In the lead-up to the international day of action against fascism on 22 March, Thanasis Kampagiannis, writing in the latest issue of Σοσιαλισμός από Κάτω (Socialism From Below), the theoretical journal of the Greek Socialist Workers Party (SEK), looks at the danger of a major far Right breakthrough in May’s European Parliament elections and asks what strategy the Left should take in response.
In the first five months of 2014, Europe’s far Right will be preparing an election campaign — ahead of the European Parliament elections in May — which will bring it to the center of the European political scene.
The following article is divided into three parts: the first will outline the initiatives of the European far Right and its main protagonists. The second will highlight the role of racism and Islamophobia in strengthening these parties. And in the third I will argue that the increasing role of the far Right parties corresponds to a deeper impasse facing the project of European integration.
The “Brown International” of the European far Right
November 13, 2013 marked the turning of a new page for the European far Right. The leaders of the French National Front (Front National, FN), Marine Le Pen, and the Dutch Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV), Geert Wilders, met in Hague, in the Dutch parliament building, and announced the conclusion of a new political alliance (probably under the name “European Alliance for Freedom”). Their aim, through an electoral campaign based on euroscepticism and racism against immigrants, is the establishment of a formal whip of the far Right in the European Parliament, which requires at least 25 MEPs (Members of European Parliament) elected from seven countries.
The alliance is not limited to the two parties mentioned. The day after the meeting of Le Pen and Wilders, the far-right MEPs of six parties held their first meeting. Besides the French FN and the Dutch PVV, the participants were: the Belgian Flemish Interest (Vlaams Belang,VB), the Italian Northern League (Lega Nord, LN), the Swedish Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna, SD) and the Austrian Party of Freedom (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ). The meetings also involved the Slovak National Party (Slovenska Narodna Strana, SNS).
What is different today from earlier attempts at such alliances? Many of these parties were, after all, already represented in the European Parliament. But there is a qualitative change in current developments.
The European far Right had managed before, in 2007, to establish a formal whip in the European Parliament, called “Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty” (it then required 20 MEPs from six countries, a provision that changed to that mentioned above in 2009). The leader of those efforts was, of course, the French National Front, a fascist party which over time was forced to “wear ties” (or suits if we are talking about its new leader, and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter, Marine) to gain political legitimacy. Beyond the Austrian FPÖ (i.e. the party of Jörg Haider) and the Flemish VB, no other right-wing or eurosceptic party dared open identification with the party of Le Pen. It is characteristic that the Greek far Right party LAOS has chosen not to participate in this group and preferred instead the group “Europe of Freedom and Democracy” which was in practice led by the British eurosceptic party United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) under Nigel Farage.
The formation of the group “Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty” ultimately became possible due to the entry into the European Union of Bulgaria and Romania and their representation in the European Parliament by two nationalist parties of these countries: the Bulgarian party Attack (Ataka) and the Greater Romania Party (Partidul România Mare, PRM). The establishment of the group (recognized by the Speaker of the European Parliament in January 2007) signaled the possibility of raising financial resources of €1 million, participation in committees, and a number of other privileges. However, this initiative ended abruptly: in November 2007, Alessandra Mussolini, the granddaughter of the Italian fascist dictator and an MEP, torpedoed the coveted unity with a racist tirade against Romanian immigrants living in Italy, calling them “criminals,” “thieves,” etc. The Romanian PRM reacted to Mussolini’s statements by leaving the “Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty” group, which eventually lost its official recognition and dissolved.
The difference between then and now is that the party of Le Pen has managed to break the cordon of isolation that existed around it back in 2007 and that prevented many parties from identifying with it. The meeting with Wilders (which the French newspaper Libération says the Austrians worked hard for) is a reflection of this development. This paved the way for the collaboration of the Italian Northern League (much more respectable when compared to the various Mussolini groupuscules) and parties of the Nordic far Right, like the Swedish Democrats.
The new alliance of Le Pen and Wilders does not, of course, solve overall the problem of unity of the far Right space. To its “Right,” there is the neo-Nazi far Right of Greece’s Golden Dawn, the Hungarian Jobbik, and the British National Party (BNP), led by Nick Griffin, already an MEP, who the now “moderate” Le Pen and Wilders denounced as “extremists.” To its “Left” stand the right-wing eurosceptic parties of Great Britain and Germany. Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, has said he cannot participate in a European group that includes the party of Le Pen, with its known anti-Semitic past. The newly created eurosceptic party Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD), which has hoisted as its flag the targeting of the euro, said flatly that it does not want anything to do with the far Right.
The abstention of UKIP is a loss for the new alliance: the parties of Le Pen and Wilders are currently leading polls related to the May elections, and the same goes for UKIP. However, the political legitimacy now achieved by the European far Right is the greatest since the Second World War. It is worth noting that out of the seven parties mentioned as potential members of the new alliance (FN, PVV, VB, LN, SD, FPÖ, SNS), four have already participated in their respective national governments (Netherlands, Italy, Austria, and Slovakia), meaning they have officially been “washed” of the appearance of being “extreme.”
To summarize with a rather grey assessment that has seen the light of day: if one adds together the poll estimates the far Right electoral space as a whole, as described above, together with parties not mentioned (in Denmark, Finland, Lithuania, etc), it is feared that the far Right could claim as much as one third of the seats in the new European Parliament, the only institution that is expressing the “democratic legitimacy” of the peoples of Europe.
So how did we end up here?
Racism and Islamophobia
Racism was the ticket for a series of fascist parties to pass from the margins to the center of the political scene. The French FN was considered an openly Nazi party back in the 1980s: its leader Jean-Marie Le Pen had described the Holocaust as “a mere detail of history.” The Vlaams Belang is a party originating from the Vlaams Blok, which had officially been declared racist by court order in Belgium, and hence was forced to change its name in order to build a less “radical” profile. The leader of the Austrian FPÖ, Jörg Haider, had become famous for his pro-Nazi statements. When, in 2000, the FPÖ entered the Austrian government, the European Union imposed economic sanctions on the country. It took plenty of splits and a new leadership under Heinz-Christian Strache to get the party on track again. Yet, even in 2011, when it requested its entry into the European group “Europe of Freedom and Democracy,” many parties vetoed its admission due to its “extremist” past.
In all these cases, the decisive role in the democratic laundering of these parties was played by institutional racism against migrant workers who come to the countries of the European Union, especially since Europe has decided to “turn off the tap” and erect walls around itself. Sotiris Kontogiannis, elsewhere in this magazine, explains the EU’s policy towards migrant labor and how it has changed over time. The fascist parties succeeded in being legitimized as the most decisive voices against the “problems” that immigrants bring amidst a generalized climate of racism created by the EU itself, through its governments and the center-right and center-left parties in power. It is striking that today, whenever the leaders of far Right parties are challenged about their racist positions, they respond that they say nothing more than what is said by Cameron, Sarkozy, or Samaras (depending on the country).
If racism was the ticket for the fascist parties to pass from the margins to the central political scene, Islamophobia ensured that their seat would be Business Class. Islamophobia offered the adhesive tissue for the alliance of Le Pen and Wilders. The differences that kept the fascists of the South away from their cousins of the North are well known: the Le Pens and the fascists of the South have always been more anti-Semitic, more “statist,” and not liberal at all on issues such as homosexuality, the status of women, etc. On the contrary, the fascists of the North are fanatically pro-Israel, opponents of a “big” social state, and proponents of the “European way of life,” which includes (historical irony!) the rights of women and gays.
The Muslim citizens of Europe, and the immigrants and refugees who came from Islamic countries especially in the last decade due to imperialist wars, became the convenient enemy that smoothed all these variations. That’s why all far Right parties, regardless of what “wing,” embraced Islamophobia as a key component of their strategies. Islamophobia also offered something that no previous form of racism had offered: an argument that reached deep into progressive audiences, utilizing classic themes such as the protection of women’s rights and gay rights, religious tolerance, etc.
Thus, the old-fashioned — although now “modernized” — fascism of Le Pen ended up hiding its anti-Semitism behind the more modern variations of Islamophobic racism like that of Wilders. And all this with the stamp of decisions and policies legitimized by the European Union. The Netherlands’ recent veto of the beginning of negotiations on Turkey’s entry to the EU is a defining moment of this function. It reflects, though, at the same time, the dead ends and the inherent problems facing the project of European integration.
European Union Dead Ends
Although for the supporters of the post-war project of European integration there is the “golden age” of Schumann and Monnet, the EU (or EEC and its ancestors) was never “the House of Peoples.” Its constitution always satisfied two simultaneous, if contradictory, needs that were ideologically dressed up with progressive clothes.
The first one was its appearance in the global market as a single economic bloc, against strong competitors, mainly the U.S., Japan, and, later, China. It is worth saying that even after the experience of the Second World War, the establishment of “European identity” was no stranger to racist attitudes and racial stereotypes: on the contrary, this identity was predominantly white and Christian. It is no coincidence that the issue of the “Eastern enemy” was always on the agenda, fueling the eternal debate about “where are the Eastern borders of Europe?” Anti-communism, back when the Soviet Union existed, and Islamophobia today have both been expressions of this common “European” pattern.
The second was the need to manage ethnic tensions between states and the national capitalisms within Europe that had previously led to successive wars, with the most important ones being the two World Wars. In this case again the presentation of the EU as a project that attempted to overcome nation states is misleading. The nation states — and by extension national capitalisms — have always been the ultimate source of decisions; this is why nationalisms were not an embarrassing relic of the past.
This particular political project of building a united Europe aimed at a peaceful meeting of the economic aspirations of German capitalism (which was the cause of previous wars) in exchange for the increased political role of France, in the common interest of the ruling classes of the whole continent.
These targets of European integration are currently falling apart: with the help of the crisis, German economic power has now spilled into political control of the EU, at the same time as the French influence constantly weakens. And, of course, all nationalisms are coming back for good. Conflicts between lenders of the North and borrowers of the South are getting an increasingly national coloration: the “disciplined” Germans and the “responsible” Scandinavians against the “lazy” Greeks, the “irresponsible” Italians, and so on.
It is not surprising that, in these circumstances, political forces that favor nationalist reaction are emerging. The most unambiguous case in point is France. The French National Front of Le Pen is not some sort of plebeian movement against the cosmopolitan EU, an argument widely used by many far Right parties, and unfortunately accepted by left-wing analysts. These parties reflect parts of national capital and political personnel (mostly of right-wing parties) that invest in a different form of bourgeois rule, at a time when the projects of European integration and capitalist globalization are in crisis. Whether far Right parties will be able to rally around them wider social alliances, with the middle-class layers destroyed by the crisis as well as parts of the working class, will be crucial as to where things will go in coming years.
The only thing for certain is that the European Union will deepen its anti-labor and anti-democratic features, a process whose Memoranda and Troika are only the beginning. The nationalization of the debts of European banks and the system of saving them mean that the EU will need to police much more openly the public budgets of its member states, something that would violate even basic bourgeois-democratic achievements, such as the implementation of taxation only by elected parliaments. The attempt to give legitimacy to the European Commission by instituting the election of its President through the ballots of the European Elections (a system that will be implemented for the first time in this year’s elections for the replacement of José Manuel Barroso) is a parody of democracy. That’s why the wind blowing in upcoming elections is overwhelmingly against the EU. The Gallop Institute estimates that only 30 percent of European citizens support EU today, unlike 20 years ago when this rate was at 70 percent.
The Anti-Fascist Strategy Today
If we agree on the above, then a contemporary anti-fascist strategy should respond simultaneously on all three levels we attempted to analyze. Thus, the tasks of the Left in Europe are configured as follows: we must first build a mass anti-fascist movement to challenge the political legitimacy of the fascist parties and their ability to sow hatred everywhere, from neighborhoods to parliaments. The experiences of movements, such as those in Greece and Great Britain, are valuable and should be utilized. The building of such a movement will require international anti-fascist coordinations: the international meeting organized by KEERFA on 5-6 October 2013 in Athens was such an effort. The appeal for an international day of action on 22 March 2014 could provide an opportunity for thousands of workers and youth to demonstrate simultaneously across Europe to oppose the fascist threat and the emerging far Right extremism.
Beside the mass anti-fascist movement, we need a broad anti-racist campaign to answer the lies of the government and the fascists against migrants and refugees. FRONTEX and concentration camps from Evros to Lampedusa and Gibraltar feed the fascist snake, and this is why anti-racism is a vital element of the anti-fascist struggle. Particularly, the Left should be prioritizing the fight against Islamophobia, which is the cutting edge of modern racist discourse.
Finally, the Left should provide its own political alternative to capitalist crisis and the undemocratic crescendo of the European Union. Rather than spending its political capital to maintain the illusion of a democratic reform of European institutions and a “better” eurozone (SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras’ candidature for the EU presidency is part of exactly such a strategy), the Left should seize on the delegitimization of the EU to win over the working-class masses of Europe to an anti-capitalist perspective. At the heart of this effort can only be a new internationalism, against the forces of fascism, racism, and nationalistic retrenchment. Only then can we confidently say that Europe will escape the risk of relapsing back to the darkest moments that have marked it during the twentieth century.
This article was first published in Left Flank on 12 January 2014 under a Creative Commons license.