The mass murder by a Norwegian extremist last week has placed a spotlight on the rising political influence of Europe’s right-wing fringe. While the violence of the Norwegian killer, Anders Behring Brevik, is well beyond the political pale, his ideological hatred for Muslims, multiculturalism and sense of threatened national identity are threads to be found in the fabric of all Western populist right-wing groups. Almost all the Scandinavian and Benelux countries, France, Austria and Switzerland have seen the populist right gain unusually high levels of political influence in the past few years. Partly because of these countries’ liberal reputations, the success of such parties in places like Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark have been shocking to mainstream European polity.
Such groups have been part of European politics for deca-des. But their recent continent-wide resurgence has been remarkable. Immigration is arguably the single most important trigger for this erosion of liberal values in Europe. First and foremost is the visibility and, in some cases, lack of assimilation of Muslim migrants. Even in Germany, which has remained immune to the right-wing virus, as much as three-quarters of the population express concern about Islam. But long-standing employment problems, the European Union’s dissolution of national borders and a general sense of a culture under siege have helped bring political depth to these fears and widen the audience for regressive politics. The populist right in Europe is thus also opposed to the euro, free trade and multiculturalism in general.
There is no reason to believe these parties will ever rule — though France’s Marine Le Pen may make the run-off in next year’s presidential elections. But these fringe parties have been able to make mainstream conservative parties move to co-opt some of their positions, especially over migration. Indians can see Britain, once a major diaspora destination, closing the door on even student visas. German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly said multiculturalism “has failed, utterly failed.” Denmark has imposed border controls and France tossed out Roma migrants in violation of European Union edicts. The past three decades have seen a remarkable political convergence of left and right. The resulting political consensus was used to push the cause of European Union. Today the economic and cultural underpinning of that combination is becoming increasingly frayed. Europe is experiencing a neurosis of which the Norwegian killing can be said to be an extreme symptom.