Sunday 25 September 2016

Why political extremism will stay in the headlines

With immigration and terrorism adding to the economic woes, Dan O'Brien assesses Europe's politics throughout 2015

Published 20/12/2015 | 02:30

THE CRUX: A woman holds a crucifix opposite the Bataclan concert hall on November 16. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
THE CRUX: A woman holds a crucifix opposite the Bataclan concert hall on November 16. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

Can the democratic centre hold in Europe in the face of economic crisis, grinding austerity, mass immigration and hyper terrorism? In the seven years since the western world plunged into the worst economic crisis in almost a century, and from which very few countries have fully recovered, extreme political parties and movements have gained support.

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This column has long argued that the most significant trend in post-crash European politics has been hostility towards incumbent governments, and that support for non-mainstream and/or extreme parties and movements has been a lesser, and often exaggerated, trend.

But that is not to downplay the risks of the extremist threat, or what is at stake. The democratic compromise is eternally fragile and can never be taken for granted. All societies have their breaking points.

If conditions become extreme enough, enough people will eventually lend their support to extreme parties who don't respect democratic values. The many dozens of arson attacks on refugee centres in Germany in recent months are one sign of how nasty a turn things have taken in Europe this year.

In assessing the bigger picture in relation to extremism over the course of 2015, France is the most appropriate country in which to start. The year began and ended with two acts of mass killings in the French capital, which, among many other things, played into the hands of populists. Another factor that has created unease with a significant share of the electorate, as it has across much of the rest of the continent, is the surge in inward migration, with many of those arriving coming as refugees from wars in Europe's increasingly unstable near abroad.

Although France's economy is stronger than usually portrayed in the English language media, its recovery remained tepid in 2015, as with most of the rest of the continent. It has certainly not been strong enough to bring down unemployment in any meaningful way or ease budgetary pressures (my column in the business section of the paper assesses economic developments in 2015).

The resultant sense of hopelessness has been reflected in the share of voters expressing satisfaction with President Francois Hollande. He languished at around 20pc all year and, even if his ratings have shot up since last month's attacks in Paris, the bounce had little impact on this month's regional elections. In the first round two weeks ago, the National Front, a genuinely extreme party with white supremacist-type leanings, won more votes than any other party. It was the first time that happened and the surge in support very much suggests that the attacks in November has pushed more people towards the National Front.

While there has been exaggerated talk about the rise of extremism in some European countries, the prospect of Marine Le Pen becoming president of France in the 2017 election is genuinely frightening, given the party's views on those who are not white and Christian in a country with huge Muslim, black and Jewish communities. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently went as far as to warn of a civil war if the National Front gains power. That does not seem like an exaggeration.

And it is not only the domestic impact of a President Le Pen that is cause for real concern. The rest of Europe should fear, too. With the party committed to recreating the franc if elected, a French withdrawal from the euro would mean the currency's demise.

It is hard to see the still-fragile European banking system surviving the break up of the single currency intact. Financial meltdown of that magnitude would cause a recession at least as severe as that which followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

But, mercifully, it still seems very difficult to see Le Pen winning the presidency, barring a sustained terrorist campaign that polarises and radicalises France. Among the best reasons to believe that is the electoral system, as last Sunday's regional election results showed.

The run-off system, whereby the two leading parties or candidates in the first round go head-to-head in a second round, militates strongly against an extreme party as it ultimately brings all moderates together.

The result last week was that the FN failed to win a single region despite doing so well in the first round. That reflects its performance in the 2012 general election, when it won just a handful of seats in the national parliament, and in the 2002 presidential election when Le Pen's father was trounced in the second round run off.

Underpinning the rise of the reactionary right in France, and in many other countries, has been immigration, and particularly if it appears to be happening in an uncontrolled way, as was the case in 2015. But here, too, there is reason for guarded optimism.

As last week's EU summit suggests, Europe is slowly upping its response to the migration issue. As more measures are rolled out and more resources go into addressing the issue, the sense that governments are not in control of their borders should lessen, and with it the opportunities for extreme parties to win support by playing on fears.

It is also worth noting that in the decades since the Second World War , upticks in the number of newcomers have been very closely associated with increased support for anti-immigration political movements, but that the fortunes of those parties tend to decline once inflows return to more normal levels. This suggests that it is not the numbers of people arriving per say that triggers a political reaction but the fear that there is a loss of control, hence the common use of terms such as "swamped" and "inundated".

If immigration and terrorism have been the focus of non-mainstream parties in 2015, over the longer term it has been economic issues. And at the very beginning of the year voters in the EU country that has had the worst economic record of them all finally gave up on the political mainstream and voted in the hard-left Syriza party.

As Greece's new government fought a battle with the rest of Europe that it was always going to lose, the country came within a whisker of being ejected from the euro. The effects of the failed Syriza experiment are to be seen most obviously in Spain where a general election is being held today. As Spaniards cast their ballots, opinion polls do not suggest that the Syriza-like Podemos party will not do nearly as well as was expected at the beginning of the year.

At the time of the Greek election, Podemos was Spain's most popular party, having overtaken the two parties which have duopolised power since the return of democracy four decades ago. But the failures of Syriza and the stream of TV images of shuttered banks during the summer caused a slump in support. Last week's opinion polls were putting the hard-left populists in third place behind the two mainstream parties.

The economies of few countries in Europe have returned to pre-2008 normality, but they came closer in 2015 than in any year since the crash. With the incumbent centre-right government in Spain likely to be returned to office in today's election, albeit in a coalition, it may be that politics is becoming more normal, too.

The extremes of right and left certainly can't be written off, but the threat they pose continued to be exaggerated in 2015. The centre is still holding almost everywhere.

Sunday Independent

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