Blowing in the wind

Civil society cannot distance itself from the phenomenon of right-wing parties finding their way to the top in Europe

By Bjorn Forde
Published: Saturday 15 June 2002

On July 1, Denmark will take over chairpersonship of the European Union. Then it will be the responsibility of the newly elected right-wing Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, to help define and promote the global role of the only group of nations in a position to challenge the dominance of the us in the international arena.

A first major test will be the summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg. Last year, the Danish government launched the idea of a 'Global Deal'. The idea of such a deal is to ensure a new balance between global economic, social and environmental development with a view to furthering global sustainable development.

Elements of the deal include: securing market access for developing countries; improving development assistance and debt relief as well as transfer of sustainable technology; enhancing and strengthening international co-operation to protect the environment; furthering international labour standards; and promoting world trade.

Some of us believe that the idea of a 'Global Deal' is a useful way of trying to end the deadlock between the North and the South, although it is far from what European civil society has been asking for. We, therefore, supported the initiative by the former Danish social democratic government.

The question now is how the new right-wing government will pursue the proposal? The truth is that the answer is still blowing in the wind!

When the Danish prime minister met with us President George W Bush earlier this year, he made it clear that there will only be a global deal if the us can agree to certain terms. The minister for environment has repeated this position and indicated that he will be satisfied with 'voluntary partnerships' rather than a much stronger 'deal' agreed among governments.

The majority of European governments are not likely to be very unhappy if the idea of a 'deal' falls through. They are not seriously committed to any dramatic increase in development assistance; they are not happy with market access for developing countries; and they are outright against any fundamental changes to the protectionist system of subsidised European agriculture.

With the surge of right-wing populism all over Europe, and the rise of right-wing political parties to power in several countries, it is highly unlikely that the European Union will be interested in asserting itself as a global player with a fundamentally different agenda than the us. An agenda rooted in the social democratic ideology that dominated the 1990s.

It is much more likely that the new winds blowing across Europe will follow the simplistic market-oriented orthodoxy of the us. It is also likely that the idea of protecting 'Fort Europe' even more -- from immigrants, competition from developing countries, the threat of terrorism -- will be seen as the appropriate response to right-wing voters and populist movements, threatening right-wing parties from the right.

European decision-makers, left and right, know that the issue of global governance needs to be dealt with, and that the eu must play a role. They also recognise the need to respond with social and economic solutions to the threat of terrorism, not just the military responses preferred by the Bush administration.

But they are caught in a catch 22 situation by what their voters seem to be more concerned about than anything else: the uncontrolled influx of refugees and immigrants, threatening their 'Danish' or 'Dutch' culture, values and religion, contributing to an escalation in crime, etc.

This new situation is not only a challenge to the social democratic parties now losing ground among the voters. It is also a challenge to the civil society movements that worked closely with the left and middle of centre parties during the 1980s and 1990s in setting new agendas for development, management of our natural resources, human rights and globalisation.

By many in our societies, we are seen as 'commissioners of political correctness' who have managed to highjack the agenda without being accountable to the people.

What we see unfolding in Europe is the result of a long and complicated process that needs to be analysed and understood without delay. The answers are not easy to find, and the responses are therefore still blowing in the wind. But civil society cannot afford to leave the answers and responses to political parties alone. We need to recognise that we are part of the problem, and we must also accept that we have to be part of the solution.

Bjrn Frde is secretary general, Danish Association for International Co-operation

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