May 9, 2013 5:49 pm

Italy sees ‘nightmare’ Europe of xenophobia and despair

Europe risks becoming a “nightmare” of austerity and social despair where voters turn increasingly to xenophobic and populist parties, senior politicians supporting Italy’s new coalition government warned on Thursday.

“With every passing day, the founding fathers’ dream of peace and freedom, a dream that had become a reality for my generation, seems to be turning into a nightmare for many,” Emma Bonino, Italian foreign minister, told an annual “State of the Union” conference in Florence.

“Everywhere in Europe we see rising intolerance; growing support for xenophobic and populist parties; discrimination and a weakening of the rule of law; entire populations of undocumented migrants, virtually without rights,” Ms Bonino said.

Matteo Renzi, reformist mayor of Florence and an aspiring prime minister in the ranks of the Democratic party, also warned of a European “nightmare”, while former prime minister Mario Monti said tensions in Europe between “technocracy, democracy and populism” had reached new heights.

Figures released on Thursday showed the social fallout from deep recession and grinding austerity in southern Europe. Unemployment among 16- to 24-year-olds in Greece hit 64 per cent, while the jobless rate in Portugal reached a euro-era high of 17.7 per cent in the first quarter of 2013.

Mr Monti, whose centrist Civic Choice party supports Italy’s new left-right “grand coalition”, reminded the conference that elections in February saw 60 per cent of voters turning to parties that were “clearly anti-European or pro-European with conditions attached” and openly hostile to Germany and the European Central Bank.

Mr Monti was referring to former centre-right prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose People of Liberty is part of the new coalition with the Democrats, and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which is now the largest opposition force in parliament.

Europe was witnessing the “bursting of a legitimacy bubble”, warned Joseph Weiler, incoming president of the Florence-based European University Institute that hosted the conference. Strains of euro-scepticism that used to define parties of the extreme left and right were becoming more mainstream, he said.

Despite general calls for more European democracy, tolerance and integration, two French ministers – Manuel Valls and Najat Vallaud-Belkacem – pulled out of the conference in protest at the presence of Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford university who is regarded by the French political establishment as an Islamist fundamentalist.

“I am demonised in France,” Prof Ramadan, who spoke on a panel on migration and integration, told the Financial Times. “There is a very deep problem with the Muslim presence in France.”

The academic said he had been barred from giving lectures at 10 out of 12 French universities. The former Bush administration in the US also denied him a visa to teach, a decision that was revoked in 2010 by Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.

Laura Boldrini, speaker of Italy’s lower house of parliament and a former official of the UN refugee agency, joined Ms Bonino in a sharp criticism of Italy’s own human rights record as well as Europe’s treatment of migrants and refugees. Both called for a return to Europe’s fundamental values.

Responding to a barrage of criticism of the state of the EU, Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, admitted that the economic crisis had “unleashed uncertainties about Europe’s political and institutional capacity and durability”.

Even as the EU was trying to prop up the euro and restore faith, “a resurgence of populism is precisely corroding trust and confidence”, Mr Barroso said.

“And although we are not out of the woods, the existential threat to the euro is essentially over,” he added. “The doom-mongers that have been predicting the implosion of the euro have been proved wrong.”

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