Shahid M Amin
RIGHT-wing politics are gaining ground both in Europe as well as in the US. The election of Donald Trump as President is probably the latest example of this trend. He owes his victory to several causes, but probably the most important is the backlash of American whites to the loss of their traditional hold on political power, symbolised by the election of Barack Obama, the first black President, who won two consecutive terms. The blacks, who had been traditionally discriminated against in America, have been gaining ground in the last sixty years in political, economic and social spheres.
The resentment of American whites has also been increased by the sharp rise of Latinos and immigrants from Asia and Africa. Another worry for the whites is the increasing number of Muslims in US, who are being associated with terrorism and seen as an imminent security threat. Right-wing nationalism often has an ethnic colour: it thrives on the perceived supremacy of a particular national ethnic group. But right-wing politics in the West has also had an economic dimension. It stresses the free enterprise system, the right of the capitalist to make profit, with few taxes and government regulations. The US right wing hates communism and is allergic to socialism and the welfare state. It has loathed ‘Obamacare’ which has shades of the welfare state. In Europe, the referendum on Brexit in June 2016 was the latest triumph of the rightists, who have all along opposed British membership of the EU.
Britain had joined EEC (now EU) in 1973 after much internal debate, but was described as a “reluctant partner” who was indifferent to the progress of EU. While other member countries adopted Euro as the common currency, Britain insisted on retaining pound sterling. It also did not join the Schengen open-frontier regime. In the more recent past, disaffection with EU developed in Britain, primarily over the sharp increase in immigration; a perception that Britain was being made to pay far more to EU than what it was receiving; and the impression that Britain was losing its sovereignty because rules were being imposed on it by Brussels, the EU headquarters.
Within the ruling Conservative party, there were sharp differences on continued membership of the EU though Prime Minister Cameron and his colleagues favoured it. The opposition parties —Labour, Liberal Democrats and the main party in Scotland— supported continued membership of EU. The British news media split, with the more widely-circulated newspapers supporting Brexit. Most financial experts had warned that any withdrawal from EU would harm British economy. But the views of British nationalists clearly prevailed in the referendum. Some of them retained lingering memories of British imperial days and centuries-old tradition of “splendid isolation” that had kept Britain away from entanglement in Europe, except when it suited British national interests.
After the more recent induction of poorer East European states in the EU, the policy of free movement within the community led to an influx of migrants into Britain from Poland and elsewhere. The fear of loss of jobs and ethnic prejudices helped the popularity of fringe parties like the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a right-wing populist party led by Nigel Farage. Though it has just one seat in the House of Commons, it has 22 members in the European Parliament, the largest among all British political parties. UKIP saw British exit from the EU as the “core issue”. It also sees a “serious existential crisis” in the “Islamification” of Britain. UKIP’s growing popularity has come mainly at the expense of the Conservatives. Some of its members have sympathies with UKIP, while some other Conservatives wanted to steal the thunder of UKIP by pressing themselves for Britain’s exit from the EU.
It is thought that Britain’s exit from EU will also encourage right-wing Eurosceptic parties in some other European countries to join the quit EU movement. These parties also show Islamophobia and are anti-immigration. The recent rush of Syrian refugees to find asylum in Europe alarmed even the European mainstream. But the right wing parties have actually increased their popularity and are showing good results in elections. Austria is a case in point. About 20 years ago, its far right Freedom Party led by a pro-Nazi leader Joerg Haider was condemned by all other parties. But in the 2016 presidential election, its present leader Norbert Hofer lost by a narrow margin. The party is strongly against the “Islamisation” of Austria and is anti-immigration, which is the same thing.
The underlying ideology of the right-wing parties is nationalism and xenophobia (mainly Islamophobia), as also anti-establishment sentiments. The alarming development is that they are becoming mainstream parties now, while previously they were fringe parties. Right-wing parties are receiving greater support at present in Netherlands, France, Denmark and Hungary. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken a principled position on accepting Syrian refugees on humanitarian ground but has suffered a setback in opinion surveys. The right wing AfD has gained ground. Former Communist countries like Hungary and Slovakia, which were focussed on anti-Communism, are now talking more about defending ‘Christian culture’ against Muslims. Even in traditionally liberal countries like Sweden and Finland, right wing sentiment is coming up.
Dutch rightist leader Geert Wilders is long known for his Islamophic views. His Party for Freedom (PVV) had one seat in parliament but in 2006, it got 9 seats and in 2010, it had 24 seats. Latest polls ahead of March 2017 elections show PVV leading all other parties: it could secure one-fifth of total seats in parliament. Wilders has at times split from his party, but his Islamophobia has kept growing. He has used sacrilegious language against Islam, wants Quran to be banned and Muslims in Netherlands expelled. Some of these right-wing politics will be condemned by people everywhere. However, it can be argued that anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe would not have grown if neighbouring Arab countries like Saudi Arabia & Gulf states had absorbed more Syrian refugees. To be fair, it is not Europe’s responsibility to accept these refugees.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.