A surge in nationalist and xenophobic actions might be noticed in Europe after 2008. The liberal democracies of our continent are under a great pressure from the right-wing parties which promote restrictions on individual rights and liberties. Some of these parties have already started to build ‘illiberal democracies’ in Hungary and Poland, following the example of authoritarian regimes like those of Vladimir Putin’s in Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s in Turkey.

What drives this current? What should we do to counteract it? Stephan Meuser, director of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Romania tries to give answers to these debated questions in an interview offered to Vladimir Adrian Costea for Europunkt.

Citeşte varianta în română aici.


Foto: Torben Geeck

Vladimir Adrian Costea: Which are the indicators through which we can identify the xenophobic, antisemitic and nationalist elements in the European political discourse? What elements describes the best this kind of discourse?

Stephan Meuser: These kind of discourses are usually marked by the use of an often agressive language, directed against certain goups of people which serve as scapegoats for all kind of problems and challenges that occur. Xenophobia or anti-semitism and also nationalism tends to devaluate others whilst drawing a rosy picture of the own history/race/nation. Another element of such kind of discourses consists in the steady search of imaginary hostile forces from somewhere outside to blame them for shortcomings that are in fact relying on home-made problems in the own country.

How did the xenophobic, antisemitic and nationalist political discourse evolve in the last five years in the European area? And what was the context that facilitated the emergence of this kind of political discourse?

This discourse developped in line with the economic downturn after the big financial crisis of 2008-09. There have been movements and discourses like that before, but you can prove the direct relationship between the stagnating or stumbling economy or at least the fear of a bigger crisis coming up on one hand and such kind of discourses evolving. The big social problems in parts of Europe and the fear of losing jobs brings people to first losing trust in politicians and secondly seeking for scapegoats, of which the perfect one typically is the foreigner or migrant or refugee or just the one that looks different, all of them seen as „concurrency”. Secondly, the steady experience of terror alerts affects obviously some parts of Europeans, at least psychologically – now they are more and more buying the typical argument of right-wing populists that every Muslim is a danger for Europeans.

The tactics used by neo-nationalists and populists is to hide behind being just „politically incorrect”, but in fact step by step redefining the limits of true hate speech. By the way, doing so, we are already linguistically ending up in the inter-war-period of the 1920ies, and we should not forget the outcome of it.

Which are the elements/factors/agents/facts that influenced directly the dimension of the xenophobic, antisemitic and nationalist political discourse?

Besides the „external” factor of Islamic terror I mentioned before which was and is a direct catalyst for it, the main element is the failure of neo-liberalism to solve any of the existing economic or social problems, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. For me it is in this context no surprise that countries like Russia, Poland, Hungary etc. that were undergoing a very harsh time of transition in the 1990ies are now turning back into nationalism. After not being able to deliver on their promises from the beginning of the transition process (for big parts of the population), (not only) political elites there now seek for offering „culturalist”/nationalist solutions for the mostly disappointed and politically homeless voters. This is a little bit following the strategy of Republicans in the US since the Reagan times – instead of looking for real solutions for the poorer and not so well educated parts of the population, you give them free space to live their sympathy for weapons, antipathy for minorities and gender questions, as well as trying to exploit cleavages like that on abortion.

In addition, the very unsmart management of the so-called Euro-crisis and the refugee crisis without any true solidarity between the member states is a contributing fact to this development.

What can you say about the EU Member States’ position regarding the dimension of the xenophobic, antisemitic and nationalist discourse?

Its dimension is normally underestimated, because governments and politicians usually only look at the electoral results of populist or right-wing parties. But, as it was shown for the German case amongst others also by many FES studies, the range or potential for xenophobic, antisemitic and nationalist discourses is far broader and bigger than the outcome measured by votes. This means, in turn, that we might see even bigger successes of such political movements during the next time. What by the way is missing is a true pan-European strategy to counteract.

In your opinion, which are the main solutions you considered proper to sustain a mitigation of the xenophobic, antisemitic and nationalist discourse’s frequency in the European area?

There should be a bundle of measures. Policy has to begin to be redirected to deliver on the “normal” hopes of “normal” people to have a decent and reasonable existence. “Bread-and-butter”-issues must be rediscovered by political parties of the normal spectre to take away the feeling of being an underdog that needs help via those discourses. This also includes democratization by enlarging transparency of decision-making on the EU level.

The second issue should consist in publicly and promptly counteracting such xenophobic, antisemitic and nationalist discourses and speeches, if they appear (e.g. in talk-shows). No shy alignment to them, but a clear-cut message against, instead. In line with that we might need more of consequent and robust democratic self-defence, using all tools necessary, including police, prosecutors, media bans etc. against those who want to go back to the darkest days of European history.




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