It is important to recognise that the strong performance by some populist right-wing parties in the European elections in many senses doesn’t represent an ‘earthquake’ but rather a continuation of trends that have been present for at least two decades. I have been inclined to wonder in the last week whether certain pundits have completely put the results posted by certain parties into context.
By way of example, in Tuesday’s London Evening Standard, esteemed historian and headteacher Anthony Seldon, discussing the successes of the far-right in the European elections, told us that the anti-EU, anti-immigration Freedom Party won third place in Austria. Hardly earth-shattering news: they’ve been finishing third in most of the elections in Austria since 1945, and they’ve done so on an anti-immigration or anti-EU platform consistently since 1986, when the late Jörg Haider seized the leadership and presided over an upsurge in the party’s fortunes over the next fourteen years. On one very conspicuous occasion, they finished second rather than third, the 1999 federal election which resulted in just about the most controversial government in Western Europe since the Second World War.
In this respect, the victory of the Danish People’s Party in the European elections merely follows a decade of strong performances by the party in national elections, admittedly interrupted by the 2011 election that put Social Democrat leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt in power whilst also witnessing a slight drop in support for the People’s Party. What is less certain is how immigration policy in practice has affected the way in which people perceive both the mainstream parties and populist right-wing parties and vote for them.
In the decade between 2001 and 2011, the ruling Venstre Party in Denmark (lest we forget, supported by the People’s Party whilst avoiding the intense criticism that came the way of the new Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel after the 1999-2000 election negotiations) pursued very stringent immigration and integration policies whilst doing its best to ape the language, if not the agenda, of the People’s Party (see Patrick Kingsley’s excellent book How To Be Danish for a succinct analysis of this subject).
If this was meant to take the teeth out of the People’s Party agenda, it didn’t work; in 2005 and 2007, the People’s Party increased its vote. In the long-term, Venstre has both lost power and then performed very badly at the polls, as seen in last Sunday’s results. At the same time, the Social Democrats have not benefited in the short-term from softening government rhetoric, and policy, on immigration since Thorning-Schmidt’s election.
For the mainstream parties across Europe, there are no easy solutions to this ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ dilemma. In the UK at least, however, it struck me that both before and after the European election, Labour leader Ed Miliband was acknowledging the success and prominence of the populist right-wing party UKIP but to at least some extent allowing his agenda to be defined by UKIP.
The worrying thing here for anyone from the centre-left is that the more their leaders try and follow the lead of populist right-wing parties on immigration issues, the more their other policies (which in the long-run have an effect upon immigration and integration in any instance) fall by the wayside in terms of public appeal. The more this happens, the more they don’t look credible as mainstream parties with a holistic and comprehensive approach to policy. The more they don’t look credible, the more the populist anti-immigration right benefits from having a very simple and clear-cut message. And so on.
As such, I am not convinced by Seldon’s analysis that UKIP will wither on the vine in the event of an EU referendum being held in the UK (just look at the success of the populist right in non-EU Switzerland in recent years for proof). It will take a far more wide-reaching approach to economic and social reform (again, dealing with the issues that don’t obviously appear connected to immigration but which in some respect are) in order to get to the grail which really matters: a prosperous, stable, inclusive and tolerant society where no-one is unduly sidelined or socially excluded.
This is not to say that any of the mainstream parties can completely torch immigration policy as an issue and just try concentrating on everything else. It is to say that the economic models in the UK (and to some extent Denmark) could be far better in benefiting born-and-bred natives and immigrants alike. One is tempted to think of perhaps Denmark’s best-known company, Vestas, which has certainly delivered a turnaround in performance in recent times but which has done so through stringent cost (and staff) cutting. As such, the return of Denmark’s economy to growth appears to have some ambivalent connotations (and possibly explains to some extent the continued success of the People’s Party).
Certainly Denmark retains elements of the prosperous social democratic society, including income equality, that often seem a world apart from the UK. Kingsley tells us how judges in Denmark earn no more than two and half times the salary of a cleaner – an issue that Miliband arguably needs to start addressing with more urgency at a time of widespread consternation over banking salaries in his own country. Yet companies need to be given some kind of stimulus to develop as well and we feel that Miliband (and possibly Thorning-Schmidt and other European centre-left leaders) need to start thinking more cannily about incentives (be they tax ones or otherwise) for those companies which spend a certain proportion of their overall capital on research, development and training.
The more a company invests in skills, the greater the skills base of both that company and the country as a whole. The greater the skills base, the better educated the population at large. The better educated the population at large (immigrant and born-and-bred native alike), the easier it is to either get a job in a country pursuing skills-friendly policies or viably look for work elsewhere in the EU (or indeed further afield). The more everyone benefits from a strong skills programme, the more sustainable the economy. The more sustainable the economy, the more cohesive the society (be it at national or European level). And with any luck, the issue of immigration becomes far less poisonous in the process. Back to what we said: it’s the issues linked to immigration, a concept very distinct from immigration as a self-enclosed entity, that go a long way to determining whether political parties can make the running and transform society for the better in a productive and coherent way.
To make it clear: inflammatory rhetoric about immigration, creed or race does not serve any useful purpose. It is divisive and ugly in its misanthropy and merely evokes (or stokes) the legacy of horrifying events in Western Europe in recent years, including the 2011 massacre in Norway and the harrowing and well-documented murderous assault in Woolwich, South-East London, last year. At the same time, a crude ‘tight border controls, tight spending’ policy in itself is not going to miraculously consign aggressive 1930s-style nationalist thinking to the sidelines (where it existed in Europe for the most part from 1945 until around the time of Haider’s breakthrough in Austria in 1986*) or magically produce economic sustainability. Anyone who thinks that an all-encompassing ‘siege mentality’ approach to political and cultural issues is the way forward might want to try looking at North Korea for an example of how this is effected in practice.
It seems undeniable that Europe’s mainstream political leaders – both the likes of Miliband and Thorning-Schmid and their counterparts on the centre-right – do face a fine balancing act in striking a sensible tone on immigration and avoiding charges of ‘looking the other way’ on this front and pursuing a broad and constructive political agenda and openly denouncing racialist rhetoric. But coming up with knee-jerk reactions to a bad set of election results and allowing the political agenda to get skewed in favour of a few select emotive subjects is almost certainly a far more self-defeating ritual.
As far as the modern thinking of European governments goes, certain economic and social policies have seemed de rigueur for long periods of time since 1979, when MargaretThatcher kickstarted a laissez-faire, free-market economic revolution in the UK (and to some extent, latterly in Europe) and the first European elections were held, signalling a new age of European federalism. There is a danger, however, that practical policy has become too entrenched in the very strands of thinking that have dominated this period. We suspect that if Europe’s mainstream parties don’t become more innovative and bold in their thinking then the likes of UKIP and the Danish People’s Party will be around for some time to come.
* We are aware that Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France performed well in certain by-elections and European elections in the period from around 1982 to 1986 (and indeed beyond that). We list Haider’s election as Freedom Party leader in Austria in 1986 and the party’s strong performance at the subsequent federal election in Austria that year as watershed events of a kind in Europe, as they took place at a federal national legislative level on a widespread scale.