There has been much made of late of the rise of populists political parties in Europe, parties that could potentially fracture the current political landscape in the EU, both in national assemblies, and in the European Parliament. Membership of traditional parties is on the decline, to be replaced by organisations, such as the Five Star Movement in Italy (its founder, comedian Beppe Grillo, would never call it a party), as well as other street-level demonstrations against the political status quo. Localism is back; extremism and populism have replaced pan-nationalism.
The 2014 European Parliament elections will be a decisive moment in how far these parties have taken hold in Europe – much populist opinion derives from a reaction against the European Union – but until then, the Brussels establishment has a nervous year. The economic crisis, which in many cases is fuelling extremist reaction, shows no signs of abating; efforts to quell it have so-far fallen flat. Of course, it is not simply an economic crisis, but a socio-economic crisis. The collapse of the financial system has in many ways led to a breakdown in civil order; people fear impoverishment, they hit out at the other.
It is not so easy to diminish the tide of feeling, however. Just as the disaffection and anger is vague, yet real, so too is the nature of populism; ranging from radical conservatism to racism, from mass movements and parties to those with no such affiliations, from the well organised to the lone campaigner. There are a lot on unemployed young people out there, all wondering what to do with their rage.
But, even parties with the stamp of legitimacy fear being overrun by the extremes, and in some cases, such as Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands, rush to give them the imprimatur of the establishment patronage.
In Hungary, the ruling Fidesz party has responded to the rise of Jobbik, not by counter political discourse, but by tolerating and seeking to adapt its policies. Some worry the same will happen in the UK after the populist Ukip scored well in recent local elections, prompting many on the Conservative party right to match many of Ukip’s policies, particularly on Europe, gay marriage and immigration.
Parties such as Jobbik, and Golden Dawn in Greece, create the circumstances within which violence and intolerance is acceptable. A new study has shown that the vast majority of victims of hate crimes do not bother to report the incidents to the authorities; they accept violence is now a part of their life. Trust in law enforcement and the judiciary is declining, just as it is in politics.
It is not easy to define where populism ends and extremism begins, is it about organisation, about expressing violent views? What is too dark a shade of grey? Extremism may not be reduced to nothing, but can its worst excesses be successfully managed?
As economic power shift away from Europe and a feeling of a loss and difficult political debate.
Discussing these uncomfortable issues openly does not make one an extremist, but saying nothing at all will not make it go away. However one may hope.
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