Friday 14 September 2012

Greece is the new Islam

Leading up to national elections in the Netherlands, which took place on 12 September, I have been closely following the debates between party leaders. The most striking observation I made is the near-total absence of the issues of immigration and Islam in the debates.

This was in stark contrast with the previous elections, when these themes were dominating everything, and in which far-right leader Geert Wilders managed to paralyse most other parties with 'telling the truth' about the alleged mass-immigration, the threat of Islam and the failure of multiculturalism.

In short, mass-immigration, particularly of Muslims, was blamed for almost all ills of Dutch society.  Immigration was threatening the Dutch economy, Dutch jobs, Dutch education, Dutch social security, Dutch public health, and, last but not least, Dutch national identity. In Wilder's world, mass-immigration is part of an international jihad aiming to 'islamize' Dutch and European societies. Stopping mass immigration was therefore seen as the solution to solve most problems facing Dutch society.

Although this scapegoating of migrants and Islam lacked any factual basis, and with the exception of the smaller liberal and Green parties, most big were terrified to openly counter this nonsense. On the contrary, out of fear of losing votes, the entire political field moved to the right and adopted restrictionist positions and many did not refrain from pointing fingers at immigrants.

In April of this year, the political scientist Amber Jane Davis successfully defended her excellent PhD thesis at the European University Institute, The Impact of Anti-immigration Parties on Mainstream Parties' Immigration Positions in the Netherlands, Flanders and the UK 1987-2010 . In her thesis, Davis describes this phenomenon in which the entire political spectrum has moved to the right in response to the rise of far-right anti-immigrant parties since the 1980s. Interestingly, she also observed that, when the far-right threat (temporarily) falls away, an opposite movement occurs, with parties adopting less restrictive positions.

In her study, Davis also shows how such strategies are largely ineffective or can even be counter-productive. This is not only because as anti-immigrant voters tend to opt for the 'orginal' instead of the 'copycats' as Jean-Marie Le Pen, former leader of the French Front National, once argued, but also because their zigzagging or flipflopping on immigration issues undermines their credibility in the eyes of many voters.

After the electoral victory of Wilders' PVV (Partij voor de Vrijheid, or Freedom Party) in 2010, the Dutch right-wing 'liberal' VVD party (which basically represents the interests of the well-to-do) and the Christian Democratic CDA party had no qualms to form a minority government which was backed in parliament by the PVV.

However, since then, the Great Recession and the Eurocrisis have entirely changed the political game, as the focus shifted towards economic policies and bread-and-butter issues. Despite his acrobatic ability to blaming immigrants for almost any problem, even Wilders was unable to make a credible link between immigration, or Islam, and immigration.

After Wilder toppled the government in April by refusing to back budget cuts, he radically switched his rhetoric, and started to run an electoral campaign based on a fiercely nationalistic, anti-European agenda, advocating to scrap the Euro, bring back the guilder and leave the EU. Wilders tried to convince voters the only way to reclaim Dutch sovereignty was to leave the EU. 

Instead of immigration, Brussels became the new scapegoat.

And Greece became the new Islam.

Wilders tried to shift the blame of all economic problems to Greece and other southern European countries. "We are paying up for those [sic] garlic countries, whose affairs are in disarray" - he stated in one of the latest debates. Wilders created an image of Dutch tax payers subsidising the sunny lifestyles of lazy, corrupt Greeks, who all retire at the age of 50 to lie on the beach for the rest of their life. Wilders strategy bitterly failed, as he was defeated during the elections.

Europe did not prove to be such a poisonous theme as Islam and immigration.Leaving the Euro and the EU proved one bridge too far for the Dutch. Opinion polls interestingly showed that the election debates have made the Dutch public less Euro-sceptic. This is the good news. The debates made voters more aware of the vital importance of the EU for the Dutch economy. More practically, reintroduction of the guilder and border controls would complicate holiday making for the travel-savy Dutch. That's the good new: the public wants to be informed, and arguments do apparently count.  

It is more sobering that other mainstream politicians, and particularly prime minister Mark Rutte, leader of the right-wing liberal VVD party (who won the election) also shifted the blame of the Eurocrisis to southern Europe, and the Greeks in particular. We see exactly the same Greece-bashing among most German politicians.

Such simplistic accounts of  "it's all their fault" are not only simply wrong (see for instance here and here), as they deny the role of northern European governments and banks in the Eurocrisis. What is more worrying that such fingerpointing goes along with self-righteous attitudes and typical northern European arrogance.

Anti-Greek rhetoric may be attractive to win popular support, they also fuel superiority feelings based on stereotypes of efficient, reliable and responsible northern Europeans versus corrupt, unreliable and sloppy southern Europeans. This in turn, provokes anti-northern feelings in southern Europe, with the Germans symbolising northern European arrogance. In Greece, Germans are being accused of abusing the Eurocrsis to imposing its and to re-occupy Greece, sometimes even comparing it with Nazi practises (for a photo gallery see here).

Both sides are clearly wrong here. But while the anti-German sentiment in southern Europe gets full exposure in the media, northern European political leaders seem little aware or reflective about the damaging effects of their own arrogance, which may serve short-term political goals (of winning elections) but do nothing to solve the crisis, and may in fact endanger such a solution by fuelling intra-European racism.

1 comment:

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