Nobel Peace Prize: The old demons stalking the EU

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As the great and the good gathered in Oslo to witness the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union, there was plenty of rhetoric about healing divisions, about old enemies becoming partners.
The achievements are real, but amid the celebration there was also a warning.
“When prosperity and employment, the bedrock of our societies, appear threatened,” said European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, “it is natural to see a hardening of hearts, the narrowing of interests, even the return of long-forgotten fault lines and stereotypes.”
With Europe embroiled in its worst economic crisis since the 1930s, are politicians really alert to the nature of that threat?
As with many developments in the eurozone crisis, Greece has become a testing ground for the rise of the extreme right.
Graffiti in big bold red letters is scrawled across the entrance to Athens University. Capitalism is killing you, it says, but fascism won’t save you.
Politics has become dangerously polarised.
Golden Dawn – with 18 seats in parliament and its popularity growing – denies that it is a fascist party but its supporters wear black shirts and use neo-Nazi symbols.
They are nationalistic, xenophobic and aggressive.
In the past few weeks, they have smashed up immigrant market stalls, shut down a theatre production they did not like and applauded the flag of the former military dictatorship.
A man described as a Sudanese migrant shows scars on his back in Athens, 5 December 2012 This man, described as a Sudanese migrant, showed scars on his back in Athens
“Recently it has come to the point that we see victims of racial attacks almost every day,” said Christina Psarra, at the Athens headquarters of the medical charity Medecins Du Monde.
Some of the victims report attacks by men dressed in black. One man from Sudan showed off gouges in his back he said were slashed by men in black with Greek flags.
“This will not only affect migrants in the future,” Ms Psarra predicted. “In an area close to Athens with many gay-friendly bars, they have distributed black leaflets saying ‘You are next’.”
Even Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has compared the situation in Greece with the last days of the Weimar Republic in Germany – a country that had debts it could never repay and turned to Adolf Hitler.
It is a pattern that Europe has seen before: demagogues offering simple solutions to complex problems. Golden Dawn is arguably the most extreme right party to win parliamentary seats in the EU since the founding of the union.
But it is not just in Greece that support for the extreme right is gathering pace. Violent anti-immigrant rhetoric is on the rise in several countries.
Jobbik, for example, is the third largest political party in Hungary. It has made its name with outspoken attacks on the Roma minority.
And a few days ago one of its MPs caused outrage with a speech in parliament. A list of names should be compiled, he declared, of Jews who pose a threat to national security.
It was another chilling echo of the past and it has led many critics to argue that the EU and its member-states must do more to fight against extremism.
“The developments we have are so frightening,” argued Hannes Swoboda, the leader of the socialist group in the European parliament.
“The European Union, which was founded to overcome the consequences of racism, has to react but it does not really react.”
So what do those who study the past make of the comparison with the 1930s?
“In Samaras’s case the message is: ‘give us the money otherwise there will be a new Hitler’,” said the historian Mark Mazower.
“I don’t think there will be a new Hitler, for the simple reason that Europe has already had one, and remembers very well what it led to.”
But there is a problem – democracy ultimately depends on the legitimacy of the political class and, in extreme circumstances, that legitimacy can disappear very quickly.
“That happened in Weimar Germany,” Prof Mazower noted, “and the eurozone crisis for entirely different reasons is leading to a haemorrhaging of political legitimacy.”
A Catalan language supporter demonstrates in Barcelona, 10 December The euro crisis has encouraged Catalonia to seek independence from Spain
And that does not just mean the rise of the far right.
In Spain, for example, a country with experience of dictatorship, and in neighbouring Portugal, the extreme right has made no electoral impact at all as the crisis has developed.
Instead protest against the status quo in Spain has taken the form of a dramatic reassertion of the demand for Catalan independence.

“You see in different ways a hard-won post-war social compact disintegrating,” Prof Mazower said.
“In Spain it is the revival of regional patriotism, the feeling that the centre doesn’t give, it just takes.”
But in Greece and Hungary it has led to “the revival of parties who would have been entirely out of the political mainstream 20 or even 10 years ago.”
It is, of course, possible that these are just passing protest votes, but there can be no certainty about that.
Extreme economic hardship has consequences which can be hard to predict.
But the Greek government insists that, in Athens at least, there will be no complacency.
“We are not going to suffer the fate of the Weimar democracy,” insisted the government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou.
“We won’t let history repeat itself. We are determined to do what is necessary to safeguard the unity of our society.”
But the human rights group Amnesty International remains concerned.
It warns that growing numbers of political leaders are promoting a variety of anti-minority messages, and enjoying increasing popularity.
“EU leaders mustn’t bask in the glow of the [Nobel Peace] Prize,” said Nicolas Beger, director of Amnesty’s European Institutions office in Brussels.
“Xenophobia and intolerance are on the rise throughout Europe.”
Of course historical parallels are never exact but we can always learn something from the past.
And this eurozone crisis is not just a financial one – in many countries it has become an acute social and political crisis too.
If some of the potential outcomes are dangerous, we cannot say we have not been warned.
Across the continent “mainstream parties are very committed to freedom, democracy and European values”, the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, pointed out in a BBC interview.
“[But] I think we have to be vigilant. The old demons are still there.”

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