Saturday 23 February 2019

Willie Kealy: 'Ireland's role is to stand against nightmarish likes of Orban'

We can be a voice of reason - but not against the left as Trump thinks. It's the right wing we should watch out for, says Willie Kealy

NOT MINE: The Irish yellow vest protest just fizzled out
NOT MINE: The Irish yellow vest protest just fizzled out

We almost had a visit from Donald Trump last November. But then he sent Kevin Hassett, chairman of the White House council of economic advisers, instead. And his main message was that he expects Ireland to continue to be a "voice of reason" alongside the United States against more left-wing European governments in the coming years.

There was much head-scratching as we tried to figure out just what countries he was referring to, or even what map of Europe he, and presumably the president, have been looking at recently. Because any casual study of the continent will show that the real threat to the region, to peace and stability, to the very future of the EU, and indeed, to democracy, comes not from any left-wing movement, but from the growth of right-wing, nationalist, racist political parties, some of which have come to power and are determined to extend their influence beyond their own borders.

Take Poland, for example. There the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) on coming to power set about "reforming" state television, the public prosecutor and the judiciary. All judges were forced to retire at 65 to be replaced with those more amenable to the wishes of their political masters. This has resulted in the European Commission taking action against the Polish regime under Article 7 of the Rome Treaty that could lead to it losing its EU voting rights.

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(The PiS has been especially critical of Gdansk, which it regards as a liberal hotbed. Last week the mayor, Patel Adamowicz, was murdered addressing a public function).

In Hungary, prime minister Viktor Orban's "threatening democracy and the rule of law" through his treatment of migrants, NGOs, the media and academic freedoms has led to the European Parliament launching Article 7 proceedings against that country. But these actions will come to nothing because they need unanimous condemnation by all the other EU members, and Poland and Hungary have agreed to back each other. Hungary, which was the first to build a wall (actually a fence) to keep out immigrants, also has the support of the Czech Republic and Croatia. Mr Orban is also a fan of Vladimir Putin with whom he has been having discussions with a view to establishing closer links.

In Austria, the Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, has had to deny his government is trying to limit press freedom, after the far-right controlled interior ministry suggested police should limit the amount of information they give to certain less favoured media outlets. In Italy, Matteo Salvini, Interior Minister and leader of the right-wing League party, says he wants to turn the upcoming European Parliament elections into a referendum on immigrants and a victory for like-minded parties throughout the Union. And he has the support of Marine Le Pen in France.

In Germany, we have seen the rise of the Nazi-inspired hard-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) just as that bastion of freedom and democracy, Angela Merkel, steps down as leader of her party, and, in the next two years, as chancellor of Germany. Her disappointing results in the last federal election forced her to make compromises with those who were insisting on a less generous approach to the migrant question.

In Sweden, the nationalist-conservative Sweden Democrats became that country's third biggest party. And there has been a similar rise in the popularity of nationalist and Eurosceptical representation in Denmark.

And then there is France.

In France you have Emmanuel Macron, who started off as Donald Trump's new best friend, but now is anything but. Like French presidents often do, he also started out as the darling of the French voters, and now has slipped out of their affections. And this loss of affection has been demonstrated weekly for months now by the street protests of those who take their name from the hi-vis yellow jackets they wear, the gilets jaunes.

When we first saw these colourful demonstrators on the streets of French cities protesting against the high price of fuel, they seemed to be following in a recognisable French tradition. But now, after 12 people have died and thousands have been injured (and the price of fuel reduced), the nature of this movement - or at least of some of those who appear to have taken control of it - is revealed to contain strains of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and homophobia, which makes it ideologically close to the rest of the hard-right movement in Europe.

Here in Ireland, there was an attempt last week to mirror the French experience, with a hi-vis yellow jacket protest, which seemed to be vaguely aimed at Leo Varadkar and the Government on the strength of some kind of unhappiness and a background hum of discontent. Gardai sealed off a few streets in preparation, but in the end they weren't needed. The 30 discontented who turned out packed up and went home. But why so few?

Well, despite the stereotype, we are not really hot-headed and always spoiling for a row. Yes, people came out in their thousands to protest against water rates, but that was because protest leaders were able to exploit those who paid little or no tax being asked for the first time, to pay. Other than that, we might muster a crowd to complain about a hospital closure or that of a post office. But mostly we stay at home or go to the pub and grumble. Which is not necessarily such a bad thing when we see what goes on elsewhere.

We carry this attitude into our elections when we vote for centre-right and centre-left parties and avoid extremists of all shades, the vote for Peter Casey in the presidential election notwithstanding. That could be a useful trait in the forthcoming European elections, when the far-right parties set out to take over the institutions of the EU, and the only opposition to this plan will come from a small number of countries, including Ireland.

Viktor Orban, the far-right Hungarian prime minister, says he hopes anti-immigration parties will win the May European Parliament elections and gain control of the European Commission before gradually taking over the European Council.

"We have reached the point in Europe where liberals have become the number one enemy of freedom," Mr Orban says. "There will be two civilisations in the EU. A mixed Muslim-Christian one in the West and a traditional European-Christian one in Central Europe."

So it is not to prevent the rise of more left-wing governments that Ireland needs to be, in the words of Donald Trump's man, "a voice of reason". Rather it is to ensure that the nightmarish scenario envisaged by prime minister Orban and his comrades throughout much of the EU, can never come true.

EU Commission president Jean-Claude Junker warned recently that the prospect of another war in Europe was not as remote as we might like to think.

He was reminding us that the EU was originally set up to ensure extreme nationalism and racism would never again lead to conflict. We must be constantly vigilant if that vision is to remain intact.

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