Understanding populist extremists


For those concerned about rising support for Europe’s Populist Extremist Parties (so called PEPs), the think tank Chatham House has bad news: their support is probably higher than in the opinion polls. New research suggests that many more voters are receptive to the message from the PEPs, from opposition to immigration, growing hostility towards established Muslim groups and a tangible dissatisfaction with established parties.

In Austria, Holland, Norway, Denmark and Italy, parties of this type have helped make up coalition governments, and their share of the votes has reached as high as 20% to 30%. The True Finns – one of the highest profile PEPs – came from nowhere to take 19% of the votes in the latest Finnish general election.

In a few decades, many PEPs have developed from extremist movements on the periphery of society to established political parties with well-groomed spokespersons and flowers as their party emblems. Since overt racist prejudice is no longer socially acceptable, successful PEPs have portrayed the threat of minorities as economic and cultural.

One of the main motivations for voting for PEPs is hostility towards immigration. Xenophobia has gone from brutal forms of racism via hostility towards immigration to wariness of already established immigrants, mainly those of Muslim origin.

The desire to defend a “national identity” is today a stronger motivation than the fear that one’s own economic situation might be under threat. Anxiety over the “cultural threat” is nine times more significant than concern over criminality, and five times more than concern over the economy.

The Chatham House report suggests that between 30% and 60% of voters consider there to be too many immigrants in the respondents’ home countries, and that over 50% in every EU country but one (Portugal) consider that Muslims make excessive demands on society. Between 45% and 60% per cent consider Islam to be an intolerant religion. Approximately 30% believe that many Muslims see terrorists as heroes. Between 50% and 70% in the six biggest EU states believe that Muslims are not integrating well in the community.

Of those who voted for the right-wing Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti) in 1994, 35% considered that Muslims posed a threat to national security. In 2007 the corresponding figure had risen to 81%. In Eastern and Central Europe, the same hostility is also directed towards the Roma and Jews.

Europeis in the early stages of a historic crisis. In recent years, the European sovereign crisis has become more serious and the gap between north and south has become increasingly noticeable.Within countries too, gaps are widening and are in some cases at their greatest since the 1920s.

There is an evident risk that the crisis of monetary union and the stability pact will also lead to a deeper political crisis in Europe. Germany, which was previously a driver of European integration, is now showing clear nationalist tendencies. Politicians risk contributing to European disintegration when they make efforts to stay on a good footing with an increasingly nationalist and potentially xenophobic domestic opinion. The EU was once a peace project. Will the failed monetary union and stability pact be permitted to overturn political cooperation and integration in Europe?

For Europe, the really big risk lies in the meeting between on the one hand the large numbers who share extremist opinions or are attracted by the dream of “defending” or “resurrecting” a mythical national identity and on the other hand the growing economic polarisation, unemployment and marginalisation which will come in the wake of the European crisis. Without being too alarmist, we should learn a lesson from what happened to democracy in Europe in the Thirties, also then in the wake of a deep economic crisis following the increase in income differentials to record levels in the 1920s.

We need greater preparedness to deal with a political situation of that kind. Naturally, a heavy responsibility lies with politicians whose task it is to identify common goals, to dare to debate the difficult issues and to show the great value of diversity. We members of the business community also have a big responsibility. We must better understand this development and how we can contribute to defending an open society and its values. How can business strengthen the bonds that create cohesion in a society increasingly characterised by diversity?

What is the role of business in a clear repudiation of discrimination and prejudice? How can business become better at employing and including immigrants? With its experience of operating in a global environment, how can business show the good examples of how to deal with individuals with multiple identities? A greater sense of responsibility is needed, where a broad debate on these issues is a beginning and a precondition.

At a time when we are facing formidable political and economic challenges in Europe, we need society to place greater importance on social cohesion. We must on the one hand take seriously the prevalent anxiety over immigration and integration, and on the other hand solidly defend diversity and the basic values of open society. Increased diversity in Europe is firstly an inevitable fact and secondly an economic necessity. Above all however, it is a basic prerequisite to enable building a truly humanist, dynamic and prosperous society.

The report “Right Response, Understanding and Countering Populist Extremism in Europe” from Chatham House describes the emergence of Populist extremist parties in Europe and is the result of a project initiated by the Daniel Sachs Foundation.


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