Rise of the (far?) right

When I started working for the EUobserver in January 2000, one of the first editorial discussions I remember participating in is whether we had the journalistic authority to label certain political movements and parties as “extreme right”. Should they be instead “far right” (which seems slightly milder) or simply “right-wing”. How could we distinguish certain openly anti-immigration parties, such as the British National Party, from the more mainstream Conservative Party. It was an important question.

Of course, very much in our mind at the time, was Austria’s Freedom Party (the FPÖ). In 1999, Austria faced EU sanctions because of the FPO, then headed by Jorg Haider – Brussels, it seemed, was not prepared to allow such a right-wing, nationalistic xenophobic party to step into the government of a member state.

But were we right to call the FPO, along with all the other journalists, extreme right, with all the negative connotations that entails: fascist neo-Nazi skin-heads beating up Turkish immigrants.

A few days ago, I took a trip to Austria to meet with the FPO, and to see what they are like now that Jorg Haider has left the ranks (he died in a car crash last year, after he had been drinking).

Barbara Kappel – a smartly-dressed, well-spoken entrepreneurial lady who is standing in the European elections – was offered up as my interview partner.

Once I had entered the room, and we had exchanged a few pleasantries, she smiled at me and said: “I’m not what you were expecting, am I?”

Apparently, this is quite a common introduction when it comes to reputedly right-wing groups in Europe who are desperately trying to rectify their image problem. The same thing happened to Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times, when he met Jobbik, the Hungarian right-wing party, the other week. Of Jobbik, more shortly.

Despite my best intentions, I found myself nodding in agreement with most points that Kappel was saying. Rather than the anti-immigration, nationalistic, bullying party I had been anticipating – I found myself confronting someone from the FPO who, whilst being right-wing (which of course is not a problem), was making a lot of sense when it came to addressing many of Europe’s ills.

For example, she rightly pointed out that most EU member states have a serious immigration problem at the moment, and just can’t cope with the number of immigrants flooding in. Look at my own country of residence, Italy, where mass immigration is a very new phenomenon; most politicians seem to be answering this problem by instilling into the population a fear of immigrants: to the extent that Muslims are relegated to worshipping in garages or basements, with all the sordid plotting that is likely to entail. A new chapter in Italy’s history: how to grow terrorists at home, rather than import them.

Kappel’s answer to the problem is educate. These people are here, but we must make sure that they contribute to society. Many of them do not make the effort to learn German, but they should do. I can’t argue with that. If you are going to adopt a country as your home, then at least try to learn the language. She mentioned other sensible ways that non-Austrians can be integrated into society.

“So why does FPO have such bad press?” I asked.

“For political reasons,” she said. “The establishment parties fear us, because we are becoming more popular.”

With this comment, she may have hit the nail on the head. All across Europe, right-wing parties (far right, if you want to call them that) are gaining ground, because people are totally fed up with the current establishment, who seem to have pretty effectively buggered up their managing of the economy. On June 7, when European citizens will get the chance to vote in the European elections, there is going to be a tremendous protest vote: and parties like the FPO are going to gain ground.

The danger is that, whilst educated politicians like Kappel are making a lot of sense, she openly admits that many of the party’s support come from the disenfranchised youth that are perhaps somewhat more likely to take up a baseball bat against an immigrant. There is a very real, very dangerous neo-Nazi movement in Austria; speaking to people on the street taught me that.

What is happening here – and what we are going to see throughout Europe come the June elections – is a backlash against the establishment. Parties like the FPÖ are likely to get the blame for fostering extremism, but in reality it is the extremists searching for the easiest way to vent their mounting dissatisfaction with the world.

The next stop on my brief European tour was Jobbik, a relatively new political movement in Hungary who also has candidates standing in the European elections. Again, Jobbik are getting a bad image at the hands of the press, both local and foreign.

Having been duly charmed by Kappel – so that I came away thinking the FPÖ wasn’t actually a bad little number – I rather expected the same treatment at the hands of Jobbik.

What I found, when I arrived at the party head-quarters, was a friendly boisterous character that was the spitting image of Joe Pesci, the American actor famous for his role in gangster movies like Goodfellas and Casino. Throughout our conversation – which was surprisingly long – I half-expected him to leap to his feet, point a pistol at my legs and tell me to “motherfucking dance”. Which would have been difficult, given the state of my legs after two days of trekking from one meeting to another.

Still, never one to judge on first appearances, I thought, “fair enough, everyone’s got to look like somebody”. So I wouldn’t begrudge the fellow for looking like Joe Pesci. I quite like Joe Pesci.

Just before the meeting, I had met, for quite a separate reason, with a Hungarian government official. As I was leaving, I mentioned that I was now on my way to see Jobbik. He looked grimly at me and said: “Ah, the far-right party. They are going to be one of the biggest problems Hungary faces in the future.”

He then sprang towards his computer and insisted on showing me, via the Internet, pictures of the Magyar Garder (Hungarian Guard), a group of people that, acting under the authority of Jobbik, turn up in villages and allegedly terrorise the gypsy population.

I asked Béla Kovács, the Joe Pesci lookalike about this, and he said that they were just there to make sure the gypsies didn’t cause trouble. He said that, at the first sign of trouble, they turn up in a particular area; and that their presence is enough to keep everything in control. To which my first thought was: how can one guarantee that these young nationalistic lads are going to be restrained enough not to do anything against these gypsies. Who is going to police these vigilante police. And who gave Jobbik, who does not even have a political mandate in Hungary at the moment, the authority to dispatch this group of people.

There were some things that Kovács said, which I found myself agreeing with. For example, the gypsies are clearly causing a problem in Hungary (in terms of crimes committed) and something really does need to be done to get some of the communities to take greater social responsibility. However, other points he made – such as the need for a vigilante police in these areas – I found myself cringing at. I just felt that he was not trying hard enough to try and reform Jobbik’s image, even though that is what he said he wanted to do. It probably had something to do with him looking and sounding like Joe Pesci rather than Céline Dion. When Gideon Rachman from the FT went to interview Jobbik, he was offered up a very different sparring partner.

Still, in the relatively short time I spoke with Kovács, I got the impression that he was not a stereotypical racist yobbo; that he was simply an ordinary guy who was fond of his country, and just trying to make a difference. Of course, as with all politicians, there was a little bit of opportunism there; and Jobbik clearly knows how to touch a chord with certain people in the country. And, once again, that is the problem. They are touching a very strong chord with people that are fed up with the establishment – and, unfortunately, many of those people are what the Western media might like to call neo-Nazi fascists. This is why the Magyar Garder, whether its real mandate is to keep the peace or not, is a very dangerous phenomenon.

At the risk of making this blog entry even longer than it already is, I have included a brief overview of some of the more significant right-wing movies in Europe, which could really shape the European Parliament over the next five years:

Italy: Silvio Berlusconi has just officially merged with the right wing Northern League. Moreover, some politicians are basing their campaign for the European election around a particularly xenophobic message. Magdi Allam is one such figure. He converted from Islam to Christianity before Christmas (in a high-profile ceremony in the Vatican), and is now becoming famous for espousing anti-Islamic rhetoric. Critics say this has all just been an image thing.

France: Jean-Marie Le Pen, a staunch nationalist and vocal voice of the right (who has been repeatedly attacked for his racist comments), is expected to run again for the European Parliament. It may be his last chance of becoming an MEP. And, at 80, should he get in he is also likely to become acting President of the Parliament (parliamentary rules stipulating that the oldest MEP temporarily becomes President until a new one is formally elected).

Austria: The far-right Freedom Party is gaining strength in the polls, on the back of its persistent anti-immigrant rhetoric. The main politician standing for election on behalf of the Freedom Party, who is already an MEP, is Andreas Mölzer – and he has pledged to make the economic crisis a central plank of his campaign.

Hungary: The far-right is also causing waves in Austria’s neighbour. Jobbik, an anti-Europe anti-immigration party (which has been labeled racist and xenophobic), is hoping to gain significant ground in the forthcoming European elections, by suggesting that many of Hungary’s problems (and Hungary has a lot right now) have been caused by not taking a tough enough stance on things like protection of cultural heritage and immigration.

Belgium: Belgium has been a fractured country ever since it was created more than 150 years ago. Due to constant arguments between the French and Flemish halves of the country, Belgium had a great deal of difficulty forming a government between 2007 and 2008. As these rifts have deepened, right wing parties (particularly the Flemish Vlams Bloc) have benefited. The Vlams Bloc has consistently done well in local elections in recent years, and hopes to be able to repeat this success at the European elections.

UK: The right-wing British National Party (BNP) is hoping to gain significant ground in the European elections. During the last election, the eurosceptical party UKIP did astonishingly well. However, many feel that they have exhausted the goodwill of their mandate and not lived up to expectations – the BNP could provide an alternative to those frustrated with the EU. The BNP consistently loses out to Britain’s first-past-the-post system. However, in European elections, where the system is one of proportional representation, things are likely to be different.

Denmark: The far right Danish People’s Party is now the third-biggest party in the country. It has been very vocal in the past in calling for tough new rules to curtail the number of immigrants entering Denmark, and in its anti-Islamic rhetoric following the publication of a cartoon of Prophet Mohammad. The party is hoping to do well at the European elections – at the moment, it has just one MEP.


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