Tackling political extremism in Europe

Following the world’s biggest financial crisis and economic recession in recent history, which has seriously tested the very tenets of capitalism and its workings, including the financial foundations on which the market economy is based, one would have thought that the political pendulum in most countries would now move to the left.

Well, not if one knows one’s history well. Going back in time one finds that following crises such as in the 1930s after the Wall Street Crash, people tend to move to the right, often the far right. They want to batten down the hatches, and in fear and panic want to fend for themselves. In their “fight or don’t flight” dilemma they are pushed or get attracted to extreme demagogues with simple populist creeds with undertones of racial prejudice and intolerance.

The blame is put not on the perpetrators of the crisis but on the weakest minority group or groups of people around. Recessions tend to bring with them rising unemployment and lower living standards. Affected people want to blame somebody for this state of affairs. They are fearful that somebody will rob them of their job. Minority groups are quick scapegoats.

Consequently, it is natural to yearn for a quick fix and an easy solution. Extremist politics that blames a minority – be it based, for example, on the colour of their skin or their religious creed – for all society’s problems, purports to offer that quick fix, even though history tells us that such politics leads to bloody conflict and genocide.

Recently we have seen a dangerous rise in support for political parties on the extreme-right. Fascist MEPs were elected last year in countries including the UK, France, Austria, Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria. National parliaments in many EU member states are also having their share. Sweden is the most recent country to experience this phenomenon. Although none have been, or are even close to be, elected as the main governing party in a European country, the rise of the far right is highly worrying.

This rise of political extremism is being taken very seriously by the Socialist and Democrat (S&D) group in the European Parliament. I am a member of the S&D’s working group on political extremism, nationalism and xenophobia, looking at the political trends in different EU countries and developing campaigning messages to tackle such extremism. For as we have seen recently, even leaders in the EU are not without blame in trumpeting up scapegoats.

Malta cannot be said to have been left unscathed. While political extremists have not won seats in either national or European elections in Malta, the doubling of followers of Norman Lowell’s Imperium Europa party to 3,559 votes in last year’s European elections from the previous 2004 elections cannot be ignored.

Although we need to respond to the people’s underlying fears and concerns we cannot create a “fortress Malta” or a “fortress EU” and isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. For example, the right of EU citizens to move and work in other member states is both economically and socially beneficial. To move away from this would be catastrophic for our living standards.

We must recognise that the answer to recession and the social and economic upheaval it brings, is not nationalism but internationalism. The advance of technology – particularly in terms of communication and travel – has improved our quality of life and brought the rest of the world closer to us. But this should not, and must not, diminish a sense of community and belonging.

The strength of our democracy, our economy and our society lies in its diversity and in its tolerance of people who are different to us. These are the founding principles on which the EU was built, and they are principles that the EU must live by. The last century was wrecked by extremism that emerged as a result of the destruction caused by World War I and then by the Wall Street Crash. We must collectively ensure that this century does not follow the same destructive path.

www.timesofmalta.com – Monday, 27th September 2010

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