There is a certain blind spot in the European narrative; one that persists despite a history littered with examples of extremism and Fascism. It is a narrative that essentially argues that Trump and the events on Capitol Hill are uniquely American. Such movements could not prosper here, at least not again. It is asserted that the European way is different; more tolerant, more democratic, and more equitable. Given its history, however, the European continent can not afford such complacency.
By Ian Bancroft*
The events of 6th January on Capitol Hill resonated globally with an almost inevitable degree of schadenfreude. One joke that did the rounds in the Balkans was how Covid19 travel restrictions had forced the United States to organise the coup at home instead. Calls for restraint were intermingled with offers of mediation from the likes of Turkey, Venezuela, and Iran.
In Europe, shock and condemnation mixed with ruminations about the state of American democracy; and, for some, a sad lament about Trump’s departure from office. For the Trump years have helped mask deep-seated problems pertaining to far right movements across the European continent; problems that extend far beyond debates about whether a country should remain a member of the European Union or not (Nexit, Frexit, ItalExit, or any such other moniker).
Many manifestations of such forces are well-documented. The thorny regimes of Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, amongst others – who drew legitimacy and even vindication from the Trump administration – may have punctured the rule of law balloon upon which the EU floated, but they are viewed in Brussels as pragmatists, not ideologues; pursuing such paths of populism as cover for cronyism and corruption. With the right negotiating approach – a mix of incentives and threat of sanctions – they can be broken or at least tamed; or so it is presumed in the absence of genuine political will to confront the problems.
Yet this tendency to view such positions in this way dilutes the seriousness with which they are taken. The very lies (or falsehoods, mistruths, distortions etc.) that underpin them ultimately take on an existence of their own. Such mercurial actors inevitably find themselves hamstrung by the very tangled webs they weave when practicing to deceive, unable or unwilling to relinquish the positions that have served them so admirably. The damage they do, however, will take a long time to heal.
More disconcertingly, others right-wing tendencies lurk in the shadows. There are concerns about the infiltration of security apparatuses by far-right elements. Attitudinal surveys across the continent would likely fill one with discomfort if not dread. A recent study by the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights found that people of African descent face ‘widespread and entrenched prejudice and exclusion’ across the EU, manifested through discrimination in employment and housing, race-motivated violence, and instances of police profiling.
Then there are the daily instances of intolerance that are striking at the very heart of proclaimed European values. Pushbacks of migrants by various border authorities, including Croatia and Hungary, demonstrate institutional intolerance; one that is accompanied by growing anti-immigrant sentiment across the European continent. Vigilantism against minorities, especially Europe’s Roma, is on the rise; calling for – and often engaging in – violence that is routinely ignored or downplayed by politicians and the media.
There is, however, a certain blind spot in the European narrative; one that persists despite a history littered with examples of extremism and Fascism. It is a narrative that essentially argues that Trump and the events on Capitol Hill are uniquely American. Such movements could not prosper here, at least not again. It is asserted that the European way is different; more tolerant, more democratic, and more equitable. The vitality of Europe’s institutions, the health and well-being of its public sphere, and the much-cherished unity in diversity have all been reaffirmed.
For many Europeans, the high-octane, combat-ready nature of the Washington protests is unrelatable and unimaginable. This is the Hollywood blockbuster compared to European arthouse; an infusion of pyrotechnics and military regalia unique to that side of the Atlantic, versus the tormented enigma of the European soul that grapples with anguish and frustration in a more modest and mundane manner.
Whilst such manifestations may well be uniquely American in terms of their aesthetics, they are not uniquely American in terms of practice. Europeans themselves are not averse to storming – or at least attempting to storm – their own parliaments. Indeed, the attire of many Romanian farmers and shepherds wouldn’t have looked out of place on Capitol Hill.
Europe, however, ultimately finds itself in a bind – rightly unwilling to overplay the threat of right wing parties when one performs better than expected in some local, regional, or national election; yet inattentive to the day-to-day reality of violent extremism and groups mobilising out of sight.
By shining too much rosy light, however, Europe risks blinding itself to the very snakes of extremism that obstruct it from the ladders that can lift it to sanctuary. Instead of holding a mirror up to itself, Europe will likely continue to relativise its own problems through selective and self-serving comparisons. The drivers and manifestations of far right extremism will remain buried in the long grass, and the nest of vipers will continue to sharpen their fangs. Given its history, the European continent can not afford such complacency.
*Ian Bancroft is a writer and diplomat. He is the author of ‘Dragon’s Teeth – Tales from North Kosovo’. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.