Europe Tames its Far Right

September 17, 2012
By Elizabeth Pond

Europeans are slowly managing to ring-fence their xenophobic right. In their own ways, Norway, Switzerland, and the Netherlands are all defying the fears that Europe’s worst financial and economic crisis in eight decades might again provoke a catastrophic political slide to the far right on the pattern of the 1930s.

Thus, Norway demythologized multiple murderer Anders Behring Breivik by a dry court trial that drained all charisma from the confessed killer of 77. Switzerland denatured Christoph Blocher, the two-decade-long head of the country’s largest party, by excluding him, at long last, from its unique backroom political consensus. And in the past week the Netherlands has smothered Geert Wilders by noisy democracy.

In the Netherlands, the rise of the racist populist right in recent years has been especially shocking for occurring in a country long famed for its tolerance. In the 19th century, the Dutch pioneered a “consociational” form of Protestant-Catholic tolerance, in which the two confessions formed separate “pillars” of their own communities and commissioned their elites to work out compromises in rolling government coalitions that conscientiously protected minorities. From the 1960s through the 1980s, even Dutch conservatives prided themselves on their openness to social minorities. Amsterdam became a magnet for European gays, youths who like to ingest their drugs in cafés, and house squatters.

By the end of the 1990s the backlash hit. Local populist and increasingly chauvinist parties sprang up to flout political correctness and gain votes with hate campaigns against Muslim immigrants. By 2002 the most successful of these parties, the Pym Fortuyn List, campaigned in the Dutch parliamentary election for the first time, championing repeal of the constitutional ban on any discrimination on grounds of religion, political beliefs, race, or sex. Despite or because of the murder of its eponymous leader by an animal-rights militant a week before the vote, the List won a huge 17 percent and the post of vice-premier in a short-lived coalition. After bitter internal fights the List failed to win legislative seats in the 2006 election, and the party broke up.

Pym Fortuyn’s ideological successor was the Freedom Party of Geert Wilders. It won nine seats in the House of Representatives in 2006 and shot up to 24 seats in 2010, enough to tip the scale by supporting the minority centrist government in parliament. But when Wilders withdrew his support last April and called not only for the rich Netherlands to stop bailing out poor southern Europeans, but even to quit the European Union—a heresy in one of the European Community’s staunch founding countries—he overshot. In a backlash to Fortuyn and Wilders’ backlash, voters cut the Freedom Party down to 13 seats this past week. In an even bigger surprise, they gave enough seats to the two centrist parties, Labor and the Liberals, to form a stable majority government on their own, without having to cater to the Islamophobic and now anti-EU right.

This month’s neutralization of the Dutch xenophobic right follows the Norwegian neutralization of Anders Behring Breivik, a sometime Geert Wilders disciple and the confessed murderer of a bombing and cold-blooded shooting of 69 teenagers in a Labor Party summer camp in July 2011. Last June, an Oslo court convicted the unrepentant mass murderer, and in August, it sentenced him to the maximum 21 years in jail, with subsequent extensions if he is still deemed a danger to society.

Breivik sought to turn his trial into a pulpit for advocating violence against Muslim immigrants and their Norwegian supporters, against “Eurabia,” feminists, and multiculturalism. Judges at first banned broadcast of his inflammatory court testimony—but it soon entrusted political education more to the quiet rejection by ordinary Norwegians of Breivik’s manifestos. The Financial Times saw the result as “a reminder … of the civilizing effect of a fair and open judicial process. In the courtroom, Anders Behring Breivik has been diminished. The concreteness of the proceedings and the scrutiny of prosecutors and judges have transformed an abstract horror into a mere man. There is less to fear.”

“There was no breast-beating,” explains one keen American observer of Norway’s culture during 46 years of marriage to a Norwegian sea captain’s daughter. “Norwegians let the wheels of justice turn. … The system worked within its own context” of a small population in which everyone basically knows everyone else and shames those who violate basic decency, he concludes.

And then there’s Switzerland. In one respect Christoph Blocher has been more of a threat to governance that the fringe nuisance Wilders or the fringe terrorist Breivik, because Blocher operated for many years as an insider in the political establishment. He first took over the most junior of the four established parties in the perennial Swiss consensus government. Then over two decades the billionaire industrialist with a gift for ultranationalist oratory built the Swiss People’s Party into the largest single party, growing from 11 percent in 1987 to 29 percent in 2007, well over Wilders’ peak 15-plus percent in 2009 or even Jörg Haider’s 27 percent in Austria in 1999.

Back in the 1970s, Blocher entered politics by championing white-run South Africa as a Western outpost, opposing legal equality for women in marriage, helping to defeat a key referendum proposal for Swiss association with the then European Community, and defending Swiss bank secrecy. He became the driving force in his party and led a tough law-and-order campaign for “exclusion of foreign criminals” during his three years as Swiss Minister of Justice and Police. In 2009, it was the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) that led the successful referendum to ban the building of any more minarets in Switzerland beyond those on the four existing mosques.

The other parties in the governing consensus put up with Blocher’s populism—which was often enough directed against them—until 2008.  Then they helped one SVP chapter to sideline Blocher and exercise the fierce autonomy that cantons enjoy within party structures as well as within the Swiss Federation. Working together, the Grisons SVP chapter and the other traditional parties in the political establishment replaced Blocher and installed his party’s deputy leader, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, in the government. She became the party’s senior representative on the Federal Council as well as the minister of justice and police, and started on the track to become the president of Switzerland in 2012.

The angry Blocher in effect excommunicated both Widmer-Schlumpf and the Grisons chapter from the SVP. The latter shrugged their shoulders, formed a new party, and continued on their way within the ruling corporatist establishment. The SVP slipped to 27 percent in the 2011 elections—but Blocher’s real defeat was his own excommunication from the elite political consensus.

That’s today’s taming of the far right, European style, step by plodding step.

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of The Rebirth of Europe.

World Policy Journal
© Elizabeth Pond

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