Identity crisis

Rightwing parties provide an illusion of certainty: the one thing that many Europeans reeling under new pressures are hungrily groping for

By Jurgen Maier
Published: Friday 31 May 2002

Identity crisis

-- The assassination of Dutch rightwing populist Pim Fortuyn, and the stunning electoral advances of his French counterpart Jean-Marie Le Pen have brought some lingering trends in European politics to the forefront. Rightwing movements and parties, mostly campaigning on anti-immigration, anti-globalisation and anti-establishment sentiments, have been advancing in quite a number of European countries. In a few, namely Italy and Denmark, they have assumed political power, though these governments cannot quite be put on the same level as the openly fascist Le Pen in France.

So, what is going on in Europe? The answer, of course, is not simple. A decisive factor clearly is the identity crisis of considerable segments of European nations at a time when many certainties of their parents' generation are fading into history. The challenges -- dangers and opportunities alike -- in a changing world are big enough to frighten many people.

The notion of a secure lifetime job that can feed your family is rapidly becoming a distant dream. You have to be constantly mobile, flexible, always eager to adapt to the technological whirlwinds of the Internet age. You have to be international and speak foreign languages to match the demands of a globalised economy. You have to be a player in the stockmarket to manage your savings aptly until retirement since public pensions are no longer sufficient for a decent life when you're old. You have to take care of yourself; the welfare state is gone. You even have to protect yourself against rising violent crime as the police is underfunded and understaffed and doesn't care anyway.

Too much a challenge for many. The established political parties provide no guidance whatsoever for people in search of orientation. The social democratic parties ruling most of Europe until recently are perceived by large segments of their key electoral bases -- the working class, to use an old-fashioned term -- as urban technocrats out of touch with the daily life of the not so well-off. It is these people who actively vote for rightwing populists, who provide them with what they -- and all the established parties -- lack: orientation, simple certainties and somebody to be blamed (non-white, and particularly Islamic, immigrants and the globalised establishment).

Globalisation in Europe primarily means European integration. While this has bound European nations closely together, it has also come to mean that the loss of national sovereignty is much greater than what will ever be achieved on a global scale. However, Europe continues to have a positive image. The warm welcome given to the most recent step in European Union (eu) integration (i.e. loss of sovereignty), the common currency, clearly demonstrates that.

But that positive image is quickly changing. The eu can be blamed for all the things that the losers of globalisation dislike: loss of jobs due to open borders for capital and immigrants, and arcane regulations from Brussels for many details of your daily life, right down to the size of bottles. This is going to be even more pronounced when a number of economically weak, low-wage Eastern European countries join the eu in the near future. In short, the nation-state is becoming a member state, unable to defend you against an uncontrollable Brussels bureaucracy and global markets, whatever that may exactly be.

It is this loss of identity that provides fertile ground for the populist movements now gaining ground in Europe. The established parties are singularly unable to even grasp the dimensions of the problem. The same can be said of the non-governmental organisation (ngos) and environmental movements, themselves largely a middleclass phenomenon. Ever seen a Northern African or Turkish immigrant in an environmental ngo? Or somebody from poor working-class neighbourhoods that are now so likely to vote for Le Pen and his counterparts? Of course not.

We have successfully integrated many issues into the political mainstream, at least superficially, and maybe integrated even ourselves into the establishment. However, (re)integrating the economically weaker parts of society, including immigrants, is now the key social problem for Europe. The economic ideas associated with sustainable development -- such as decentralisation, job-creating sectors such as organic agriculture and renewable energies, redirecting public expenditure -- can be a powerful tool for that. Shaping the necessary alliances to make sustainable development a part of the solution, rather than an abstract ivory tower concept by an elite for the elite, is the challenge. Not an easy one. Stay tuned.

Jrgen Maier is director of the Germany-based ngo Forum on Environment and Development

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