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Fascist currents in the EU mainstream

Ford, G. (2007). Fascist currents in the EU mainstream, Japan Times, 16 December.

LONDON — On a cold wet November evening the dreamy spires of Oxford University became the unlikely setting for a new front line between the organization Unite Against Fascism and the far-right British National Party (BNP).

The hallowed Oxford Union Debating Society — which has played host to Mother Teresa, Jimmy Carter, Winston Churchill and Malcolm X — can now add the notorious Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, and David Irving, convicted Holocaust denier. Not so great and not so good.

Despite widespread condemnation, with one Conservative parliamentarian resigning his membership and calling the speakers “scoundrels,” the 184-year-old Oxford Union was undeterred amid demonstrations and horse-mounted riot police.

What is most alarming about the invitation to Griffin and Irving to partake in the Free Speech Debate was that it was an invitation to fascists to step into the political mainstream. In the 21st century, as the memory of how the blight of fascism and its devastating effect on Europe during World War II receding, a new political racism is reviving in Europe.

First, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial are being swapped for Islamophobia. Second, the traditional fascist right have chosen to dilute their message and their membership to “fascist light.”

No longer purely fascist parties, they have become rightwing populist parties that embrace a broad church membership — from ideological fascists to racists, xenophobes and the alienated working-class whites. Their language of nation and tradition, sovereignty and community, has replaced that of eugenics, extermination and fatherland. Third, they are narrowing the gap between themselves and traditional democratic parties as they dress down their rhetoric and use sound bites for electoral advantage.

Even “democracy” in Central and Eastern Europe has let in new quirky xenophobic and bigoted politicians and parties to emerge, as long-standing prejudices suppressed by communist regimes have been unleashed.

In 2007, the short-lived 19-member Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty (ITS) group was established within the European Parliament. ITS comprised extreme-right and racist parties from Austria, Belgium, France and Italy, as well as Bulgaria and Romania — the two most recent newcomers to the European Union. Also included was a solitary British member of the European Parliament, Ashley Moate, who had been expelled from the United Kingdom Independence Party and is now serving a jail sentence for benefit fraud.

There are more racists in the European Parliament than lawmakers representing the 15 million members of ethnic minorities and third-country nationals.

ITS included leading lights of the extreme right: leader Bruno Gollinisch, deputy leader of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National, who was charged in January 2007 with Holocaust denial; Andreas Moelzer, the brains behind Jorg Haider’s Austrian Freedom Party, the same Haider who refused to condemn a terrorist bombing that killed four Gypsies; Frank Vanhecke, leader of the Flemish Vlaams Belang, who openly described his party as Islamophobic; and Italian Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of Benito Mussolini and leader of the neofascist Azione Sociale. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi formed a coalition with the fascists and even offered Mussolini a possible Cabinet Post.

Their success has been inspired by other far-right parties, notably in Netherlands and Denmark, which toned down public intolerance and boosted their acceptability as coalition partners.

At a European level, some fascists have been so successful in blending their roots that they have joined the more acceptable and less controversial Union for a Europe of Nations, an incoherent mix of hard-right and moderate rightwing parties that include the former neofascist Movimento Sociale Italiano party alongside the deeply homophobic Liga Polskich Rodzin (LPR) or League of Polish Families, the anti-immigration party Dansk Folkeparti (the Danish Peoples Party), and Ireland’s Fianna Fail.

The current Slovak government includes in its coalition the Slovenska Narodna Strana (Slovak National Party) whose leader, Jan Slota, would like to expel the Hungarian minority, which comprises 10 percent of the population.

The Hungarian Truth and Life Party is anti-Jewish and anti-Gypsies and, yet, is viewed as mainstream opposition to the Hungarian Socialist government.

Meanwhile, Britain’s BNP has become the No. 4 party, with 56 local councilors, and is on course to win seats in the Greater London Assembly in May 2008 and the European Parliament in June 2009. It has rebranded itself with populist policies while cynically exploiting people’s fears.

Following the bombings in July 2005 in London, the BNP distributed leaflets depicting the bombed bus with the slogan “Maybe its time to listen to the BNP” and repeated the exercise after the failed terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow last summer.

It is not all bad news for progressives. The October 2007 elections in Poland saw the LPR lose its seats, as the Poles grew tired of heavy-handed Catholicism, homophobia and extreme nationalism.

The ITS group in the European Parliament collapsed when, following the murder of an Italian woman by a Romanian Gypsies immigrant, Alessandra Mussolini called for all Romanians to be kicked out of Italy. She forgot about her Romanian allies in the European Parliament, the Partidul Romania Mare (Greater Romania Party), which, despite being anti-Gypsies, promptly left the group.

Unfortunately, we cannot rely on the mere political incompetence of these parties and their members. We need mainstream politicians to stop pandering to racists and make sure the EU puts more pressure on individual countries to enforce their laws against racism, xenophobia and homophobia more robustly. Only then will progressive politics beat the fascists back into the history books and ensure that renowned institutions like the Oxford Union do not promote free speech for those who place no value on it.

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