Thursday 5 July 2012

European Scapegoats

Erik Edman

Members of the Greek neo-Nazi party ‘Golden Dawn’ at a rally, an event with faint echoes of the Nuremberg Rallies. Photo: DEMOTIX.
Excuse the history student in me for beginning this article with two short historical references.
Historical reference number one:  on 26 August 1789, the last article of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” was adopted by the National Constituent Assembly of Revolutionary France. Inspired by the overarching ideas of human nature, equality and “natural right” of the Enlightenment, this document held the rights of man to be universal, valid at all times and inherent to human nature itself. This can be argued as being the foundation on which the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” of the UN was based on some 150 years later.
Historical reference number two: following the fatigue of the Second World War and growing socio-political changes in the world, European empires disintegrated, giving birth to many smaller nations the world over. The paradox, however, was that great numbers of the people who had only just achieved independence for their countries, decided to immigrate to the homeland of the empires they had broken free from.
With that historical context in mind, let us look into Europe’s recent xenophobic tendencies.
A historical tendency which seems obvious enough is the fact that hardships and xenophobia go hand-in-hand. Europe’s historical past has a special tinge to it which puts it aside from its American cousins and that is the continent’s imperial past. Accepting immigrants from other countries, especially following the decolonisation, was an act of post-imperial magnanimity with immigrants being endured. Europe accepted the waves of immigrants coming in from their former colonial possessions as a show of friendship; an act of atonement with their colonial past. And so the people of the colonies flocked to the imperial homeland which had ruled them for centuries.
But history is not easily forgotten and a feeling of cultural, technological, societal, and –albeit in extreme cases– civilizational superiority survives deep in the subconscious of European societies. And experience tells us that it feeds off hardships. Xenophobia becomes productive; it becomes useful; a fuel that drives the worried, anxious population onwards by giving it hope and a solution. As the reality of the economic crisis settles in European perceptions of everyday life, far-right political groups gain supporters and with them power. And it shouldn’t surprise us: their selling points are excellent.
-Our Country for our Countrymen
-Return to a glorious past (which came to an end because of immigrants)
-Clean our society of foreigners who downgrade it
-Jobs for our countrymen, not foreigners
It might not have a lot of moral substance to it (or any, for that matter) but it sells.
In France, Le Pen’s National Front got 20% of the French vote, in Greece 18 seats have gone to the fascist (nay, Neo-Nazi) party of Golden Dawn. Sweden, a country renowned for its liberal ways, was one of the first to experience this shift in political balance with its far-right party gaining 5.7% of the votes in 2010. Similar trends can be seen throughout Europe from the political to the social theatre (ie. German neo-Nazi murders). And this in a continent where the words Nazi and Germany in the same sentence still manage to send a chill down our collective social spine.
A typical example of endo-European racism can be found in the case of the Roma who have been shunned for centuries. Their children are having difficulties entering schools and parents are struggling to find jobs. Communities of Roma are deported from different European countries and forbidden to work, although their European citizenship ensures them the right to work in any EU country. The Roma, for one reason or another, have developed a collective persona through which they are viewed and which stigmatises them socially, making their lives difficult, regardless of their European citizenship. 
Muslims, especially in the post 9/11 era, have been targeted by European xenophobic sentiments. In France and Switzerland laws which alienate Muslims have been passed, laws which could provoke and aggravate the Muslim population.
One has to wonder if human societies can keep up with the pace technology has set for global integration.
And as the world’s football gaze is turned to the East of the continent, xenophobia did not fail to raise its ugly head as was feared it would. Racist jibes against black players and historical rivalries between Poles and Russians resolved through street fighting. That is not to say that other European states have a much better reputation when it comes to football hooliganism and racism in particular. Black Italian footballer Mario Balotelli has been the victim of racism in his country and Chelsea captain John Terry faces a trial for racism upon his return from the Euro tournament.
The UK suffers of a most peculiar type of xenophobia. Although British society is not openly xenophobic, its government definitely is. There is a political perception prevalent in the UK that all foreign political influence is a breaching of the country’s sovereignty, a dogma most obvious in the UK’s dealing with the European Union and other matters requesting joint action. Britain remained aloof in condemning Ukraine as its European partners did (surely to avoid politicising the Euro tournament only a month before its own Olympic Games as Adam Lenton suggests in his article).
I believe that although this is an issue that needs to be dealt with and European political elites should refrain from using xenophobic rhetoric, we can allow ourselves to take heart at the knowledge of one fact. If extremist and xenophobic parties fail to gather enough support to gain political power now, at this time of European crisis, then it is safe to assume that they never will. Beating them at a time of economic hardship is beating them at their own game. Perhaps Europe has grown-up after all.

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