Ugly Atmosphere Pervades Europe Ahead of Elections

Protestors march with flags during a demonstration of the far-right party ‘The third way’ in Plauen, Germany, on May 1, 2019. (Sebastian Willnow/dpa via AP)

(CN) — In Germany, a far-right political party is rising in the polls and breaking with taboos about the country’s Nazi past. In Italy, the interior minister speaks from a balcony of a provincial city where Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini once exhorted his followers. Street demonstrations become shouting matches. The social media sphere is filled with vitriol, jeering, profanity.

All this is reminiscent of the dark 1920s and ’30s in Europe and describes this season of political toxicity as Europeans head to elections between May 23 and 26 to choose representatives for the European Parliament, the world’s only transnational parliament that is directly elected.

An ugly atmosphere tinged with hatred and anger hangs over Europe, and much of this toxicity is caused by the growing strength of far-right political parties. These parties and their candidates are raising their tones and rhetoric in a bid to win votes in an election where they are poised to make significant gains. Polls suggest a quarter of the European Parliament’s seats may go to far-right parties.

It’s a Europe that many fear resembles the turbulent years before World War II — a period of economic troubles, angry public discourse and clashing political factions that saw the rise of Fascist dictators, in Germany, Italy and Spain.

“The situation is dangerous today in Europe. Fascism is making a comeback, but not wearing the same clothes, the same appearance as it did in the 1930s,” said Philippe Marlière, a European politics professor at University College London, in a telephone interview with Courthouse News. “It is a kind of 21st-century fascist.”

A man holds a cricket cutout depicting Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini as people gather in Turin, Italy, on June 12, 2018, to stage a protest after the rescue ship Aquarius had been stuck for days in international waters off the coast of Italy and Malta, both of which have refused it entry. (Alessandro Di Marco/ANSA via AP)

Italy’s Matteo Salvini — the 46-year-old interior minister and leader of the far-right League party — has become one face of this new nationalist politics.

He has a vision of the world that many on the far right share. He talks about a Europe under siege from Muslim immigrants, many of whom are fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East. He characterizes himself as fighting an ideological war against a left-wing movement that seeks to undermine traditional Italian society. He’d like Italy to reinstate obligatory military service for young people and return to mandatory school uniforms. He’s in favor of expanding the right to use weapons in self-defense. And He advocates a flat tax and takes pro-business positions.

Relentlessly, Salvini has been campaigning across Italy in the run-up to the European elections, all the while stirring up controversy. As his critics and the press castigate his far-right views and label him a fascist, Salvini increasingly appears to brazenly court, and mock, comparisons between Mussolini and himself.

In Forlì, on a rainy night in early May, Salvini stood with a loudspeaker on a balcony overlooking the small city’s main square. It was the same balcony that Mussolini stood on to hold political rallies and watch the hanging of anti-fascist partisans from lamp posts. Below in the square, supporters and protesters gathered. His supporters cheered and his opponents chanted: “We’re all anti-fascists.”

Two days later, Salvini was in the southern Italian city of Avellino and tensions broke out between his supporters and counter-protesters. In one incident, a Salvini supporter was seen shouting and lunging at a woman critical of Salvini.

On his Twitter feed, Salvini, who’s adopted an “Italians First” slogan, feeds a growing appetite for xenophobia and nationalism. It’s become routine: He shows videos of black people caught in public arguing with train conductors and police officers, sometimes violently. His tweets elicit a torrent of outrage, with many Salvini fans calling for all African immigrants to be expelled from Italy.

Salvini has become a key figure in the rise of Europe’s far right. He is banding together with other nationalist figures, such as France’s Marine Le Pen and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in an effort to create a substantial far-right bloc in the European Parliament.

“There’s a very ugly climate in Italy, but not only in Italy,” said Riccardo Noury, a spokesman for Amnesty International in Italy.

“This is the political climate that was in Europe in the 1920s.”

Misogyny and hatred of minorities are on the rise, especially online, Noury said. But it’s not only happening online. In recent days, Italy has grappled with wild scenes of far-right extremists shouting abuse at a woman and her child being escorted by police into a public housing block where they were given accommodation after being evicted from a camp of nomadic Roma. One man was heard shouting: “Whore, I will rape you.”

The extremists are associated with a neo-fascist group calling itself CasaPound, named in honor of American poet Ezra Pound, an admirer and apologist for Mussolini’s Fascist movement.

Salvini has given his tacit support for CasaPound, and for Pound the poet. He recently used Twitter to highlight one of Pound’s lines: “If a man is not willing to take some risk for his own ideas, either his ideas are worthless or he is worthless.”

Salvini has called for a registry of Italy’s population of Roma and suggested expelling those who are not Italian. During the uproar over the ugly protests against housing the Roma family, Salvini again talked about his plans to register Roma.

For many, it’s alarming to see how far-right politics, xenophobic acts and outbursts are becoming a routine part of the political dialogue and everyday life.

“What’s surprising more recently is how it has become normalized,” said William Allchorn, associate director of the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right at the University of Leeds.

The far right’s success is giving them a seat at the table.

This was the case in a recent televised debate about the future of Europe on Deutsche Welle, a German news broadcaster. Across the table from socialist and liberal politicians sat Maximilian Krah, a leading politician with Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany), a far-right party that’s become one of Germany’s leading parties in just a few years. Next to him sat Dominik Tarczyński, a member of the ruling conservative and nationalist Polish party called the Law and Justice Party.

During the debate, Krah praised Salvini’s actions to stop immigration, said fears over climate change were “misplaced,” called it “shameful” for Facebook to block users for wrongly accusing them of “hate speech,” and argued in favor of giving regional governments more power as opposed to concentrating it at the European Union level.

In the audience, Andrew Stroehlein, the European media director for Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental organization, was given a chance to ask a question of the politicians. With evident emotion, he attacked the far right.

“In Europe the most important political lesson of the 20th century was that political intolerance can lead to the end of democracy and to horrific crimes. And now, in today’s Europe, we hear exactly the same rhetoric coming from far-right politicians, attacking minorities, attacking migrants, attacking anyone they can get their hands on,” Stroehlein said.

“You want a Christian Europe. Where does that leave those of us who aren’t Christian? Are we second-class citizens? Are we medical experiments? What do you want with us?”

Turning to the socialist and liberal politicians in the debate, he continued: “What are you going to do about these people? Just do something about the madmen this time so we don’t have a repeat of last time.”

His outburst showed how Alternative for Germany and its politicians provoke strong reactions as they, in the words of the Bild newspaper in Germany put it, “test the limits of the bearable.”

In one of the latest instances of testing the limits, at a recent political rally in Bavaria AfD members sang the first stanza of the German national anthem even though it has been purged from official use because of its affiliation with the Nazi regime and the idea of a “Greater Germany.” That stanza includes the line “Deutschland über alles,” or “Germany above all,” and depicts German lands as stretching across Poland and into northern Italy.

Meanwhile, the party has decided not to expel one of its parliament members after she was photographed stretched out on a kitchen counter with wine bottles in the backdrop with Nazi symbols on their labels. Displaying Nazi symbols is banned in Germany.

The AfD has been vilified for downplaying Nazi crimes and using rhetoric attacking immigrants as criminals. Amid this backlash, a high-end Italian restaurant in Berlin recently refused to take a booking from AfD party leaders.

Neighboring Austria has seen its far-right politicians turn up the volume too. Recently, Heinz-Christian Strache, Austria’s deputy chancellor and leader of the far-right Freedom Party, sparked outrage when he told an interviewer that his party’s hard stance against immigration was a fight against “population replacement.” By using that term, Strache was criticized for endorsing what is viewed as a conspiracy theory propagated by right-wing extremists. The term was cited in the manifesto of the gunman in the Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque massacre. The Freedom Party’s youth wing also has caused controversy after it created an anti-Islam leaflet that critics said echoed Nazi propaganda.

In Great Britain, meanwhile, a well-known, and notorious, far-right activist is campaigning to represent northwest England in the European Parliament and he’s stoking outrage as he rails against Islam and the EU. That candidate is Tommy Robinson, a former leader of the English Defence League, an Islamophobic and violent street movement. His real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon.

The United Kingdom was not supposed to participate in the elections after it voted in a referendum to leave the EU. But Brexit became deadlocked in the House of Commons and the UK is now forced to participate in the European elections.

So far, Robinson has been involved in two incidents in which milkshakes were thrown at him. After the second incident, Robinson was seen in videos punching the man who tossed the milkshake in his face. His campaign supporters have also been involved in violent street fights opponents of Robinson’s campaign.

A similar episode occurred last Friday in Cornwall in southwest England when someone tried to douse another far-right European Parliament candidate, Carl Benjamin of the UK Independence Party, with a milkshake. A scuffle broke out there too. 

The worry is that the far right may get enough votes and become a big enough force in the European Parliament to become disruptive at a time when the EU’s survival as a political entity is strained.

“If they get the balance of power, they could hold up things around regulations with migration, green initiatives,” Allchorn, the Leeds University researcher, said. “We could be in for a rough road.”

Marlière, the professor at University College London, said the rise of the far right shows that Europe’s politics are undergoing a major shift as the once-dominant centrist parties on the left and right lose their appeal. He said mainstream parties are being blamed for failing to fix Europe’s many problems — among them an erosion of welfare, weak growth and underfunded public services.

“We’re seeing before our eyes the complete transformation, and it is quite powerful, quite spectacular,” he said. “The big parties are in a deep crisis, and vanishing.”

He added: “The irony is that fascists are coming into the game on the promise that they will address those issues.”

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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