Europe’s disappearing centre and the politics of extremes

Written By: Wajahat Qazi
Srinagar Updated: Dec 21, 2018, 12:26 PM(IST)

Belgium PM Charles Michel. Photograph:( Reuters )

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The ramrod issue for the rise in nationalism and nativist populism in Europe, which potentially even threatens the longevity of the European Union (EU), has been immigration.

Nationalist and populist anger over immigration has brought down the Belgian government, forcing prime minister Charles Michel to offer the king his resignation. The catalytic spur to the no confidence motion initiated against the prime minister was Charles Michel’s agreement with the United Nations over the issue of burden sharing of refugees. 

While there are idiosyncratic reasons peculiar to Belgium for the crisis but generally, the crisis stems from the broad sweep if nativist populism and nationalism across Europe which, in turn, is rendering the political centre in the region increasingly tenuous and fragile. (There is a consensus among analysts over the occlusion of the political centre in and across Europe).

The ramrod issue for the rise in nationalism and nativist populism in Europe, which potentially even threatens the longevity of the European Union (EU), has been immigration. This issue assumed poignancy after hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees crossed into Europe (especially Germany) where the bold Angela Merkel staked her political capital and career in accepting these hapless victims of the conflict.  But, this assessment is running ahead of the issue, so to speak.

Europe’s problems and issues with immigrants and refugees span generations. It began with the guest worker programs in the sixties and seventies, where on account of the demand generated by the Marshall Plan (the Cold War program initiated by the Americans to check and contain the Soviets), there was a need for extra labour. This need was filled by the Turkish immigrants who were labelled as “gastar baider”( guest workers). But, the guest workers stayed on. Since most were Muslim and there were obvious issues with both integration and assimilation,  these immigrants remained on the margins of European societies, which always viewed them as outsiders and with jaundiced eyes. This “history” created both frisson and friction within European societies. 

As Muslims in Europe, ghettoized, the estrangement with host societies, which was mutual, only grew.

Fast forward a few decades.

The European Union deepened and widened, and paralleled by the forces of globalisation, created among other things, the “democratic deficit” in Europe. This meant that people gradually started becoming estranged from the processes and structures of the EU and felt that the system was not responsive to them. Thus got incubated the putative forces of nationalism and nativism in Europe.  These broader macro historical themes and processes were complemented by the September 11 attacks on the United States homeland, followed by the country’s “war of choice”, the Second Gulf War, which by creating a vacuum in post-war Iraq and United States inept and callous handling of a fragmented Iraq , led to the formation of the ISIS and the breakdown of the Syrian state.

The ISIS directed its ire against and in Europe, where it found estranged second and third generation willing recruits who, in turn, went not only to fight in Syria and elsewhere but also launched attacks in and within Europe. This carried a chain reaction wherein the extant estrangement between Muslims in Europe and their host societies morphed into outright hostility.  

The repercussions were political: With an identifiable “Other” to lash out against, for various and variegated frustrations and angst, ire was directed against Muslims which reached a crescendo with the arrival of Syrian and assorted Muslim refugees into Europe, the region’s politics veered to extremes with the far right not only gaining traction but also mounting a challenge to the centre.

All this, to a large extent, explains the fall of the government in Belgium.  To employ the language of the Cold War, Belgium is another “domino” to fall which bodes ill for the political future of the European Union, especially against the backdrop of Brexit. Can the question be, this inexorable drift of  European politics be stemmed? Can the “tide” be reversed?

There are no clear answers to these questions. If there is no Centre to hold in Europe, then the region’s left and right might increasingly look alike in terms of trying to usurp or try to mirror populist nativist rage in their respective political agendas. As Merkel goes in Germany, and the country’s politics succumbs to populist pressures, the last holdout in Europe will be Macron’s France. But, as the tide might increasingly turn against centrist politics toward extremes, even he might succumb. The casualty, if this scenario comes to pass, will not only be centrist politics but also the European Union which, contemporarily is facing a  frontal challenge from Italy.   The continuation of the politics of extremes, if not nipped in the bud,  which might spell the end of the EU, will have far-reaching consequences across the world. A bold and beautiful experiment in supranationalism and post-nationalism which could have been an inspiration for others will come to an end. But, this outcome is not foreordained. A salvage job can still be done. This job would need sagacity, foresight and boldness of vision, themes which are sorely missing in contemporary Europe. Absent these, the region can fall into disarray, a condition in which there will no clear winners but Muslims will be made to cop both blame, hostility and animus.

POST SCRIPT: I became victim of Europe’s slide into nativist populism and a review of policies thereof. I was denied a visa by the Dutch despite having watertight documentation, and an invitation by a Dutch national to visit the Netherlands for a short visit.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)

Wajahat Qazi

Wajahat Qazi is particularly interested in politics, global security and political economy. He is a wanderer and fancies himself to be a wannabe writer.
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