refugees welcome demo 'Refugees welcome' demonstration in London on Saturday. Photo: Jim Aindow/Flickr

Writer and activist Kevin Ovenden discusses the rise of racism across Europe and the struggle against it

Counterfire: Racism and far-right parties on the rise across Europe. How significant is this development?

Kevin Ovenden: It’s very significant. We’ve seen advances by the far right before, in the 1980s, in the early to mid-1990s and at the beginning of the 2000s. But this development is more widespread. It’s happening in all the regions of Europe: not just in the periphery, but also in the core of Europe. We’re got the Front National in France, who came first in the regional elections in the first round last year, and we’ve got the AfD [Alternative für Deutschland] in Germany, which is moving from a Eurosceptic to a fascist party. This is a very significant moment, and it’s got very deep roots.

What are these roots?

The way in which the European elites have responded to the expansion of the EU and then the crisis of 2008 has paved the way for the far right. And that has happened in a number of ways. The first, which is now broadly accepted as a journalistic commonplace, is that the imposition of austerity creates the grounds for the politics of scapegoating. That is true, but it is only of limited value in understanding why the far right has grown.

Why is that?

The far right doesn’t just come out of some amorphous atomsphere economic distress. It’s grown out of a turn towards a racist and islamopohic politics across the continent which has come from the centre in the first instance, that is to say the parties of government and the European Union. The period of the advance of Schengen, the passport-free area of Europe, is also the period of the consolidation of „fortress Europe“: the Dublin agreements and keeping out refugees and asylum seekers.

In what other way have the European elite facilitated the rise of the right?

The EU is a collection of states, and it hasn’t resolved national antagonisms. Indeed, most national antagonisms have increased since 2008. We saw this most clearly during the Greek crisis, in which quite obscene chauvinist language directed against the Greek people. Finally, we have seen a turn towards authoritarian politics in the form of the security state, for example the state of emergency in France, or the Prevent strategy in the UK. In the streets of Brussles, you can now see soldiers in camouflage and fatigues, which creates this atmosphere of an enemy within. This is combined with an enemy without, which we are bombing in a succession of wars in muslim majority countries.

So these developments started before the economic crisis of 2008.

Yes, they were accentuated by the crisis, but they predate the crisis and go back to the beginning of this century and indeed the 1990s.

The last reason for the rise of the right is that the centre-right governments are in trouble across europe. The political pole of the centre-right is breaking up. What for most of the post-war period had been a single pole of right-wing politics, which could absorb liberal, Thatcherite types but also monarchists, reactionaries and fascists, is now breaking up. So there is now a space for those authoritarian, fascist, right-wing poupulists that we see across Europe.

What role does the refugee crisis play?

It’s a trigger. Last August and September, we saw ordinary people in Greece and Macedonia all the way to Austria and Germany gathering to support the refugees. Angela Merkel’s position wasn’t one that came from an anti-racist instinct or a pro-market instinct. She was simply forced to roll with the inevitability of the refugees coming and the strong public support that they got. This support continues.

Why was the right able to exploit the refugee crisis?

The reason is the position adopted by the EU and Angela Merkel, which was to roll with the first wave of the refugees, and then to try and put into place a plan to exclude the refugees. The ways in which that was done injected racism into the body politic. This is particularly the case in Germany following the events in Cologne in the new year.

How should the left respond to the rise of the racist parties?

First, we need to recognize that this is a specific threat. It makes a difference whether racist politics is organised in a parliamentary sense, for example the right wing of the Tory party or the German CDU, or whether it’s detached into a party which has a more activist orientation like the AfD, which is calling and participating in demonstrations. This is very dangerous. We need a broad front of peope from the labour movement uniting to close down the space for these far right organisations to organise. This has been particularly successful in Greece, where a cordon sanitaire was thrown around Golden Dawn.

What else can we do?

The second thing is to recognise that what is fuelling the growth of the far right is not their own steam, but what Tariq Ali has aptly termed the extreme centre. Therefore the anti-fascist politics needs to be an anti-racist politics. Unless we start to take a clear stand among the radical left against anti-immigrant politics and Islamophobia, we will not succeed in defeating the extreme manifestations of the far right.

How can we do that?

We need to have our own independent pole. There is a danger that the left is subordinating itself to the centre left – we saw that in France. This is a disastrous policy because if the radical left is not present with its own positions over racism, austerity and war, then the only seemingly anti-systemic alternative is the pseudo-radical politics of the far right. If we don’t present an anti-systemic anti-racism, on the basis of the unity of the working class people across Europe, wherever they come from, then we cede the ground to the centre, and it is the centre which is creating the conditions for the far right. 

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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