The democratic game – when it gets serious

In a remarkable article, Benjamin Ward uses his analysis of intolerance in Europe to suggest solutions, a line many are still wary of crossing. 
This is, however, where we start to disagree.

Protesters oppose a far right rally in Berlin. Demotix/Thorsten Strasas. All rights reserved.
Protesters oppose a far right rally in Berlin. Demotix/Thorsten Strasas. All rights reserved.

One of the most interesting articles we have published this week on Can Europe make it? was Benjamin Ward's piece on hatred and intolerance in Europe. The author is deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division: his opinion is therefore an informed and thoughtful one.

The progressive adoption of ideas that were once those of the far right by mainstream right wing (and sometimes left wing) politicians is worrying, yes, but also one of the most intriguing examples of how ideas and elements of language travel around the political spectrum over time.

When previously ostracised factions such as Marine Le Pen's National Front and Jobbik become the third parties in France and Hungary, respectively (both backed by roughly 15% of voters in the last elections), it is no wonder mainstream politicians look with envy. Electoral lust is predictable - part of the democratic game. But the situation becomes a source of shame when the mainstream reneges on its own principles to fully embrace formerly radical narratives, inevitably leading to the adoption of extreme solutions and rhetoric. Events on the ground follow swiftly. Sarkozy (and now Hollande) have deported Roma, Viktor Orban's government has taken anti-intellectualism as a motto and the Greek police are suspected of torturing anti-austerity and anti-Golden Dawn protesters.

The mainstream - once the voice of moderation and pragmatism - has bought into a symbolic world crafted by the far right. Issues (think immigration, Islam or Roma integration) are now 'problems', and members of fragile groups are increasingly attacked in their identities, and in some cases in their flesh. As Markha Valenta pointed out to us in 2010, the radical right has cleverly abandoned the old ideas of racialism, strictly outlawed in many European countries, in favour of culturalist ones, which it has managed to introduce into mainstream discourse as a perfectly legitimate ground for discrimination. Following the same pattern, intolerance is now to be protected by freedom of expression. While it was initially meant to protect David's opinion against Goliath, free speech has thus been subverted as a tool for Goliath to oppress David, reinforcing a discourse that blames the weak for every problem that arises.

Benjamin Ward's article is truly remarkable because, for once, he uses his analysis as a starting point to suggest solutions, a line many are still wary of crossing. He argues that because intolerance is a European trend, there should be a concerted response by all concerned European countries, in the form of stronger laws against hate speech, more favourable conditions for victims to report instances of hate violence, and for the EU to hold its member states accountable when they fail to protect their minorities. This is, however, where we start to disagree.

The main problem is that there is simply no one-size-fits-all solution to the conundrum of mainstreaming intolerance in Europe. While Marine Le Pen, Jobbik and Golden Dawn appear to be but various faces of a same phenomenon, they each obey dissimilar dynamics in diverse national contexts: the integration of Roma is an entirely different issue in Hungary than it is in France; Islam raises other questions in Britain than it does in Sweden; and anti-Semitism has a different history in the Czech Republic than it has in Germany. Besides, to brand Golden Dawn and Jobbik, who openly engage in 'pogromic' physical attacks against immigrants or Roma, and parties such as the Lega Nord or the Swiss People's Party, who for all their inane attacks on Muslims are still partaking in parliamentary politics and democratic elections, as part of a one and same group – to suggest they require a uniform response - is a dangerous mistake. It is so because it both legitimizes the extremist factions ('if the Lega Nord and the Swiss People's Party have served in government, why not Golden Dawn?') and risks radicalizing the more traditional hard right parties by amalgamating them with a band of violent thugs in Greece or Hungary. We have to be very careful with labels, precisely because they do not tell the whole story.

So – where do we go from here? Couldn't we at least outline some general principles that could be followed in every country?

First, mainstream politicians must recognize their own responsibility in the rise of the far right over the last decade. Too often they have looked the other way when things got complicated, building a pile of tricky issues that became the foundations on which crafty political entrepreneurs have built their populist empires. Complex issues such as migration should neither be ignored, nor should they be answered with divisive 'Us vs. Them' policies. There are plenty of voices in every country that are pragmatic without being elitist – listen to them.

Second, stand tall knowing that while the radicals might have an advantage in the short run, by advocating simple solutions to big problems, they will eventually deflate as it becomes clear that their solutions were, in fact, simplistic and therefore no solution at all. An example of this recently happened in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilder's clear defeat in the 2012 elections was hailed as a victory for more moderate forces – voters became disillusioned, for once not with the mainstream, but by a man who promised much more than he could deliver. The catch of course is that if the mainstream ends up adopting the extremist ideas, the radicals win in the long term.

Third, keep the EU as far as possible from hate speech regulation. While it can sometimes work as a vehicle for progressive legislation, the EU cannot act as a judge and party when it is often one of the favourite targets of the far right in many European countries. Any attempt to force restrictions on free speech from above might seriously backfire by nurturing a familiar they-are-trying-to-silence-us-because-we-are-right sentiment. Preventing intolerance and bringing disaffected voters back to the political centre is a long and difficult task, and the tools to get there (education, legislation, more inclusive policies, 'solidarity houses' etc.) should be tailored to each countries' needs. A European bill that would try to impose the same rules on such a sensitive issue in Denmark and Greece would leave many holes to be exploited by the far right. More practically, another consequence of EU regulation of free speech, for example, would be to swamp the notoriously under-resourced EU legal institutions with thousands of inextricably complex cases.

Anyway, these are just a few thoughts, and it is time for me to ask you the question that is, after all, the foundation of free speech: what do you think?

About the author

David Krivanek is an Associate Editor of openDemocracy. He edits the Can Europe Make It? debate and tweets @David_Krivanek. His openDemocracy blog is called Esplanade.

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