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Latin America Be Warned: Don’t Fall for Europe’s Populist Xenophobia

By: Malgorzata Lange - @MalgoLange - Jun 3, 2014, 11:47 am

EspañolWhile this publication is dedicated to events and concerns on the American continent, in this era we face developments that have global ramifications. Even if they occur in other parts of the world that are far from us, they compel our attention. And when carefully read, they allow us to extract universal lessons and recognize tendencies, dynamics, and threats also visible in our region.

As a European who observes the political and social processes of the “old continent” from a Latin-American perspective, I still languish under the distressing and shameful results of the recent elections for the European Parliament held on May 25. The extremist and populist movements, especially the so-called “far right,” obtained unprecedented electoral support.

We face a paradoxical situation in which the ongoing European unification project will contain, from now on, the seed of its own disintegration.

One could argue that these new deputies, especially those who represent the extremes of the heterogeneous group of Eurosceptics, are not numerous in comparison to the total of 751 parliamentarians, and their capacity to create a parliamentary coalition is limited. Regardless, their popularity undoubtedly carries great symbolic weight.

The results of these elections, though, should not surprise anyone. Actually, they confirm a growing tendency that has been present in the national elections of the European Union’s 28 member states for a long time. Extremist movements and parties have for years been on the rise in Holland, Belgium, Austria, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Sweden, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, and Greece. Sadly, we find several of the states that designed and initiated the European unification project among them.

It is impossible to grasp the spirit behind this project without understanding the devastating impact of both World Wars, and also of Nazism, Fascism, and Stalinism, to which the European nations have said “never again.”

Neo-Nazis march this year in Ukraine. Source: Perspectives.com.
Neo-Nazis march this year in Ukraine. Source: Perspectives.com.

The fact that deputies who represent groups inspired by the neo-Nazi ideology — from Germany, Greece, and Hungary — will for the first time occupy parliamentary seats, marks, in my opinion, a before and an after. It is a manifestation of an unfortunate loss of historical memory.

That is why the results should not be interpreted as a simple protest vote, as a passing tendency, as a reaction to the ineptitude with which the economic crisis of recent years has been dealt with — much less, as a manifestation of democratic plurality.

The poor economic environment has been, without a doubt, a powerful catalyst for radical ideas. But the real and profound reasons behind these events transcend the contingencies, and originate in the inherent fallacies and the mismanagement of the European project itself. Beyond the apathy of voters, the electoral results confirmed a profound malaise, a chronic condition that has become a fertile soil where populist slogans take root.

As diverse as they might seem, these extremist voices are united by their eurosceptic stance, their promotion of protectionist policies, and their ultranationalist, xenophobic, and at times openly racist anti-immigration — especially anti-Muslim — beliefs. The average European, tired of the rising cost of living and the daily problems it creates, is easily seduced by radical and populist proposals.

The rise is even more understandable once we take into account their disappointment with political representatives, the generalized disgust caused by scandalous corruption levels, bureaucratic inertia, and a “government” in Brussels that is seen as increasingly authoritarian. In short, the average European is highly offended by the hypocrisy and cynicism of the continent’s governing elites.

The common identity of Europeans is under increasing stress. They feel overwhelmed by the excesses of political centralization, the Union’s wasteful finances, and the increasingly inefficient and unaccountable ways of its politicians. These rulers seem distant and phony in their positions of power in the European Union’s institutional marble towers.

As people place the blame on integration, Europe is increasingly under attack by powerful and ferocious centrifugal forces that foster polarization, social radicalization, and mobilization towards the extremes of the political spectrum.

Misled voters yearn for political ideals that articulate their anguish and offer scapegoats, in this case invariably identified as the European Union and immigrants. The solution is presented as a simple matter of getting rid of both, as a black-and-white solution for a clear-cut, well-defined problem.

It is high time that we realize that the only antidote for this terrible combination is to emphasize how dangerous oblivion can be. We must fight against the terrible evil of historical amnesia.

The “alternative” presented by the populists, nationalists, and xenophobes, does not offer a real way out of the social problems of our day. The European Union’s democratic deficits and asphyxiating centralization are undeniable facts, but the return towards the “full authority” of national sovereign states that the populists promote is even worse. It means embarking on a road that only leads to the dead end of economic nationalism, border closures, the intolerance of differences, the consolidation of fear towards the “others,” and a range of paternalistic state policies.

The lesson for us who live at the other side of the Atlantic is to keep our memory alive, to be aware of the devastating temptations of times past. We must immunize ourselves against the fatal attraction of populism, regardless of the extreme where it comes. We must, above all, focus our efforts on protecting freedom, plurality, and dialogue.

Many of the extreme movements that have flourished in Europe in recent times, as shown by these latest elections for the European Parliament, have respected and participated in the democratic processes of electoral competition. But it is precisely there that the potential danger lies: this episode demonstrates that democratic processes within the rule of law do not necessarily guarantee that the results are for the benefit of the system itself. In Latin America, as much as in Europe, we must keep this grave historical lesson in mind.

Translated by Alan Furth.

Malgorzata Lange Malgorzata Lange

Malgorzata Lange is a native of Poland who lives in Santiago de Chile. She holds degrees in political science and international Relations, and is a PhD candidate at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. She is also a radio panelist on international politics issues. Follow @MalgoLange.