Is Europe sliding toward a new dark age?

Is Europe sliding toward a new dark age?

Is Europe sliding toward a new dark age?
Elections to the European Parliament have seen significant gains by far-right nationalist parties. (AFP)
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Over the past week, the continent of Europe has undergone a seismic shift to the right.
Elections to the European Parliament have seen significant gains by far-right nationalist parties in countries including Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and Hungary.
Much of the attention since the June 6-9 poll has been focused on the decision by French President Emmanuel Macron to call a snap parliamentary election, prompted by the defeat of his centrist Renaissance party and its pro-European coalition Besoin d’Europe by Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally.
This has raised the distinct possibility that, for the first time since Marshal Philippe Petain sided with the Nazis in 1940 to create the collaborationist Vichy regime, France could be under the control of an extremist right-wing government.
This would be catastrophic for the great European project, paving the way for a Frexit referendum, despite the evidence of how badly Brexit has played out for the UK.
But it is developments in Germany that, with historical hindsight, are the most sinister, and ironic.
The alliance of the conservative Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union may have come first in the European elections in Germany, but the real shock is the surge into second place, with 16 percent of the vote, of the new populist party, Alternative fur Deutschland.
Rewind exactly 100 years to 1924, the year in which a new populist National Socialist Freedom Party contested its first elections in Germany. The NSFP was a front for the recently banned National Socialist German Workers’ Party, better known as the Nazis, whose leader Adolf Hitler had just been jailed in the wake of the failed Munich “Beer Hall” coup.
The NSFP did poorly in the 1924 election, winning just 3 percent of the vote. But within nine years Hitler was head of a coalition government as chancellor and, in August the following year, 1934, declared himself Fuhrer, transforming Germany into a totalitarian dictatorship.
The rest is tragic, bloody history — and a history that, a century on, is showing disturbing signs of repeating itself.
Perhaps “irony” is an inadequate word for the events of the past week or so.
On June 6, European leaders, US President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gathered solemnly in Normandy to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Allied landings in France that freed Europe from the tyrannical grip of the Nazis.
Yet, within days, voters had handed far-right parties across the continent their best-ever results in European Parliament elections. It is, of course, utterly forbidden in European media or politics to compare the policies of any modern democratic political party with those of the Nazis. But the grim reality is that the specter of the hijacking of Germany’s democratic system by the Nazis a century ago has returned to haunt the continent.
Every one of Europe’s newly resurgent right-wing parties has one thing in common with the Nazis, which resonates with citizens tired of incompetent governments and economic hardship: the infectious lie that all their problems, from long hospital waiting lists and a lack of housing to runaway crime and overcrowding in schools and prisons, can be blamed on immigrants. 

A fractious Europe has twice dragged the entire world into tragic conflict.

Jonathan Gornall

Each country now flirting with this sinister doctrine has followed its own particular route to this tipping point.
Britain, for example, stepped onto the slippery slope in 2006, when the right-wing, Euroskeptic UK Independence Party, seen by many at the time as an unpleasant joke, was taken over by Nigel Farage, a wealthy former commodities trader.
Farage focused the party’s campaigning on immigration and its supposed negative impact on white working-class Britons, and it worked. In 2014, UKIP shocked mainstream parties by winning the majority of Britain’s seats in the European Parliament.
In 2015, to appease right-wing members of the ruling Conservative party who feared that UKIP candidates would take their seats in the upcoming UK general election, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to hold a national referendum on the country’s continuing membership of the EU.
In the event, UKIP won only a single seat in the general election, but the damage was done. On June 23, 2016, Britons voted narrowly to leave the EU.
Now Farage is back, as head of UKIP successor party Reform UK, which is rising in the polls and hoping to take advantage of the predicted imminent collapse of the Conservative Party in the general election on July 4.
Reform is fielding more than 600 candidates, including Farage, who is running in the overwhelmingly white, deprived, working-class constituency of Clacton, on England’s east coast. Migrants are the main target of his election rhetoric.
Farage stands a good chance of winning the seat. If he does, there is even talk among Tory MPs — scared, once again, of being swept away by the rising tide of the right — that he should be invited to join the Conservative party and supplant Rishi Sunak as leader.
The British political experience, which in various forms is being repeated all over Europe, demonstrates that within just a few short years the politically unthinkable can become the inevitable.
These are dangerous times.
A fractious Europe, divided by competing nationalist agendas, has twice dragged the entire world into tragic conflict, which in both cases ended with disastrous and ongoing consequences for the peoples of the Middle East.
The EU, founded in the wake of the Second World War to guard against such a thing happening again, is now under siege by nationalist extremists looking to gain power by wrapping themselves in a flag and appealing to the very worst in people.
European history teaches us that political and moral compromise, when exercised for no better reason than a visceral, self-serving desire to hang on to power at any cost, can have terrible consequences.
An anxious world must now wait to discover whether that is a lesson Europeans have learnt, or forgotten.

• Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.

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