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The threat to Europe isn’t at its fringes, it’s firmly in the centre

Posted by Alex Mayer on 1st March 2019

The symptoms of Europe’s apparently perpetual political crisis have become steadily normalised. Whether it is startlingly high youth unemployment in southern Europe or the rise of populist parties, trends which would have been unimaginable before 2008, have become the new norm.

Worryingly, the fact that mainstream Europe has accepted far-right populist political parties as the new normal has amplified the threat they pose to liberal democracy.

United by anti-immigrant rhetoric and a disregard for minority rights, these parties are ‘populist’ in the truest sense, claiming to stand for the majority, even if this means crushing minorities.

The supranational institutions of modern Europe were designed to protect the rights these populists oppose: individual freedoms, independent judiciaries and freedom of expression.

The Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and later the European Union, were an acknowledgement by national governments of their failure to uphold key rights against fascism in the 1930s.

They recognised nominal democracies could vote themselves out of existence. Having institutions independent of national politics was supposed to stop governments undermining the basic pillars of liberal democracy.

The EU ratified the “Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union” in 2000, affirming that European citizens enjoy certain rights including protection against torture, slavery and the death penalty, allowing freedom of thought, religion, expression and education, and the right to a fair trial with an independent judiciary.

However, the extent to which these fundamental rights are protected, has now become part of the political calculations of certain European leaders. This has led to some mainstream conservatives and socialists absorbing, normalising and tolerating these ‘populist’ views to further their own short-term political interests.

Mainstream groups in the European Parliament, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), and the centre-left Socialist and Democrats Group (S&D), of which the Labour Party is a member, have both turned a blind eye to member parties who are threatening the principles of liberal democracy.

The Hungarian Fidesz party has moved steadily to the right, under its leader Viktor Orbán. They have attacked academic freedom forcing the Central European University out of Budapest and threatened the independence of the judiciary. However the party’s authoritarianism and anti-migrant message of today is not just tolerated in return for its support, but exploited by other members of the EPP to curry favour with anti-establishment voters. Manfred Weber, now the EPP’s candidate for presidency of the European Commission, supported Orbán, criticising those who “point fingers” at the Hungarian Prime Minister. In return, Weber won Orbán’s backing to be the EPP’s candidate for the presidency.

The British Conservatives in the European Parliament have also repeatedly undermined moves to rein in the Hungarian government, regarding Orbán as a useful pro-Brexit ally.

The mainstream’s protection of Orbán is one reason it took until 2018 for punitive measures to be taken against Hungary in the European Parliament. Too little, too late.

Perhaps as concerning for those of us on the left though, is the situation with our own sister party colleagues in the Romanian Social Democratic Party. They are part of the S&D Group in the European Parliament, and part of the governing coalition in Romania. Their Romanian Government has held a referendum
to attempt to establish a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, has cracked down on those protesting against government corruption and has threatened the independence of the judiciary.

Mainstream parties and groupings are tolerating the illiberal. It is one thing to be a broad church, but it is another to have no common faith. Moreover, these are not shadowy backroom deals, instead everyone can see the cowardice.

The EU’s lack of action in the face of these threats is often seen by critics as an inevitable consequence of weak structures and institutions. However, such an explanation lets politicians off the hook as the reality is that it is politicians who need to call out those who cross the line, irrespective of the short-term political costs. Furthermore, as internationalists, we also have an obligation to fight for basic rights wherever they are threatened.

Accommodating populism is wrong, especially for socialists. Morally, as liberals and internationalists, we have a duty to stand up for fundamental rights everywhere. Equally, we know that tolerating far-right dog whistle politics is strategically flawed. It simply drags the centre of politics to the right. We see it in the language used about refugees “swamping” Europe, which moved from the extremes to normal public discourse, and took opinion and policy with it. We see it in history too, and the ultimate horrors of World War Two. Pandering to those whose principles that we despise has never worked and never will.

This article first appeared in the Spring issue of the Fabian Review