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Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first black minister, has been the target of the Italian far-right political parties since she was appointed in April. Last July Roberto Calderoli, vice president of Lega Nord, a regionalist political party, compared her to an orangutan and told her that she should be a politician in her native country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. More recently, on Oct. 3, Kyenge was accused by a Lega Nord deputy of being responsible of the shipwreck, which left more than 360 African migrants dead off the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Thriving European far-right political parties are using anti-immigration rhetoric to gain ground in elections. They also used the Lampedusa ship disaster, which revealed the limits of European Union’s policy on illegal immigration, to advocate for a tighter control of the E.U. borders.

“New waves [of immigration] will be in the next months and next years authentic human tsunamis, which will kneel down the nation, the entire Europe, and with them the poor island of Lampedusa,” said Giuseppe Provenzale, a local leader of Italian far-right party Forza Nuova, one day after Lampedusa shipwreck.

Forza Nuova’s comments on the shipwreck show how European far-right political parties are contributing to the ascent of xenophobic ideas and distrust toward traditional governments.

A strengthened influence across Europe

Founded in 1997, Forza Nuova does not hold any seats in the Italian Parliament. Lega Nord, the other populist and Eurosceptic far-right party, won 4,3 percent of the votes in 2013 and has nine members in the European Parliament.

The Italian example of two far-right nationalist, anti-Islam and Eurosceptic parties shows how their ideas are growing in political popularity. Voters in Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, France are also increasingly rallying around extremist or nationalist leaders.

The rejection of Muslim and African migrants is the main reason of such scores. “In a context of economic globalization, the foreigner is made responsible for industries relocations and unemployment,” said Beatrice Giblin, a geopolitics analyst and former executive of the French Institute of Geopolitics.

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’s Party of Freedom, the fourth-largest political party of the country, won 24 seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections and was part of the government coalition before withdrawing its support in April 2012. A Eurosceptic deputy, Wilders tries to make a clear distinction between Europe and the Middle East and Africa by disparaging Islam and its values.

“The specter of Islam is haunting the free world,” Wilders wrote in a blog post published on Oct. 8. By calling Islam “the most serious evil afflicting the world today,” he added Islamophobia to the country’s political agenda. “Western leaders downplay the role of Islam,” Wilders said.

Although some leaders have toned down their parties’ discourse on immigration, it remains a key plank of the far-right programs. Through a program on immigration, named “Stop immigration, reinforce the French identity”, Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front party, plans to reduce the number of legal immigrants from 200,000 to 10,000 within five years and to prohibit all protests in support of illegal immigrants.

A reactivated traditional rhetoric

The rhetoric is not new. Founded in 1972, the National Front party has always used a populist and racist rhetoric and asked for a tighter control of borders. Northern Europe has also a history of far-right politics. In Norway, the Progress Party is part of the coalition government and in Sweden the Democrats have 20 seats in the Parliament.

While unemployment and austerity in Europe have weakened trust in traditional politicians, far-right parties claim to offer an alternative. They argue that the system is corrupted and only their radical decisions are solutions to the crisis.

However, the way far-right parties are presenting themselves might be changing. In France, Le Pen is now trying to end the demonization of the party’s ideas. She recently said that far-right ideas were not a fair representation of the party’s ideology and threatened to sue anyone who calls the National Front party a far-right party. “To call the National Front a far-right party is a deontological fault, a militant act of journalists and an intellectual mistake,” Le Pen said.

Gaining ground with the economic crisis

The long and deep economic crisis in Europe, which has weakened national economies and led governments to adopt austerity measures, is also fueling the ascent of the anti-establishment parties. In the euro area, unemployment has increased from 7.6 to 11.4 percent between 2008 and 2012, according to the European Commission data.

In Greece, the most weakened European economy, the unemployment rate of 25.1 percent has helped the neo-Nazi and fascist party Golden Dawn, which won 6 percent in the 2012 parliamentary elections, enough for the party to enter the Hellenic Parliament for the first time. More than 1,000 supporters of Golden Dawn protested last week against the arrest of their leader after the Greek Supreme Court froze the party’s state funding and deemed it to be a criminal organization. An investigation was opened after one of the party’s leader was accused of the murder of an anti-fascist rapper in September.

The European Parliament elections: The next goal for the far-right parties

European far-right political parties want European countries to regain national sovereignty. “The EU stands for everything that is wrong in Europe,” Wilders said last June. It has opened Europe’s borders to uncontrolled mass immigration, mostly from Islamic countries.” Euroscepticism is spreading through the European Union; populist leaders want to use that mistrust to gain ground in the European elections.

According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, which conducted a study on Europscepticism between 2008 and 2012, trust in the EU has fallen from 25 to -63 percent in Greece, from 20 to -29 percent in Germany, from 30 to -22 percent in Italy and from 42 to -52 percent in Spain. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron promised in January an in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU by the end of 2017.

Far-right parties are already preparing for the European Parliament elections 2014. French, Belgian and Austrian far-right political parties want to form a political group with the Dutch Party of Freedom and the Sweden Democrats. To get into the European Parliament, a group needs 25 deputies elected in at least a quarter of EU member states. Le Pen said during a press conference in the European Parliament on Oct. 23. that she is considering using the European Alliance for Freedom (EAF), a pan-European alliance of far-right parties founded in 2010, to unite Eurosceptic parties.

By Elian Peltier. 

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