If the post-war period can be credited with the rise of liberalism in Europe, the period following the financial crisis of 2008 can be credited with ushering in a new wave of right-wing sentiment. One must juxtapose the two epochs in order to understand the course that Europe is currently on, a course that some say will lead to future conflict.
The end of the Second World War brought about the naissance of a new period of political development in Europe. The right-wing governments that had clenched Europe in tyranny for the previous two decades were now obsolete, and the liberty that the oppressed were yearning for was finally theirs.
From that point until now, much progress has been made. The Europe of the post-war period (notwithstanding the Soviet bloc) was synonymous with liberté, egalité, and fraternité. However, it would appear that Europe is suffering from myopia as evidenced by the recent elections and the high volume of strident political activity across the continent. The right-wing parties have capitalized on the fear and skepticism within the European Union. The escalating tensions between national governments and the EU in Brussels, augmented by the trepidation regarding the migrant crisis, have forced the continent into a very precarious situation.
This situation is evocative of a similar time period, 80 years ago that, for some, is reason for concern. At the time, aggressive rhetoric, political dexterity, and shrewd gumption propelled Adolf Hitler to procure the spirit of a nation by promising to quell its fears and frustrations. His platform was cogent: Germany was in a state of economic and cultural turbulence, and its problems originated in the punitive Treaty of Versailles. The French had occupied the Ruhr as a consequence of Germany’s defaulting on reparations payments; there was rampant inflation; and moral decadence ensued. Germany was under siege by subversive elements and the current political system had failed to contend with that reality. The Weimar Republic, due to its inefficiency and insufficient constitution, was politically weak and met with contemptuous feelings from the onset, by both politician and citizen alike. Consequently, the German people were overcome with despair and frustration and looked for salvation. This provided the ideal opportunity for the fledgling National Socialist Workers Party (NSDAP) to garner support by transforming despair and skepticism into adulation for an ideology of racial superiority.
In recent years, the same form of reactionary politics has made a resurgence into the European political scene at an alarming rate, quickly gaining traction across the continent.
The year 2015 has proved to be a tumultuous one for the European Union. There have been national elections in several States, waves of migrants threatening the ever so fragile social equilibrium, and the looming threat of further economic stagnation. The European states must contend with these quandaries; ambivalence will no longer suffice. In light of this, the right wing in Europe has enjoyed a surge in popularity, as reflected by their recent victories. Originally dismissed as a short-lived fad, the forces that have been galvanized under a call to purify Europe are here to stay, and their numbers are swelling.
On Oct. 11, Austria held elections in which the ultra-conservative Austria Freedom Party finished second, earning 30.4 percent of the vote. This is the largest share given to a right-wing party since the end of the Second World War. From that point until this year, Austria, especially Vienna, has been largely under control of the Socialist party, earning the appellation “Red Vienna.” However, it is not an absurd claim to make, that in the near future Austria may once again be in the hands of the right.
To the dismay of some, Austria isn’t an anomaly; this wave of right-wing enthusiasm shows no indication of reaching its plateau in the foreseeable future. On Oct.1, the xenophobic German Party, Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA), took to the streets of Dresden in droves, amassing a crowd of 20,000, displaying nationalist German sentiment, and calling for the purification of Western society. In Poland’s last election, the conservative Law and Justice party won the election with 37.6 percent of the vote. This is first time in 26 years that a coalition government will not have to be formed, as they have enough representation in the bicameral government. Farther to the west, France’s far-right party, National Front, is set to win regional elections across the country in December. Its current leader, Marine Le Pen, will run in 2017 on a platform predicated upon Islamophobia and underscored by Euroscepticism. These calls are echoed all across the continent, whether in Germany, France, The Netherlands, or in Scandinavia.
Almost all of the far right parties share an animosity towards the migration crisis and are frustrated with the inefficiency of the seat of European Governance in Brussels. Perhaps – as an unintentional byproduct of their goodwill and generosity – the governments of the EU made a significant blunder by permitting the influx of migrants to reach alarming levels. In the past few months, Germany implemented border controls and halted the unbridled flow of migrants into the country. This decision came as a surprise to many, as the country that was once unconditionally welcoming chose to control its borders in ways not seen since the Second World War. Similarly, in an act of defiance to Brussels, on Sept. 14, the Netherlands, Austria, and Slovakia followed suit. Hungary imposed strict border controls and prevented migrants from entering their country as well, earning the adulation of their people and the scorn of the authorities in Brussels.
On the surface, these actions have allowed governments to reintroduce order, or the semblance thereof, to their borders and temporality quell any lingering fears. However, this is a direct threat to Europe’s Schengen Agreement, which provides for passport-free travel. If Europe were to regress and break the hard-fought fraternal bonds, the Europe of today, symbolic of both cultural preservation and continued innovation, will be in grave peril.
The migration crisis is only the surface of other deep-seated issues that are now coming to fruition in Europe. The mass migration has proven to be the ideal time for the far-right parties to make their final push, build upon, and strengthen their base. The migrant crises notwithstanding, this accumulated animosity points towards the centrality of European governance. For many, the culpability of the current issues resides in Brussels, the defacto capital of the European Parliament. Those in charge are accused of being aloof, and their policies are reflective of their disconnect with all of the European countries that bear the burden of the migrant crises.
Perhaps in the not-so-distant future, the migrant crises can pose a deeper problem: the dissolution of a unified Europe. In times of economic, social, or political crisis, reactionary politics becomes the colloquial, making the rise of a fringe candidate realizable. If we have learned anything in the past 80 years, it is that once we are driven by fear and skepticism, we make rash, presumptuous decisions that benefit only those who extol radical policies.
While it is true that the European governments have an obligation to preserve their individual cultures, they must do so while remaining open and unbiased. Let’s hope that the seemingly implacable momentum of today’s reactionary politicians will, in fact, be short lived. Europe has come too far to fall back to its seemingly contradictory reticence and brashness.