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Warning Shots

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
05.21.2002 | POLITICS

"That's another one we won't have to deal with," said a friend, examining the front page corpse of Pim Fortuyn.

It was a dumb thing to say, but I nodded. The outspoken far-right Dutch politician was dead alright. Five shots: one for the job and four gratuitous bullets to the brain and throat. You have to really hate a man to stand in the middle of a parking lot in broad daylight and shoot up his face like that. BANG. BANG. BANG. BANG. BANG. That's hate.

It turns out the assassin is just an animal rights nut, but the first political murder in Holland since the tulip craze came as a sort of unrelated exclamation point to Jean-Marie Le Pen's surprise appearance in the French presidential election. It kept Europe's collective attention where it needs to be: on the furtive, tumor-like growth of far-right politics in the Union.

In most European countries, between 5 and 15 per cent of the population openly supports hard-right nationalist parties. These parties advertise solutions to the "immigrant question" ranging from the merely conservative (closing the gates) to the outright barbaric (deportation and sterilization), but all agree that the souls and economies of their countries are at risk. They want more white babies in their hospitals. They sometimes echo the rhetoric of fascism. They terrify their liberal countrymen. By all accounts, they're growing. Slowly, but growing.

The timing is scary. The countries with emerging hard-right parties are all affluent. They are soft and functioning welfare states. Their generous social services, while under strain, are intact. Despite rising unemployment many countries, the 90's was not a decade of coal shortages, bread lines and hyper-inflation in Europe. If Austria's Freedom Party and France's National Front can nurture their support base in an era of relative prosperity, what would they accomplish during a long period of economic meltdown? A glance back through the modern history of Europe is full of sobering possibilities. In the typically dispiriting words of a recent Guardian editorial, "watch and tremble."

An irony of the anti-immigrant movement is that the affluent social democracies of the post-war period are themselves the products of immigrant labor and gigantic infusions of capital from the United States, a nation that's taken in tens of millions of European immigrants. But finger wagging history lessons don't count for much. The platforms hustled by nationalists clearly resonate with a sizeable chunk of European electorates. Popular unease with the darkening and Islamization of their countries has forced mainstream European governments of both the left and right to cut back the flow of legal immigration in the last decade. Even famously liberal Britain has tightened its immigration and asylum laws in recent years.

Why? Because Europe is undergoing a massive demographic and cultural shift, and white people are scared. Immigrants now account for more than 10 per cent of all births in Western Europe, a figure that increases with immigration while native (white) population growth stays frozen or drops. In a symbolic statistic, a full half of newborn babies in Brussels are now Arabic. Reversing this trend would have negative economic consequences for an aging continent, but frightened whities aren't calculating the effects of a labor shortage in 2040. Economics, while a factor, isn't the driving force behind anti-immigration radicalism.

Mostly it's race and culture. For the Right, immigrants constitute an "invasion" of others that clashes with both the moral and dermatological complexion of Christian Europe. The People's Party in Denmark runs election posters of a young blonde girl that warn "when she retires Denmark will be a Muslim majority country." One of Pim Fortuyn's best applause lines in liberal Holland wasn't about losing jobs to Arabs, but concerned the culture of Islam. "In Holland homosexuality has the same status as heterosexuality," he'd say. "Show me one Islamic country where that is the case."

And ol' Pim posed a perfectly plausible point. Millions of immigrants have failed to assimilate into the dominant culture of their European host countries. The melting pot hasn't melted much, and the prospect of a divided society with growing numbers of people committed to different values is just not attractive to native populations. September 11th didn't help, but even without al-Qaida operatives plotting in Paris, it's not without logic to say that immigration causes a certain amount of social conflict by definition. The US is the most assimilated immigrant nation in the world, and it still has race riots and acid waves of anti-immigrant backlash. There is no getting around this. It has its deepest roots in a human nature that is territorial and clannish. Countering these impulses requires the careful creation of a society that is prosperous and inclusive.

But creating and maintaining such a society is now complicated by the forces of globalization, forces represented by the far-right's other bogeymen: Eurocrats in Brussels. Much national policy is now set for EU member states far from their capitals, and many citizens of Europe are deeply suspicious of this. After calling for the expulsion of immigrants in campaign speeches, Le Pen would demand a pull-out of the Union France did so much to build: "The French people will never let themselves be led by remote control in the abattoirs of Euro-globalization. Let us prepare for the fight." His nationalist colleagues around Europe all have similar rallying calls.

Most doubt that even Le Pen would try to bring back the franc and bring down the architecture of the Union, but unease about centralization and integration in Europe is widespread, and cuts across the political spectrum. And again, there is the drop of truth in the far-right railings against Europe, even if their remedies are foul and shortsighted. Just as the complexities of immigration won't be vanquished with liberal homilies, neither will anger about conceding self-government to the EU disappear without tackling the yawning "democratic deficit" that exists between Brussels and citizens of Europe. The same fears that breed suspicion of the World Trade Organization are at work with the EU. People see it as the distant and unaccountable tool of stateless Euro-financiers. Whether or not these fears are founded, they must be addressed.

The question of Democracy in the EU has no easy answer. Europe is rapidly federalizing in order to compete in the global economy as a superpower, and thus remain wealthy and powerful enough to defend its version of capitalism. Competing as a superpower, however, is turning out to require sacrifices that constitute attacks on the very social democracies a strong EU is meant to defend. Social democratic parties have granted growing powers to faceless EU bodies and have become economically conservative in the name of Competitive Europe, in most cases making them indistinguishable from conservative parties in the eyes of voters. This slow-motion de facto default on the left is one of the reasons the growth of the far-right is so worrying. Ultimately the left may be forced to either turn to its back on Europe to retake the ground it is losing to the right, or be steam-rolled by popular anxieties that it did little to counter when it had the chance -- i.e., right now. The anger caused by fear of a distant EU beurocracy will grow acute if Europe's safety nets are further shredded under the banners of "hard choices" and "fiscal responibility." The growing power and scope of the EU will be associated with the "tough medicine" citizens of Europe are (nicely) being told they must learn to swallow. Unless the EU assumes a human face with democratic mechanisms and can provide as much security as national governments, people will turn against Europe and nationalist sentiment will explode. To the extent that nationalist sentiments are already simmering, the task is urgent.

Which brings the circle back to the other, more sensational half of the far-right platform: anti-immigrant hatred. Insecurity about the economy and their government's ability to provide safety fuels otherwise unrelated fears of immigrants and crime. Anti-immigration and anti-EU sentiments are already being successfully conflated by fear-mongering parties on the right -- it's a winning team, and one with a proven track record. The longer the far-right is able to play off the paralysis and double bind of their "sell-out" leftist opposition, the more successful they'll be. During a period of crisis, anti-immigration/muslim hysteria could become Europe's 21st century anti-semitism, with the EU taking the place of the failed, traitorous and effete Weimar Republic of Nazi propaganda. This may seem far-fetched, but this is clearly the strategy of the far-right across the continent.

The full integration of immigrant communities would mitigate, but not eliminate, the potential for future racial conflict. German Jews, after all, were highly assimilated. Likewise, even if the EU successfully creates active "Euro-citizens", it will always be open to attacks that it is the enemy of national interests; it is an easy, almost perfect, scapegoat. As Europe continues to standardize policy across Europe without accompanying democratic reforms, the target on the EU's back grows larger. As Larry Siedentop of Oxford writes, "It is far from clear that...nation states...endowed with distinctive political cultures... [can] long withstand [their] sudden subordination to a centralized agency. In that way Europe could suddenly lose much of its own history. Or, rather, it might find itself lumbered with the disadvantages of its history, a residue of class hatreds, without its advantage, pluralism." In other words, people may not go gently into the euro-blender. If pushed too hard too fast, the reaction may be violent.

So these are the binds. Europe needs immigrants, but they bring a different culture and some crime, and a lot of Europeans are scared by that. Europe needs to integrate to stay strong and unified, but voters are suspicious of ceding power to Brussels, and see the EU as undemocratic, which it sort of is.

The Third Way, which was supposed to square these circles, instead is part of the problem. In giving half-answers to complex questions -- or ignoring them altogether -- Third Way politicians have opened up space for the far-right. As mainstream parties on the right and left have merged into the center, the only people addressing these issues with real force are monsters like Le Pen, and they are addressing traditionally left-wing constituencies. For it's working class communities that are more likely to both feel threatened by globalization and live near immigrant communities, where crime rates are often higher.

It is the parties of the left who historically have offered the most humane visions of a tolerant and inclusive society, but their future power depends on listening to popular concerns about immigration and supporting the welfare state -- two things they're constrained in doing out of fear of slowing down economic growth and betraying the post-war liberal tradition of taking in refugees and immigrants with open arms.

Unchecked immigration and an opaque, increasingly powerful EU are thus the tripwires that could derail the project of a peaceful, integrated Europe. And the world very much needs a peaceful, integrated Europe. But if responsible statesmen lack the brains and courage to find honest answers to some hard questions, then the Jorg Haiders of Europe will step forward and darken the continent. Again. Europe isn't on the verge of exploding into an orgy of nationalist stupidity, it's true. Not even close. But the wheels of history are in motion, and they have a habit of turning faster than we think.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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