Europe’s mainstream political parties are engaged in a worsening feud over how to deal with the growing power of extreme -rightwing anti-immigrant movements across the EU.
Amid a backlash against immigration that has shaken Germany, France, the Netherlands and Sweden in recent months, governments of the center-right or center-left appear at a loss to counter the appeal of extremist populists who have moved from the madcap fringes of national politics into government, or propping up minority centrist coalitions.
A liberals-led coalition has just taken office in the Netherlands dependent on the parliamentary support of MP Geert Wilders, Europe’s leading Islam-baiter. In Denmark, another liberals-led government also relies on the anti-immigrant nationalists of the Danish People’s Party (DPP) for survival. Last week, the DPP won a tightening of the most draconian immigration laws in Europe in return for agreeing to the government’s budget for next year.
Alarmed at the growing appeal of the far right, leaders of the -center-right and center-left are struggling to form a coherent response. Attempts to construct a cross-party European anti--extremism pact are falling victim to the expediencies of national politics.
“This is becoming a very hot political issue,” said a spokesman for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, a large grouping in the European parliament.
Last week, Wilfried Martens, a former Belgian prime minister who leads the European People’s party, which groups ruling Christian democrats in most of the EU, made approaches to social democrat and liberal leaders with the aim of forging a joint anti-extremist position.
“Martens wants a common approach of the political parties,” his spokesman, Kostas Sasmatzoglou, said. “The phenomenon is growing and these far-right parties are getting stronger and stronger. We all face the same issue, but we should not be trying to score political points.”
The overture looks doomed.
“I don’t see a solution in going hand-in-hand with the conservative parties,” said Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, the former Danish prime minister who heads the pan-European association of social democratic parties, the Party of European Socialists (PES). “The conservatives are saying: ‘If you can’t beat the far right, join them.’”
Last month, Europe’s social democrats endorsed a policy ruling out coalitions or electoral pacts “with a party inciting or attempting to stir up racial or ethnic prejudices and racial hatred at European or national levels.”
The policy also rejected the forging of tacit parliamentary alliances with such parties and the adoption of far-right policies that are proving popular. It demanded that all mainstream parties sign up to the principles.
However, conservatives and liberals are already in bed with the far right in Denmark, the Netherlands and Italy.
“We can’t dictate or intervene in domestic politics,” said Sasmatzoglou for the center-right. “They are all different situations.”
The anti-immigrant policy gains made in recent months look likely to continue. In Switzerland polls show majority support for a referendum this month demanding summary deportation of foreigners sentenced for petty crimes, not just for more serious crimes as up till now. The plebiscite is being organized by the rightwing Swiss People’s party, which a year ago won another referendum banning minarets.
In France, there are growing calls within French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right UMP party for a merger with Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front. A poll last month showed one-third of UMP voters backed joint electoral pacts with the National Front. In Italy, where Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is in coalition with the far-right Northern League, the interior minister has announced a new crackdown on expelling EU citizens who cannot support -themselves, a policy aimed at east European Roma and aping Sarkozy’s summer expulsions in France.
Denmark’s tightened immigration laws should deploy a new weapon — bare breasts — to deter newcomers, the far-right People’s party said last week. A documentary film on Denmark that is shown to immigrants as part of the test for entry should include topless bathers, said Peter Skaarup, the party’s foreign affairs spokesman.
“If you’re coming from a strict, religious society that might make you stop and think: ‘Oh no,’” he told the newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. “Topless bathing probably isn’t a common sight on Pakistani beaches. I honestly believe that by including a couple of bare breasts in the film, extremists may have to think twice before deciding to come to Denmark.”