In recent months, many governments in the EU member states have moved towards the right wing populism, not to say extremism. Part of the success story of the right wing populists is that they appear anti-establishment, breaking up the “old boys” networks and bringing in some fresh air.
The potential for extremism is limited
Interview with Peter Fleissner, Head of Research Unit at the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia
Two days during a conference in Riga representatives from Central and East European countries shared experience on combating extremism. What are your conclusions about the “face of extremism” in the new European democracies?
This is really the very first attempt to bring together under one roof experience of the ten candidate countries of the European Union (EU). And for this reason, it is very exciting to listen to all the different and at the same moment very similar experiences of the right wing extremism. But one of the problems is – who should be called a right wing extremist? To a certain degree, people changed from “extremism” to a new term - “populism”, which is very widespread now in the EU. Under this headline, you can speak of broader movements, which have already entered the mainstream of the big parties in the EU. They are maybe skinhead-like types of neo-nazi youngsters.
But did you find out what is the situation in Central and East European countries?
There are a lot of different reasons for having such parties in the extreme right. You can see that in many countries only a small fraction of the population really participate. I have some experience from Slovenia. There are only a few youngsters there, who participate in such activities and if you go for details, you can learn that they do not participate in these activities for ideological reasons and neo-nazi thought. They are participating maybe to have a kind of adventure.
There is a possibility of making people leave such groups. In many cases, if you offer a new environment, a new field of activity and a new self-understanding, you can do a lot of transformation. Here I see a complete agreement with neo-nazi movements in the south of Sweden. They do not have very many of these groups, but they are located in smaller villages, smaller cities. People together with teachers, parents associations and other groups, in some cases in Germany the police, the Ministry of Interior, are heavily involved in re-orienting people. They are quite successful. In Sweden, for instance, within a few years they have re-oriented more than one hundred youngsters.
Maybe I should mention another interesting finding. A young lady from Slovenia who participated in the conference had a direct experience. Being a researcher and studying these groups openly, she shared the life of the right wing skinhead group for two years. She said the common denominator for most of people were their unhappiness. Either they were for some reasons ill, or they were drug addicts, or they had a broken-up-family background. She created an index to measure the coincidence of all these different reasons, and there was a very high correlation between being a member of this group and having all these negative experiences in life.
What are other causes for increasing extremism in European countries?
There are a lot of reasons. In some cases, people are thinking about the lost past, and they are trying to re-establish a kind of ideal picture of their own nation. In other cases, they cannot stand globalization processes when people from other countries enter European states. You can see that globalization brings many countries in the position from a former emigration country to an immigration country. Many of the EU candidate countries will sooner or later become the outer borders of the EU. Therefore, even more in the future they will have a feeling that many more immigrants try to enter. This could create anxiety, xenophobia as well as stimulate some politicians use immigrants as scapegoats.
Already now the EU is a very multinational formation and after the enlargement it will become even more multinational. Do you think this could increase extremism?
This is a difficult question to answer. In recent months, many governments in the EU member states have moved towards the right wing populism, not to say extremism. You have the case of Pim Fortuyn, you have the case of Le Pen, the case of Haider, and I could prolong the list of examples. So, why did these groups win? In my understanding, these groups could make some brownie points for themselves arguing against immigrants and foreigners. But in many cases this is only one side of the coin. In many member states governments were in power over decades, they formed big coalitions and there was no longer any innovative pressure. For this reason part of the success story of the right wing populists is to be anti-establishment, against traditional groups, breaking up the “old boys” networks and bringing in some fresh air. So, I think this is also attractive. Let’s say in Austria more than 35% of youngsters voted for Haider. And, in fact, the traditional working class - 45%, voted for Haider, and only 40% voted for the traditional social democrats.
How did situation in Europe change after the 11th of September? Was there any reaction against Muslims there?
One day after the September 11, European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia started a survey in all fifteen member states. The interesting finding was that aggression and violence was targeted not only towards Muslims, but also against people with beards, people with headscarves, in many cases young women, and also people with turbans. After three months, four months of monitoring, we could see, I think under the influence of events in the Middle East, in particular in France and Belgium, a change of a wave of victims away from Muslims towards Jewish communities and Jewish property.
I think there is a new wave of victimization going on, but towards other victims and from other perpetrators. In many cases in France, the new perpetrators are Muslims themselves.
How would you estimate the influence of mass media in this situation?
In majority of cases, opinion leaders behaved in a very, very responsible way, even in the case of Italy where Berlusconi first was a little outspoken against Muslims. I think he has corrected his statements and has invited all big religions for a meeting. I think we can say that most of the opinion leaders did a very good job to react in an appropriate and very serious way to the public anxiety.
There is an opinion that violence on TV, cinema and video games influence people`s behavior. Does this propaganda of violence influence also the relations between different groups in society?
There are some computer games directed against specific victim groups, and some of them are really nazi games. But many governments of the EU member states forbid such games and they will be confiscated. On the other hand, I think it is not really the case of people learning from video games. If their mind and social environment is OK, they do not exert a high level of aggression just by watching video. I think, maybe there is an impact on general level of aggression in society, but it does not promote a particular war against special groups.
www.politika.lv recently asked its users what, in their opinion, are the main reasons for intolerance in Latvia. The biggest part of respondents mentioned ethnicity and sexual orientation. What is the situation in Western Europe? What are the most typical forms of discrimination?
The European Commission has passed the directive against any forms of discrimination for several reasons. The founding treaty of the EU says explicitly that sexual orientation should not be subject to discrimination. The difficulty with this is that, in some traditional communities, people are not prepared to deal with this new issue. The legislation is not immediately a guarantee that there will not be any tension.
How does the situation with extremism in Europe measure against the global context?
The problem is the measurement. If we look at anti-Semitic acts, for instance, I have a comparison in mind between the United States and the EU countries. You can see that since 1996 anti-Semitic acts in the United States have steadily declined. Even when the modern myths there were spread there after 11th of September that Jews were responsible for the attacks, this was not at all believed in the American public. On the other hand, you can see now in France and in other countries an upswing of anti-Semitic acts. But we have some indication that minorities themselves might be producing this by acting aggressively against Jews in recent months. We hope that with the conflict solution in the Middle East all this violence will come down.
What is your future prognosis?
In my understanding, the potential for extremists is rather limited. We have measured it by questions like – should all the foreigners immediately leave the EU, also their children born here? On average, about 14 % of the population share such views. Of course, there are variations by country and by education. You can always see that higher education is related to higher tolerance. In general, you can say that education level will increase, and, for this reason maybe aggression level could come down. On the other hand, we know that by the enlargement process bigger mixture of nations will come up. If big non-governmental organizations (NGO) - and I think it is a very important group for addressing issues of xenophobia - cooperate also with minority NGOs, and if minorities are more present in the media, in schools, among school teachers or in the police, if we can take adequate measures, there could be quite a balanced situation with no further anxiety to come.