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November 12, 2011

Turning Right

In the Dutch general elections of June 2010, the Party for Freedom (PVV) won 15.5 percent of the overall vote, 24 seats out of 150 in the house of representatives of the Netherlands and emerged as the third largest party. Founded on a platform of anti-Europe integration, anti-immigration, closer cultural assimilation and a stridently anti-Islam stance, the PVV, led by the charismatic and controversial Geert Wilders, was viewed as a right-wing fringe party – more inclined towards attention-seeking through provocative statements and extreme positions. For a country that was known to be one of the most liberal in Europe, this verdict went against traditional values of consensus and tolerance and heralded a major change in the political landscape. The PVV played a key role in post-election negotiations and agreed to support the coalition government without joining it.

On 14th July 1789, the Bastille, a prison in Paris and a symbol of the King’s power, was stormed by protesters and marked a turning point in the French Revolution. This day is commemorated as Bastille Day, a national holiday in France, and resulted in a universal recognition of words that form the aspiration every struggle against oppression – Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. In July 2010, on the eve of 221st Bastille day celebrations, the French National Assembly passed a bill that that banned citizens from wearing masks or veils that would cover their face in public. More specifically, this move was interpreted as a ban on women wearing a Burqa in public. Undeterred by protests in a country with 7 million Muslim inhabitants, the ban went into effect in April 2011.

A Pew Research Center poll carried out in April-May 2010 found that 80 percent of the French public supported the Burqa ban. Poll results in Germany, Britain and Spain indicated a 71, 62 and 59 percent support for a Burqa ban. In July 2011, a ban against wearing masks or veils in public went into effect in Belgium and a similar law is on the cards in the Netherlands. The political and social undercurrents in these two countries and other parts of Europe, go beyond the symbolism of a Burqa ban or tighter immigration control. In October 2010, German Chancellor Angela Merkel remarked that multiculturalism has “utterly failed”. In his speech at the Munich security conference in February 2011, the British Prime Minister David Cameron made a similar point when he implied that the state doctrine of multiculturalism had led to a ghettos rather than a melting pot of cultures.

While it is easy to view these sentiments as recent and in the context of anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant sentiment, the reality is that liberal outlook in Europe has been under threat for some time now. One could argue that this is due to the fear and threat of (Islamist) terrorism or maybe the concept of “multikulti” was utopian. Another factor could be the changing roles in business and society, case in point the takeover of Arcelor by Mittal Steel and the lack of comprehension of such an possibility. There is a possibly legitimate grouse against immigrants due to their unwillingness to integrate, making the original inhabitants uncomfortable in their own streets. Furthermore, the socio-political reasons for the erosion of liberal values have been compounded by slowing economies, rising debt levels, growing unemployment rates, aging population and the global financial crisis of 2008.

Throughout this period, public social spending has remained high and relatively unchanged and there is increasing strain on the sustainability of Europe’s welfare state model. A liberal immigration policy is considered to have made things worse by attracting unskilled migrants who are seen as net beneficiaries in an environment when the average unemployment rate among migrants is higher than that of the native-born. Right-wing parties across Europe have joined cause by using the public’s displeasure of changing communities to further their political goals and a depressing economic climate has acted as a catalyst in strengthening real or perceived misgivings. Across Europe, tolerance is being tested by suspicion. liberal attitudes are being challenged by social and religious sensibilities of immigrants, governments are faced with the prospect of spending more to maintain economic parity.

While terrorism and threats to Europe’s way of life has improved fortunes of the extremist parties, it can be argued that aggressive and extremist posturing have boosted suspicion and even rationalized radicalisation among immigrant populations. In some countries like Denmark and Germany, integration remains a challenge but despite the negative climate against immigration, Government spending has not decreased. In contrast, the Netherlands plans to reduce the language and orientation budget to 10 percent of its current budget by 2015, while keeping its integration goals unchanged. The economic realities seem to be working at cross-purposes with social objectives and what currently appears to be a measure to dissuade Muslim and low-skilled migrants could extend its reach beyond religious or economic considerations.

In the coming years, more mainstream political parties are likely to adopt the talking points of extremist parties if only to address the frustrations of certain voters and stem the growth of these parties. But this section of voters have little patience for a nuanced approach and the more populist extremist parties are better positioned to address their fears and have a continuous conversation with them. This has perhaps even contributed to the mainstreaming of values that were seen as illiberal and relegated to the fringe.

These changes in Europe seem to be driven by anti-immigration sentiment, threat to cultural identity and a liberal values but there are economic realities that fuel intolerance against immigration and non-native cultures. The welfare states of Europe are under pressure due to economic decline and immigrants are seen as adding to the burden of the state. The European prescription for retaining its liberal values provides for building of walls at its borders while pushing its immigrants to integrate or leave. But this approach comes at the cost of higher walls that communities will build within these borders, urged on by extremist groups.

The fall of the Berlin wall reunified Germany and paved the way for free movement and reconciliation within Europe. 22 years later, Europe faces the challenge of balancing security with liberalism and preservation of national culture with welcoming skilled and unskilled migrants. There is a deliberate shift towards accepting some illiberal restrictions for greater public good. It remains to be seen if Europe can convincingly transform itself to address increasingly vocal and illiberal positions, but the social changes brought about by its right turn could very well be irreversible.


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