Ruling parties forced into ever-closer allegiances to contain rise of extremists
A brace of baronesses, sundry patrician Tories, Labour party staffers, journalists and eurocrats quaffed the bubbly and nibbled at the cream cheese on brown bread.
On the fourth floor of the grandiose cylinder that is the European Parliament building in Strasbourg last Wednesday evening, the main topics were Brits in Brussels, the UK in Europe. And nosepegs were metaphorically applied when the gossip turned to the two new MEPs from the north of England who had just taken their seats in the chamber below.
Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons of the British National party were the only ones of Britain's 72 MEPs not invited to the champagne reception hosted by the government.
That is one way of dealing with the extreme right — exclude them from polite company and hope they will fade away. That strategy might work in Britain, where the BNP is seen by the political class as a disturbing, but not threatening phenomenon thanks to the first-past-the-post system. In the rest of Europe, where proportional representation and coalition government are the rule, the extreme right – whether racist, neo-fascist, xenophobic, or just plain populist — is not being so easily dismissed or contained.
In Italy, the far right is in government and occupies leading parliament posts. In Austria it governs part of the country. In The Netherlands it has soared to become the second most popular party. In Poland it has been co-opted into the main opposition party and, as in Slovakia, has served or is serving in government.
The far right has seldom had it so good. Its success represents a dilemma for the mainstream political parties of Europe. But their responses to the rise of extremism differ widely.
"There is no systemic pan-European answer to the extreme right," said Anton Pelinka, an Austrian political scientist at the Central European University in Budapest. "In Belgium or in France, the mainstream parties won't touch the extreme right, while Berlusconi in Italy is a rightwing populist who has absorbed it."
The fundamental quandary for mainstream parties, in government or opposition, is whether to accept or to ostracise the extreme right.
When the new European Parliament convened this week, its ranks included Hungarian gypsy-haters, French Holocaust deniers, Dutch Islam-baiters, Austrian antisemites, Italian racists, and Flemish separatists, as well as Griffin, for whom Islam is a cancer and who wants boats of illegal immigrants sunk at sea. The parliament bigwigs promptly moved to marginalise them, conspiring to keep the extremists out of the key posts and committees. But in the countries of Europe, the picture is much more varied. Take Italy.
"Berlusconi has tried very hard to form the big tent party," said James Walston, a politics professor at the American University in Rome.
He has absorbed the "post-fascist" National Alliance and given the interior ministry to Robert Maroni of the separatist and anti-Muslim Northern League.
"There are a lot of racist elements," said Walston. "The Northern League certainly has a lot of people not afraid to be explicitly racist."
Berlusconi's strategy of co-opting elements of the extreme right, benefiting from their support and adopting some of their policies, is replicated in Poland, where the rightwing opposition Law and Justice party of the twin Kaczynski brothers, Jaroslaw and Lech, has destroyed two extreme antisemitic, anti-German, and ultra-Catholic parties on the fringes of Polish politics by appealing to their voters and opening up to leading members.
This approach contrasts with France or the Flanders half of Belgium where the mainstream right and left collude where necessary to keep the far right out of power.
Most famously, the French left voted for the Gaullist Jacques Chirac in 2002 to keep the National Front leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, out of the Elysee Palace. A fortnight ago the same scenario was enacted in a mayoral contest in northern France, where the National Front won more than 47% of the vote but was still beaten by a right-left alliance. "The exclusion strategy has worked in France. Le Pen is almost finished," said Pelinka.
And in Flanders, the rise of the secessionist Flemish Interest party has been stymied by a "cordon sanitaire" agreed by the other parties to keep the separatists in opposition.
Pekinka said that, too, has been successful, but many disagree.
"That's the wrong way to deal with parties like that," said Martijn van Dam, a Dutch Labour MP. "The Flemish Interest just got stronger because of the cordon sanitaire."
In his country the far right has soared this year, with the anti-Islam maverick Geert Wilders and his Freedom party coming second with 17% of the vote in the European elections in The Netherlands. Any party getting 15-20% of the vote in a coalition system has the right to take part in government negotiations.
But the establishment is split. The Labour party says it won't go into coalition with Wilders, but Van Dam said: "We're not saying never. I don't believe all these voters are extremely rightwing. It's just that the traditional parties are not trusted any more. It's impossible to imagine a coalition government with Wilders because of his ideas. But we are very careful always not to exclude his voters."
The Christian Democrats of the prime minister, Jan-Peter Balkenende, however, are divided over Wilders and have not quite ruled out governing with a man who describes Islam as fascism and faces trial for racial incitement and hate speech.
The strategy of exclusion can only work if the centre-right and the centre-left agree to maintain it. The centre-right Austrian chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, broke that tacit bargain when he brought the late Jörg Haider into government in 1999. It did not last long and supporters of that option say that the best way to weaken the extreme right is to give them power and watch them self-destruct.
Mainstream leaders such as Berlusconi, the traditional parties in Austria or Holland, and Nicolas Sarkozy in France have blunted the far right by copying policies and rhetoric on immigration, law and order, nationalism, and Euroscepticism.
In Hungary, the black-shirted militants of the Jobbik movement, anti-Gypsy and overtly antisemitic, are currently the third biggest party. The centre-right Fidesz party is expected to win a landslide at elections next year. Pelinka in Budapest said that liberals who would never vote for Fidesz will do so next year to ensure an absolute majority lest it is tempted to form a coalition with the extremists.