Anti-immigrant sentiment is growing steadily across the continent.
Not too far from the Baroque palaces and Gothic cathedrals that made the city of Vienna famous, a group of jubilant men and women are packed into a café. Glasses clink with each congratulatory toast. Jubilations like "long live populism," and "Austria is the Freedom Party" fly randomly across the room. On that memorable September evening, I watched the celebration of the far-right triumph in Austria. It was the Austrian ‘extremist' right's best performance since World War II.
If the old face of the Far-Right in Europe resembled that of a combative fascist, these new ordinary faces put those images to rest. Gone are the days when support for the radical right came from neo-Nazi elements in European society; they now come from ordinary citizens, concerned not only about bleeding social welfare programs, but also from worries about the continued influx of immigration -- a feeling that is likely to worsen as recession hangs over the continent.
"I voted for the Freedom Party to stop immigrants from burdening our social welfare system," says Lukas, a grandfatherly figure and government employee. A former supporter of the Social Democrats, he gestures towards the rushing pedestrians outside the café, "Austria has inhaled enough people. We are full."
Echoing similar sentiments, 35 year old Brigitte, a nurse practitioner who is proud to have led a major campaign in her neighborhood against the expansion of an Islamic center, claims, "the center already attracts hordes of people a day, and causes enough problems with congestion." Poised and confident, she continues: "The people who use the Islamic center do not try to integrate into society, or even socialize with us. None of the other parties would hear our concerns ... That's why we voted for Heinz-Christian Strache."
Not too far from the café, a mural reads: "Arab, go home."
Such is the dynamic in today's European race relations. A December Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project reports anti-immigrant, and especially anti-Muslim sentiments, to be growing steadily across the continent. Noting that the increase in Muslim prejudice has occurred over a period of decades, the report claims that nearly 52 percent of Spaniards expressed a negative opinion of Muslims -- a view echoed by 50 percent of Germans, 46 percent of Poles, and 38 percent of French people. According to an April Georgetown University report, 67 percent of Dutch, and 80 percent of Danes agree with the statement, "the growing interaction between the Muslim world and the West is a menace to freedom."
Bubbling for years, the resentment against foreigners has found expression in the success of the far-right, not only in Austria, but throughout Europe. A wake-up call to ruling socialist elitists, Europeans have propped up governments that are marching to the beat of the anti-immigrant drum. Only two of the 14 countries that were governed by the leftist or centrist political parties in Europe a decade ago remain so: Spain and Portugal.
Once a welcoming multicultural haven, Denmark's voters have given the Danish People's Party its fourth consecutive hike in voting share, making it the third largest party in Europe. In Switzerland where the foreign-born population hovers around 20 percent, the nationalist Swiss People's Party regularly receives 29 percent of the vote; in France, Nicolas Sarkozy grabbed the presidency after mimicking the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the unforgiving nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen. Netherlands, Sweden and Italy have all witnessed the rise of conservative discourse, while the second largest party in Norway runs on an anti-immigrant platform. And if there is anything that the Flemish and Walloons of Belgium can agree upon, it is the curtailment of the progressive Islamization of their society.
The term Islamization has gained much popularity in recent years, especially in the right-wing media. As European Muslims demand more mosques, state-funded Islamic schools, and even the implementation of Sharia (Islamic law) in their host countries, the term refers to the gradual process by which European society is becoming increasingly and visibly Muslim.
Unquestionably, an exploding Islamic population remains the driver behind changing voter patterns. "It is everything. Or nearly everything," says Abigail Esman, an American writer based in the Netherlands who specializes in writing on radical Islam and post 9/11 political tensions in the West. "The rising immigration and the conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims have stirred voters to look to politicians who tend to take a less liberal view of social economic systems and in most cases, who take a hard line against immigration, particularly of Muslims."
In just three short decades, Islam has moved from essentially being a nonfactor to a religion that challenges the European identity. Perhaps nothing illustrates this change more graphically than the omnipresent symbols of Islam sprinkled across European cities and towns: state-funded Islamic schools, halal butcher shops, Arabic signs in store fronts, ladies in burqas and headscarves, Turkish or Moroccan flags fluttering over residential buildings. Sharia courts have already been adopted in many cities in the UK after persistent demands by British Muslims.
Indeed, the sheer number of Muslim immigrants sheds some light on the newfound fear of the "bewildering Islamic cacophony," as Johann Hari in a Dissent magazine article sardonically put it. By varying estimates, the European Union is now home to 15-20 million Muslims, with France hosting the largest number. Annually, half a million migrants flood the gates of Europe in search of work and an additional 400,000 seek asylum, many of whom are from the Middle East. Added to this mix, is the influx of between 120,000 to 500,000 undocumented immigrants.
High immigration from Muslim nations, combined with fertility advantages, means that ethnic Europeans might lose their demographic counterpoise: a fact that touches a raw nerve with many. For almost a generation now, Europe's birthrates have dipped far below the replacement level. According to 2005 statistics collected by the European Union, for instance, 30 percent of German women are childless, with the number rising to 40 percent among more educated women. With a Muslim population that is expected to grow to 40-50 million by 2050, the populations of major European cities would be half non-native within two generations.
Seizing on these numbers, Bernard Lewis, a leading historian on Islam, argues that Europe would complete its transformation into "Eurabia" by the end of the 21st century. Italy's flamboyant and controversial journalist Oriana Fallaci once lamented that their province was falling prey to ‘a colony of Islam' -- whereby a sense of surrender of fundamental European values such as freedom of expression and democracy were being felt.
The sense that Europe is under siege is further heightened by concerns over the welfare system being overtaxed by non-natives. American Bruce Bawer gave voice to these concerns in his book While Europe Slept, using statistics primarily from Nordic countries to highlight the issue of welfare dependency. In Denmark, for instance, he writes that immigrants from the Middle East "make up 5 percent of the population but receive 40 percent of welfare outlays" -- among them public assistance, unemployment benefits, relief payments, child benefits, disability, cash support, and rent allowance. Statistics for other countries are comparable.
According to Bawer, about 15 percent of the Moroccan émigrés in Norway are on a disability plan when a quarter of them have actually returned to their own country. The Frisch Center for Socio-economic Research study, supported by the University of Oslo, also claims that as many as 50 percent of immigrants are "caught up in various forms of welfare benefits." Further south in the Netherlands, rising unemployment rates have left 33 percent of the foreign-born population out of the labor market -- and thus dependent on the welfare system, while unemployed Belgians and migrants have found themselves competing for the lower-end subsidized housing market. Pressure from national authorities to use objective criteria when placing individuals in government housing has meant that migrants, due in part to their larger families, lower wages and high unemployment rates, tend to qualify for housing before Belgians.
Unsurprisingly then, unemployment, insecurity and concerns about welfare burdens have been the vote-winning themes for the extreme right on the continent. But clearly this is not the full picture; to some extent an extreme right vote is also a vote against elitist sentiments long perceived to be out of touch with the concerns of everyday folks. It is a desperate call for nation-building, leadership, and identity preservation as an overcrowded, embedded and burdened continent struggles to absorb waves of newcomers.
"Multiculturalism has, in practice, been a dismal failure," says Esman. Indeed, the integration of Europe's new arrivals from non-Western cultures stands out as one of the greatest challenges facing European governments in contemporary times -- a challenge that a growing body of citizens feel mainstream parties have not dealt with effectively. And insofar as left or centrist governments do not debate the limits and/or confines of multiculturalism, or take measures to fully integrate non-Western cultures into the 'European identity' to become fully at home in their host countries, we can expect individuals of all persuasions to flock to the far-right (whom they perceive as having "commonsensical" approaches to these issues.)
Though I don't personally believe the far-right is a panacea to the continent's woes, I do believe the time has come for a new kind of politics, not necessarily far-left or far-right, but politics that genuinely represent the interests and concerns of citizens; politics that make the diversity of Europe work. Until then, Europe can expect votes for the radical right to come from the right and the left, the young and the old, the marginalized and privileged, the integrated and the alienated, the urban and the suburban for years to come. It is a phenomenon leftist or centrist parties can no longer ignore.