In Sweden, an anti-immigrant party scores an electoral breakthrough and wins seats in parliament for the first time. In the Netherlands, months of backroom political bargaining produce a minority government that depends for its survival on the support of Geert Wilders, a politician facing trial on charges of inciting hatred against Muslims. In Austria, a far-right party doubles its vote to 27 per cent and finishes second in Vienna’s provincial election, raising the prospect of its return to power at national level after the next parliamentary polls in 2013.

It is tempting to conclude that rightwing populist parties are on the march across Europe, reshaping the continent’s politics by ruthless exploitation of the themes of immigration, Islam and native identity. Should these parties make more progress, it may prove difficult for governments to contain the damage that risks being inflicted on Europe’s image and interests in the wider world.

These risks are amplified by the rising cost of the financial crisis, with Ireland and Portugal under such pressure in bond markets that they may need bail-outs – and by the shift in economic power to the Asia-Pacific region and to countries such as Brazil and Turkey.

It is not only in Europe that the political consequences of financial upheaval and globalisation are being felt: the US boasts a rightwing populist movement, too. But whereas a smaller role for government is one of the Tea Party’s signature policies, Europe’s populists seem no less averse to a big state than their mainstream opponents. More striking is the way that Europe’s ultra-rightists have emerged from a beyond-the-pale culture of street protest and occasional violence into one in which articulate leaders refine their message in search of democratic legitimacy at the ballot box.

The transformation is also noticeable in the way that leaders such as Angela Merkel, German chancellor, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, are hardening their rhetoric on the topics that have brought electoral success for their adversaries. Even more so than the rise of the populist right per se, it is this subtle intrusion of the extremists’ language into the public arena that disturbs exponents of classical European liberalism.

Among those worried is Thomas Hammarberg, a Swedish diplomat who has served since 2005 as human rights commissioner at the Council of Europe, the 47-nation grouping charged with upholding democracy and individual liberties in Europe. “Recent elections have seen extremist political parties gaining ground after aggressively Islamophobic campaigns,” he says. “Even more worrying is the inertia or confusion that seems to have befallen the established democratic parties in this situation. Compromises are made that tend to give an air of legitimacy to crude prejudices and open xenophobia …Political leaders have on the whole failed to counter Islamophobic stereotypes.”

Concern about the populist right and the social attitudes that nourish it has risen to such proportions that a panel of nine eminent Europeans – including Joschka Fischer, the former German foreign minister; Vladimir Lukin, Russia’s human rights commissioner; and Javier Solana, the Spaniard who retired last year as the European Union’s foreign policy supremo – was set up in September to investigate the problem. They will report next May to the Council of Europe’s foreign ministers on how to combat the rise of extremism and religious and ethnic intolerance.

Experts who know the far right say Mr Hammarberg hits the nail on the head when he identifies the anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant planks of populist programmes as the core reason for the parties’ rising appeal. Hostility to non-European immigrants and to Muslims is the common element that explains successes ranging from the Sweden Democrats and Mr Wilders’ Freedom party in the Netherlands to France’s National Front, the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) movement in Belgium, Italy’s Northern League, the Swiss People’s party and the Freedom party of Austria.

Populism Europe

Far-right protests against the construction of mosques in cities such as Cologne in Germany and Genoa in Italy point to the spread of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment in western Europe. But the most conclusive evidence comes from the European Social Survey, a study of popular attitudes that has been conducted every two years since 2002. Its data show a steady deterioration in Europeans’ views of immigrants over the past eight years, driven by the perception that the incomers – who tend to be relatively youthful – are a financial burden on society, intensifying competition for jobs and benefits. This trend is hardly surprising, in view of the ever-increasing financial strains on the welfare state and the relatively high levels of immigration into western Europe between 1989 and 2009.

According to Tito Boeri of Milan’s Bocconi university, more than 26m people migrated during that time to the 15 western countries of which the EU was comprised until its 2004-07 expansion to the east. Of the 20m non-Europeans who last year in the EU, about 2.4m were Turks and 1.7m were Moroccans – both Muslim peoples – and many more were Muslims from other African or Asian states.

Elisabeth Ivarsflaten, a Norwegian political scientist, used the social survey data in a path-breaking 2007 analysis entitled What Unites Rightwing Populists in Western Europe? to test whether economic grievances, or disenchantment with politicians and political systems, were as important as anti-immigration feelings in drawing votes for the populist right.

Her conclusion was that distrust of politicians did help populist parties to an extent in Belgian Flanders, France, the Netherlands and Norway, but hostility to immigrants was the key factor. Taken as a whole, “no populist right party managed to receive more than 5 per cent of the vote …without mobilising grievances over immigration better than all major parties”.

The finding explains why a party such as Italy’s Northern League, which defined itself at its 1991 launch as a regionalist or even separatist movement opposed to corruption and sharp practices in Rome and southern Italy, now plays up its anti-immigrant message. It has reaped substantial electoral benefits, taking a record 10.2 per cent of the national vote in last year’s elections to the European parliament and performing especially strongly in the rich northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto, where many of Italy’s 1m Muslims live.

Matters are different in Germany, where the legacy of Nazism has restricted the appeal of far-right parties and made it virtually taboo to peddle racial or religious bigotry. Nevertheless, recent events suggest that Germany – home to 4m Muslims, mostly of Turkish origin, out of a total population of 82m – may offer fertile ground for mainstream politicians taking a strong line on immigrants and Islam. According to a poll last month by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which is associated with the opposition Social Democratic party, 58 per cent of Germans think “religious practices for Muslims should be seriously limited” – a proportion that rises to more than 75 per cent in former communist eastern Germany. In remarks that coincided with the poll, Ms Merkel proclaimed her country’s attempt to create a multicultural society as “utterly failed” and Horst Seehofer, her conservative ally and the state premier of Bavaria, declared that “we don’t need more immigrants from alien cultures”.

Yet it was no less telling that on October 3, the 20th anniversary of reunification, Christian Wulff, the head of state, stated that “Islam belongs in Germany”. Moreover, the remarks of Ms Merkel and Mr Seehofer did less than justice to the numerous ways in which German authorities at federal, state and local level make diligent efforts these days to integrate immigrants.

It was not always so. Between 1961 and 1995, Germany’s ethnic Turkish population rose to 2m from almost nothing, as “guest workers” were recruited to provide the labour needed to fuel the country’s rise to European economic pre-eminence. But only in 2000 did a nationality law come into force that widened the door to citizenship for the German-born children of Turkish immigrants. In the northern city-state of Hamburg (Ms Merkel’s birthplace, though she was brought up in eastern Germany), where Muslims account for 5 per cent of the 1.7m population, discussions have been taking place over whether the region should become the first to grant recognition to Islam as a religious community enjoying the same legal status as Christians and Jews.

Elsewhere, the past 12 months have seen Swiss vote to ban the construction of minarets and governments in France and Belgium take steps to prohibit face-covering veils. Under pressure from Mr Wilders, the new Dutch government proposes to follow the French and Belgian examples. Most Muslim women in Europe do not in fact cover their faces, but the prohibition clearly appeals to some centre-right politicians as a way of stealing the populist right’s thunder.

Opposition to the veil comes, however, from progressive Europeans as well as conservatives. Alice Schwarzer, Germany’s leading feminist, published a book in September entitled The Great Cover-Up, in which she argues that a ban would give girls from fundamentalist families “the chance to move with freedom and equality”.

Some experts on the rise of the populist right say the phenomenon is particularly difficult for centre-left European parties. “Rightwing coalitions and xenophobic movements are more credible than social democrats in restricting migration flows and welfare access by migrants,” observes Prof Boeri. “The reassuring face of social democrats is turning into a nightmare precisely for those European citizens who represent their traditional constituency – blue-collar workers, low-income households and persons living on social welfare.”

Tim Bale of Sussex University in the UK says European centre-left parties have three choices: to make the case fearlessly for immigration and multiculturalism; to seek a consensus with the centre right on immigration and integration policies in a sort of “conspiracy of silence”; or to take a unilateral decision to get tough on immigration and the integration of Muslims. So far, the centre left has tended to adopt a mixture of the second and third options, says Professor Bale. But as he cautions in a recent article for Policy Network, a progressive think-tank: “There is no magic bullet …Sadly, muddling through and messy compromise may well continue to be the order of the day.”

With immigration set to grow ever more important as a cultural, economic and social challenge for Europe, the populist right looks set for a lengthy stay on the continent’s political stage. Alexander Stubb, Finland’s foreign minister, says that because there are so many “cowardly populists riding the immigration bandwagon”, he and others want a much stronger response from mainstream politicians.

Brtiain: The far right’s strategic failures leave anti-migrant feeling untapped

Before the 2009 European parliamentary elections, the head of the far-right British National party acknowledged that the UK public would never accept “jackboots marching down Whitehall”, writesJames Boxell.

In a pub garden in Birkenhead, a blighted post-industrial suburb in England’s north-west, Nick Griffin told the Financial Times that his party had a “once in a lifetime” chance to escape its white supremacist roots and emerge as an alternative for millions scorned by the London elite.

Less than 18 months later – following this year’s disastrous national election campaign, a savage internal power struggle and a court battle with the country’s equality watchdog that threatens to bankrupt the party – his dream is over.

The failure is largely of Mr Griffin’s making. The Cambridge-educated son of a Tory councillor believed he had the intellect and electoral savvy to transform the BNP’s image. But his performances – notably on the BBC current affairs programme Question Time last year – bolstered the impression of an extremist unable to give up links with the Ku Klux Klan.

Strategic errors, such as concentrating much of the party’s firepower on the all but unwinnable seat of Barking in England’s south-east and taking on the equality watchdog rather than allowing non-whites to join the party, compounded the crisis.

Some observers ascribe the BNP’s failure to a UK strain of anti-extremism harking back to the second world war fight against fascism. But James Bethell of Nothing British, a group campaigning against the BNP, says a large section of society still feels its fears on immigration and Islam are being ignored. “These are people left behind by globalisation,” he says. “They don’t understand the country any more. All the things they love and champion have been vilified.”

The BNP won about 1m votes in last year’s European vote. If you add this to 2.5m votes for the europhobic UK Independence party, it means British populists won more than a fifth of the European election votes.

Even allowing for the fact that voters often use such elections to protest, that is still a big group. Should Ukip decide to branch out from its heartlands in the Conservative shires to pursue an explicit anti-immigration agenda, that rump of discontent may yet be exploited.

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