May 15, 2011
It is hard not to be very uneasy. Every month, there is another milestone passed in the ever onward march of Europe 's populist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, nativist right. "If they want to turn Stockholm, Gothenburg or Malmo into a Scandinavian Beirut with clan wars, honour killings and gang rapes, let them do it. We can always put a barrier on the Øresund bridge," said Pia Kjaersgaard, leader of Denmark's People's party recently. On Wednesday, she got her way.
Denmark is unilaterally to introduce border and customs controls on its borders with Germany and Sweden – an event Kjaersgaard and her party celebrated with pink champagne and Danish bacon crisps. Her detestation of foreigners, and Muslim immigrants in particular, are the central force in Danish politics. Border controls were the price of her support for the minority government's controversial package of welfare and pension cuts.
Customs and identification checks on the 60,000 cars daily crossing the bridge between Denmark and Sweden may appear to be an irritant just to the travellers concerned, but in fact they represent a dagger pointed at the heart of one of the EU's great accomplishments. The free movement of people in Europe is underwritten by the Schengen Agreement – a "beautiful achievement", according to EU commissioner for home affairs Cecilia Malmström: she is right.
But Denmark chose to put itself outside EU law and mortally wound the agreement. EU interior ministers – reacting to Europe's new paranoias – were to agree just hours later to give countries the right to do just what Denmark has done. But wider agreement is uncertain and in any case might take months. So the Danes jumped the gun. The EU be damned. Kjaersgaard would like to leave it anyway.
The trouble is that the Danish People's Party is not alone. There are the True Finns in Finland, the Hungarian Jobbik party, the Dutch Party for Freedom, the Italian Northern League, the Austrian Freedom party, the Sweden Democrats and the National Front in France, led by the politically astute Marine Le Pen. All are on the rise, and it's not easy to see what might slow their progress.
There were not many ideas on offer at the Progressive Governance conference in Oslo at the end of last week – a gathering of the leaders of Europe's centre-left and policy thinkers. Denial is the default position, because the left does not want to believe its own people could descend to hating immigrants with the ferocity of the populist right. To make concessions is to legitimise attitudes that should only stay on the margins. The Spanish socialists spoke for the consensus, saying that the left must make the case that immigration is a force for good – it makes Europe richer. Others, such as the Danish and Dutch social democrats, were more street-wise, wanting to bend to the popular mood. After all, immigration does create economic losers. The left cannot allow purism to come before realism.
The trouble is that the longer the left's response is confused, the more the populist right has begun to make anti-immigrant attitudes culturally acceptable. Unless a quick response can be found to the economic dislocation, uncertain job prospects and sense that European states cannot offer their populations security that is feeding the current mood, noxious attitudes will start to become culturally and politically entrenched. The French socialist Olivier Ferrand observed that in France, Marine le Pen had "republicanised" the National Front so that it now possessed a suite of attractive policies on pensions, industrial policy and employment borrowed from the left. Her party was infiltrating unions and attracting support from the liberal professions alike – all attracted by her criticism of the " globalist", " pro-EU" mainstream political parties. If it were just a choice between the left and her, the left would win: but given France's curious electoral system and her rising popularity, the left may be knocked out of the first presidential election round before it gets the chance in the final round. But while the centre-left seems the obvious political loser, the centre-right is not immune. Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP loses votes to the National Front but David Cameron's Tories lose votes to the British National Party and Ukip. In Britain, Cameron tried to consolidate his position with a speech doubting the virtues of multiculturalism and a promise to limit immigration to tens of thousands. In France, the debate is more toxic. A politician courting the populist vote has to signal his or her attitude to Muslims – hence Sarkozy's banning of the burqa.
For what is unifying all Europe's populist right is outright hostility to Muslims. What has triggered the attack on the Schengen Agreement is fear of another wave of Muslim immigrants from north Africa. But immigration controls are only as strong as their weakest link – and every national European politician is prey to electors' fears that the EU or another country is just that weakest link. Thus the descent into beggar my neighbour anti-immigration policies. But these quickly become beggar my neighbour tax and trade policies. It is a culture of closure, negation and mutual suspicion.
To stop this movement becoming a stampede, the European left has to find a more certain voice. It must argue passionately for a good capitalism that will drive growth, employment and living standards by a redoubled commitment to innovation and investment. It must spearhead the case for new international rules of governance that can make citizens believe that globalisation is not a terrifying threat; it need not be a charter for bankers making dynastic fortunes for doing nothing valuable, nor an unstoppable force homogenising national cultures.
The left must also accept that immigration offends basic attitudes to fairness. Once any host population starts to believe that new immigrants can get benefits without paying anything into the collective pot they feel cheated. Immigrants need to be offered ways of earning their citizenship to ease their path on arrival. Get the economics and fairness right and much of the so-called threat to identity will fall away.
The good news is that, slowly, the European left is becoming aware of what it needs to do: the bad news is that it still sounds such an uncertain note, and there is so much distrust of the state and the EU on which effective action is predicated. Nonetheless, it is a battle for the soul of Europe – and at the moment the wrong side is winning.