By Yossi Mekelberg*
Witnessing the tens of thousands of people attending an anti-racism concert in the eastern German city of Chemnitz was heart-warming. It was as much a spontaneous occasion as it was an organized event, in response to a recent wave of violent ultra-right and neo-Nazi demonstrations after a Syrian and an Iraqi were revealed to be suspects in a fatal stabbing incident.
As encouraging as this act of defiance was against the fast-spreading xenophobic sentiment in Germany, and the event’s slogan “There are more of us,” there is a disturbing trend, not only in Germany but throughout most of Europe, toward the far right, with its ultra-nationalism, xenophobia and even growing pockets of neo-Nazis. The results of the elections in Sweden are further evidence of this. We cannot and should not bury our heads in the sand any longer: The far right is on the march and, if we have learnt anything from history, it is that if we don’t react to this instantly and firmly then discord and conflict will become inevitable. That is what far-right movements thrive on.
The good people of Chemnitz were spot-on in organizing an event whose theme was “Racism cannot be allowed to run unchallenged on the streets.” This should be the leitmotif for everyone, everywhere, who shares the fear that letting these kinds of movements roam the streets freely and spread their hatred can only have disastrous consequences. It will be just a matter of when and of what magnitude, not if. And who should understand this better than the German people?
However, what we are witnessing in Germany is by no stretch of the imagination an exclusively German phenomenon. Understandably, the country’s history means that any signs of xenophobia attract more attention and, as always, Chancellor Angela Merkel has been the first to condemn it in no uncertain terms. Yet there is a real need to look at the deeper trends that have allowed for these vile and dangerous ideas to creep back into the social discourse and, worse, have legitimized language and behavior that is usually illegal and always loathsome.
It would be over simplistic, and very much erroneous, to suggest that it was the migration crisis that sparked the re-emergence of the far right in Europe as a political and social force to be reckoned with. It is more the case that the hard-core of national chauvinists were acting like a sleeper cell waiting for their moment, and that crisis provided them with the opportunity to reveal themselves in their full ugliness.
It is also the case that those who built a new Europe in the aftermath of the cataclysm of World War II on the pillars of liberalism — in search of what brings us together as human beings rather than what divides us as groups — and those who continue to work to that end became somewhat complacent and fell asleep on duty. Rather naively, they believed, with not much evidence, that the horrors of World War II would stay in the collective memory for many generations to come and prevent any ultra-nationalist ideas from taking hold in any part of the continent.
Seven decades on, and Austria is now governed by a coalition that is unapologetically anti-foreigner and anti-migrant, and its foreign minister was recently seen dancing the waltz with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, whose expansionist nationalism has already seen him invade neighboring countries and who gags those who speak out against him at home.
In Germany, Alternative for Germany, an anti-migrant, Islamophobic organization whose leaders have a tendency to make racist remarks, is currently the third-largest party in the Bundestag. And, in Italy, Hungary and Poland, Euroskeptic governments tinged with xenophobic policies are in power. In the UK, Brexit under the Conservative government has made its own contribution to this type of discordant discourse. All of this indicates that our collective memory of the dire consequences of handing power to governments of this ilk is fast fading.
For the visionaries of a united Europe, a prosperous economy was the other pillar of ensuring that the far right would never raise its head or show its claws. To be sure, during the Cold War, Europe enjoyed higher standards of living than its rivals in the Eastern bloc. However, with the fall of the Soviet system, Western Europe, which was at the heart of the European project, together with the US, believed that its democratic neo-liberal ideology had not only won this protracted conflict, but also secured unchallenged a way of life for the benefit of all of its citizens.
Basking in its victory, Europe embarked on expanding this extraordinary experiment in human history, with the EU absorbing in the process large parts of the former Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. This was meant to ensure that those countries would not fall into the hands of the far right as a reaction to the failings of Soviet-style communism, as well as to prevent Russia from resurfacing as a major world power. But Russia has since made a comeback on the world stage and demonstrated complete disrespect for international law and the sovereignty of nation states.
Within the EU, meanwhile, the combination of a major economic crisis and big increases in immigration, especially from the troubled Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, exposed the obnoxious face of Europe’s far right.
Spreading its abhorrent rhetoric, winning at the ballot box and carrying out physical attacks on migrants, it is taking hold in parts of the continent and is threatening the very foundation of the EU and its future as a beacon of liberal progressive ideas and a continent-wide community that is inclusive and tolerant of national, religious and ethnic differences.
The inability of European governments to cope with the challenges posed by the increased flows of refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants, coinciding with an economic crisis and stagnated standards of living, has exposed the fragility of the liberal spirit of the EU, which must respond robustly to this challenge before the dark clouds of ultra-nationalism close in.
*Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg