“Oui, c’est l’Europe, depuis l’Atlantique jusqu’à l’Oural, c’est toute l’Europe, qui décidera du destin du monde.”
“Yes, it is Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals, it is Europe, it is the whole of Europe that will decide the fate of the world.”
In 1959, at the founding of the Fifth Republic, the French president and statesman Charles de Gaulle triumphantly proclaimed a united Europe’s influence on the world. A world war had ended a little more than a decade ago, and though reconstruction was long and difficult, Europe had survived. To de Gaulle, there was no hardship that could hinder the progress of a united Europe. Roughly seven decades after the war, de Gaulle’s words are being put to the test. The global recession, triggered in 2009, has negatively impacted the economies of many European countries. Nations have been forced to turn to crippling austerity measures, banks teeter on the brink of default, and uncontrollable budget deficits hamper governments from Ireland to Greece.
The deep and prolonged recession has had a severe psychological effect on Europe as a whole, as demonstrated by the growth of reactionary, right-wing, xenophobic nationalism in several countries – not just the poverty-stricken ones. Tolerance and unity, once a cornerstone of post-war European identity, have paled, revealing an ugly underside of protectionism and scapegoating.
As the recession has deepened, hatred towards immigrants and “others” has become a legitimate and popular political platform that undoubtedly undermines the ethos of a united Europe. The manifestations of this trend are evident in three countries, unique and European. France is a major European nation, critical to the European foundation and its second-largest economy; the United Kingdom is European, yet Atlanticist in orientation; and Greece is part of the southern underbelly of Europe, economically and politically challenged relative to the stronger northern nations.
The global recession has adversely affected the entire continent of Europe, and France, the United Kingdom, and Greece are no exceptions. According to Eurostat, the statistics agency of the European Commission, in the second quarter of 2013, public debt as a ratio of GDP went up to 93.4 percent in the Eurozone, with unemployment around 12.2 percent. According to The Economist, the French economy has struggled to retain its footing during this crisis. GDP has been flat, unemployment is high at 11 percent, public debt is set to reach 95 percent of GDP by 2014, and large tax hikes have not been able to close the gap.
The Greek financial system has fared the worst. It was always unstable because of low taxes, widespread tax evasion, and unnecessary government spending on services. The BBC reported in 2012 that between 1999 and 2007, public sector wages soared over 50 percent and the government ran up huge debts in order to pay for the 2004 Olympics. Government debt has since skyrocketed to 165 percent of GDP in 2013. Services and jobs have been slashed (unemployment is at 27 percent), and taxes have shot up.
The European Union and the European Central Bank have tried to help assuage the blow with a series of bailouts, and banks have just barely survived, teetering inches away from default. German creditors, largely responsible for funding the bailouts, are skeptical of success, and Greek citizens are being forced to foot the bill. The United Kingdom adopted severe austerity measures and higher taxes, yet fell into a double-dip recession. Reuters UK remarked in June 2013 that the economy was slowly beginning to recover. Unemployment and public debt in the United Kingdom remain high, though somewhat lower than France.
The economic strain in these countries has driven a right-wing shift in policy and ideology. Though France has had conservative presidents before, progressivism has always run deep in its roots. The ideas of “liberté, egalité, fraternité,” were central to French nationalism, even during the dark days of Nazi occupation. After all, it was just a year after France had fallen to the Nazis in 1941 when the same Charles de Gaulle said: “At the root of our civilization, there is the freedom of each person of thought, of belief, of opinion, of work, of leisure.” Equality and freedom were truly fundamental in the formation and development of modern France. Today, those same values are under attack. As the economic situation has soured, compassion and tolerance have worsened. In recent years, the French government has routinely suppressed the Roma minority. Under the Sarkozy administration, French police frequently swept Roma camps, deporting many to southeastern Europe. Francoise Hollande, the current Socialist President of France, won a presidential campaign based on justice and equality for all. However, French authorities are still carrying out violence and unnecessary deportations against the Roma (who have no true homeland, much less national representation within the European Union).
The growing intolerance in France is reflected in the rising support of right-wing nationalist political parties. The National Front, a nationalist (previously fringe) party has surged in popularity. Headed by the controversial Marine le Pen, they are an active political force. The French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur published a poll in October revealing that roughly 25 percent of French voters would vote for the National Front in the next European elections, a dramatic rise from the 6.3 percent support the party received in 2009. It is noteworthy that the time span between the two polls parallels the trend of the economic recession. Clearly, the economic downturn is closely correlated with the rise of right wing rhetoric and popularity. However, in this adverse environment, it is encouraging that the French government’s intolerance of the Roma has recently stirred significant political reaction and protest. French students rioted in mid-October this year, after authorities seized a young girl off a school bus in front of all of her friends and sought to deport her. She was a Kosovar, and her family was rumored to be Roma. The students’ actions to protest this unfair police action and deportation mark a significant turning point in the French citizens’ relationship to immigrant communities.
The economic impact has been the worst in Greece, which has in turn led to a striking and at times violent shift to the right. This phenomenon is tragic because Greece is the historic origin of the ideas of tolerance and fairness. Sadly, two millennia later, Aristotle’s words, “Equality consists in the same treatment of similar persons, and no government can stand which is not founded upon justice,” seem to have been overlooked in Greece’s economic nosedive. In the Greek situation, the pattern of financial hardship leading to nationalism and xenophobia is most notable. Greek citizens as a whole are frustrated with their government, and riots in major cities such as Athens have raged over the last few years over slashed pensions and programs. Although most of the anger is directed towards the government, immigrant groups have found themselves bearing the brunt of much desperation and rage. Random attacks on immigrants, usually of Middle Eastern or African origin, have increased in number. Though many of the brutal acts of violence are condemned by the Greek government, anti-immigrant sentiment prevails in public discourse. As a result, political rhetoric panders to the xenophobes.
As with the National Front in France, Greece has seen the rise of a relatively new, semi-fascist political party. The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, whose platform is based on the removal of immigrants, has grown in popularity. Golden Dawn first made its political debut in the 2012 Parliamentary elections. An ALCO poll, published in the Greek newspaper Proto Thema, placed Golden Dawn popularity at 10.8 percent in June 2013. Golden Dawn members have often been associated with, or even carried out, violence against immigrants and the opposition. It seems clear that their anti-immigrant platform encourages such violence. Most recently, in late September, their aggressive activities reached a crescendo when a Golden Dawn member was accused of murdering a left-wing musician. However, thousands of Greek citizens marched in the streets of Athens protesting against this murder, and the Greek government was compelled by public opinion to finally arrest the top leader of the party.
The United Kingdom’s shift to the right has been slower and without active protests and showcases of violence (whether government sponsored, as in France, or citizen sponsored riots, as seen in Greece). However, the trend is still damaging. The United Kingdom, despite its unique alliance with the United States, played a pivotal role in the post-war European design. Two years after World War II, at a United Europe meeting, Winston Churchill reminded European citizens of the values they cherished: “All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope.” Seventy years later, these pan-European values are being severely tested. The United Kingdom is economically healthier than, say, France. However, the economic hardship is bad enough to bring about a similar trend of right wing intolerance. Slow growth, coupled with harsh austerity measures, has taken its toll on UK citizens. While the prejudice and xenophobia are nowhere near as incendiary or overt as in other countries, there are glimpses of it throughout the country. Asylum-seekers and immigrants are described as “benefits scroungers” who claim public welfare benefits away from UK “citizens.” The UK government, responding to visible public sentiment, drastically limited the number of foreign student visas and foreign immigration in a burst of anti-immigrant reform.However, after the new visa restrictions were announced, a study published in early November of this year by professors at University College London estimates that immigrants have actually made a positive contribution to the UK economy, up to 25 billion pounds.
Although the open border policy still exists in the European Union, anti-immigrant legislation in member states serves to instantiate racism, particularly towards non-European immigrants. The trend seen in France and Greece continues, with the growth of a previously fringe, right-wing political party, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). UKIP still lacks a large-enough base to form a coalition. Yet, it is now entering mainstream political discourse because of its vocal base. The UKIP is fiercely “pro-Britain” and anti-EU, reflecting an isolationist viewpoint echoed in France and Greece as well. Isolationism seems to go together with racism: Several candidates were suspended from the party for their racist views. Most recently, UKIP candidate Alex Wood was suspended for allegedly making a Nazi salute. Nonetheless, support for UKIP has surged, with the party’s polling at about 10 percent. Thus, their base is large enough to take seats from the Conservative Party and actually shift the balance slightly in favor of the left leaning Labour Party. In fact, The Telegraph posits that if UKIP continues to demonstrate such strong support in key regions of the country, the Labour Party could win a majority. Furthermore, UKIP has also effectively brought some of its political agenda to the table. On January 23, 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron introduced a referendum for Britain to exit the EU, partly to appease UKIP.
Xenophobic, right-wing nationalist movements fundamentally challenge the humanitarian legacy of Western civilization. European countries laud themselves for equality, justice, and human rights. They condemn other countries for violations of human rights, and rightly so. However, this is nothing more than political posturing if they do not hold themselves to the same standard domestically. This will be especially tragic because so much of the concept of equality and human rights as we know them today are based on European thought. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the US Constitution, and many other fundamental political documents throughout the world have stemmed from the European Enlightenment.
It is undeniable that economic downturn and uncertainty foster xenophobia, right-wing nationalism, and fear towards “others.” The resultant decline of tolerance and unity chips away at the concept of a powerful, united Europe. As the euro spirals downwards and immediate economic recovery does not seem likely, some scholars and citizens alike are questioning the idea of the euro and the “European project” as a whole. The European Union was created to prevent war and monopoly of power by individual nation-states, and it survives through diplomacy, despite rising intolerance among its nation states. If Europe gets entangled in changing asylum policies, kicking the Roma from one country to the next, or appeasing fringe quasi-fascist right-wing parties, that unity, which the European ethos was based on, will be destroyed.
Although the growth of extreme, right-wing politics caused by the economic crisis seems frightening, hopefully it will not last. After all, French students rallied to protest their deported classmate, Greek citizens took to the streets to protest the racism of Golden Dawn, and British academics continue to do research to defend hardworking immigrants. Economic recessions are followed by growth in the business cycle, and the citizens of the nation states of Europe are the strongest protector of European values, against the forces of fragmentation, exclusion, and disintegration. The politicians and governments of the European countries need to catch up with the people they supposedly represent, and provide the right leadership, so that Europe retains its unified cultural and political identity. De Gaulle’s concept of “toute l’Europe” can still be a force to be reckoned with.