share, becoming the third largest party in the Dutch parliament. Ian Traynor argues that:

“Similar shifts have already occurred in Austria with the late Joerg Haider, with the Danish People’s party in Copenhagen, with the Northern League in Italy or the National Front in France, where the political mainstream has moved to the right to accommodate the extreme right and co-opt some of their supporters”.

The European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, claims that the growing popularity of xenophobic parties creates a negative environment, but that too few leaders are prepared to stand-up for diversity and tolerance. Indeed, several of Europe’s most influential leaders have made statements that multiculturalism in Europe is an unworthy and impossible project. Addressing a meeting of young members of her Christian Democratic Union in October 2010, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, concluded that, “this [multicultural] approach has failed, utterly failed”. British prime minister, David Cameron, meanwhile, at a security conference in Munich in February 2011, stated that the “doctrine of multiculturalism” has failed in a Britain that encourages “different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream”. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, went as far as to declare that multiculturalism was dead.

One problem is that many of Europe’s leaders have failed to identify deficiencies in the integration model they adopt. Referring to France, Chrisafis points out that:

“Under the republican model, multiculturalism is seen as taboo. In France, once a French citizen you leave cultural and ethnic differences at the border and are theoretically seamlessly assimilated into the republic. Everyone is equal before a state that is blind to colour, race and religion. Ethnic minorities do not officially exist as it is illegal to classify and count people by ethnicity. But the glaring gap between the theory and the reality of discrimination is becoming a problem in France.”

Claude Dilain, the Socialist mayor of Clichy, said the problems of marginalisation in diverse French suburbs had not been addressed and that more urban rioting could occur at any time. Following the terrorist attacks in Norway in July 2011, the leader of Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), Sigmar Gabriel, stated that, “in a society where anti-Islam and the discrimination of others has become acceptable again, and in which the middle class applauds the likes of (controversial author) Thilo Sarrazin, there will naturally be lunatics on the fringes of society who feel legitimized in taking stronger action”.

As Lagendijk points out, a large majority of European citizens still do not vote for extremist parties. Mile Lasic, meanwhile, insist that, “we should ask ourselves whether possible answers are hidden perhaps in the complex EU’s political, cultural, and economic workshop in the form of a new political culture regarding the questions about prematurely proclaimed death of multiculturalism?”. Can indeed the EU provide a model for coexistence of different cultures, nations and religions?

Should the EU eventually disintegrates, it will be because of the dynamism and popularity of extreme rightist political parties and radical anti-immigrant movements, rather then because of the Eurozone’s problems. It is, therefore, more important for Europe to manage its cultural, national and religious pluralism than to focus all its energy on financial affairs. Whilst the economic crisis will bring negative material repercussions, the rise of extremist movements across Europe would only confirm Samuel Huntington’s thesis, outlined in the ‘The Clash of Civilizations’, that people’s cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post- Cold War era. Europe’s leaders and citizens must, therefore, explore new models of integration; otherwise the idea of multiculturalism as a universal ideal will be seriously challenged.

Bedrudin Brljavac is a PhD candidate at the department of political science at the University of Sarajevo. His doctoral project is titled, “The European Union as a Global Civilian Power (GCP) – its Impact on the Transformation of Modus Operandi of International Relations”. He has regularly written columns for national and international magazines and daily newspapers, such as Dnevni Avaz, Novi Horizonti, Turkish Weekly and Open Democracy.

This article is published as part of TransConflict’s Understanding Extremism initiative, further information about which is available by clicking here.


TransConflict was established in response to the challenges facing intra- and inter-ethnic relations in the Western Balkans. It is TransConflict’s assertion that the successful transformation of conflict requires a multi-dimensional approach that engages with and aims at transforming the very interests, relationships, discourses and structures that underpin and fuel outbreaks of low- and high-intensity violence.

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