Meet Europe’s new scapegoats

Image of Simon Kuper

On the website where Dutch people can lodge complaints about central and eastern European immigrants, the disgruntled can tick various boxes. They can report “noise nuisance”, “parking nuisance”, “drunkenness” or “depravation”. They can also claim they lost their jobs to immigrants. The website’s creator, Geert Wilders, isn’t just any old populist politician. His PVV party keeps the Dutch minority government in power.

Everything Wilders does is a cry for attention, and yet his website is worth noting because it heralds a new trend. Wilders sells xenophobia. His main product line, Muslim-bashing, is going out of fashion. He has spotted the next trend in western European xenophobia: bashing of eastern and southern Europeans. That hostility is now passing from newspaper headlines into daily life, and looks set to worsen.

I grew up in the Netherlands, and have seen the country’s fads in xenophobia change over time. After Liberation in 1945, for complex psychological reasons, anti-Semitism flowered. “The Jews emerging from hiding should thank God for the help they were given, and should feel small. Perhaps many better people were lost,” wrote the former Resistance newspaper De Patriot that year. Several similar rants appeared in print then.

In the 1970s, when I was a child, most racist jokes were told about Turks and Surinamese. In the 1980s, Germans came to stand for everything un-Dutch. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Muslims took a beating. Now it’s the turn of eastern and southern Europeans.

The change comes in part because Muslims just haven’t been justifying their role as scapegoats. Firstly, ever fewer of them are arriving. The Netherlands, which last century offered refuge to figures as diverse as Anne Frank, Kaiser Wilhelm and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, has lately been sealing its borders. Secondly, Muslims are melting into Dutch society. Frits Bolkestein, former European commissioner for the internal market, is well-placed to note the change because 20 years ago he became the first mainstream Dutch public figure to complain about non-western immigrants. In his elegant study overlooking Amsterdam’s Amstel river, he told me last week: “Their integration is going much better.” Bolkestein says non-westerners are catching up with the native Dutch in education, are having fewer babies than before, are increasingly marrying natives and speaking Dutch at home. He does still think that non-westerners have a disproportionate role in crime and unemployment. But he concludes: “The sharpness of the question has faded.”

With fear of Islamic terrorism fading too, the populist Wilders needed a new target. Irritation about eastern European immigrants had already been cooking in the west. Indeed, the “Polish plumber” was a hate figure in France’s elections way back in 2007. Last year Henk Kamp, Dutch minister for social affairs, mused wistfully about deporting unemployed Poles, a popular idea, albeit against European law. Wilders sniffed the wind.

No matter that he himself married a Hungarian. No matter that few economists believe that immigration causes unemployment. (Wilders labours under the “lump of labour” fallacy.) No matter that the Netherlands is the biggest foreign investor in Poland. Wilders doesn’t care. Eastern Europeans – stigmatised by poverty – make the perfect “new Muslims”.

And so now do southern Europeans. A Dutch friend told me that on past holidays in Spain, whenever he drove down a road built with European money he’d think, “I paid for this road.” But nowadays, he says, he looks at the Spaniards walking along the road and thinks, “I’m paying for these people too.” This sentiment is growing, as northern Europeans are asked to bail out southern Europeans. At its crudest, someone like the German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld now feels free to say, “Nobody wants Greece to disappear, but they have really disgusting habits – Italy as well.”

The much more sophisticated Bolkestein identifies “two groups of countries with different economic cultures”: northern and southern Europe. Trying to explain this fundamental divide, he recalls the time that the Italian Romano Prodi, then president of the European commission, branded the European Union’s stability pact “stupid”. Bolkestein went on Dutch TV to distance himself from the remark. On the train afterwards, Prodi rang him. “You insulted me,” the Italian said.

“Not at all,” replied Bolkestein.

“I want an explanation,” said Prodi.

To Bolkestein, the dispute encapsulates the fundamental cleavage: he feels he himself was expressing a northern European belief in “discipline and rules”, while Prodi was expressing the southern European notion that rules can be finessed. Bolkestein muses: “I did my utmost to keep Italy out of monetary union.”

Divides between northern and southern Europeans will probably only become more glaring. Nearly half of young Greeks and Spaniards are unemployed. Logically, they will move north across open borders. It would be only the latest of Europe’s south-north migrations – think of the 19th-century Italians derided as “macaroni” in France.

The new phase won’t be pretty, but at least it should give European Muslims a break.

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