Far-Right parties are poised to make unprecedented gains at the European elections. Jake Wallis Simons explores how fear and loathing is winning votes
By Jake Wallis Simons
The Telegraph, 14 May 2014
“The situation in Sweden is very worrying,” says the 51-year-old as he arranges croissants on the counter at the Bread and Friendship café in Malmö. “You can almost hear the boots from the Thirties marching in the streets.”
Christer Havung in his bakery in Malmo (Richard Orange)
Through the window of his café, the slogans “fight for Malmö” and “fight for Showan” can be seen scrawled on walls and lampposts. In April, Showan Shattak, a 25-year-old man of Iranian origin, was stabbed by four neo-Nazis two miles away. This sparked the biggest anti-fascist demonstrations the city has ever seen, with more than 10,000 people taking to the streets. The city is a tinderbox; and today the far-Right is coming to town.
Traditionally, Sweden is one of the most tolerant countries in Europe, with a long-standing open door policy towards refugees. But tensions have been building. Racist violence is becoming more frequent; concerns are growing over the non-integration and segregation of immigrants; and a far-Right party, Sweden Democrats, has become the third largest in the country, gaining 20 parliamentary seats.
Showan Shattak, who was stabbed by four neo-Nazis
As the European election approaches, a similar story is playing out in much of the northern and eastern parts of the continent. According to the latest polls, radical Right parties from 12 out of the 28 European Union countries are expected to win representation. This will amount to up to 44 far-Right MEPs – an increase of almost 20 per cent since the last elections in 2009.
Each country has a unique political and social context, but many common threads unite supporters of the far-Right: a populist distrust of mainstream politicians and institutions; Euroscepticism; and frustration at large-scale immigration. According to experts, it is these factors, rather than mass unemployment or economic woes, that principally animate its voters.
Half an hour later, around the corner from the Bread and Friendship café, 35-year-old Jimmie Åkesson, the leader of the Sweden Democrats, steps out of a black SUV to the jeers and chants of demonstrators. With his sharp suit, pastel-coloured tie and wire-rimmed spectacles, he looks more like an accountant than an alleged fascist. But his tour of the local hospital was almost cancelled after 250 doctors and nurses signed a letter of protest.
The scene of Showan Shattak's stabbing (Jake Wallis Simons)
“Malmö is a good example of an irresponsible immigration policy,” he tells The Telegraph, as young people shout obscenities at him from behind police lines. “It is an extremely segregated city. With the economy under pressure, we should raise our voice against the state’s irresponsible immigration policy. Everyone who thinks immigration is a good thing should take a good look at this city.”
Mr Åkesson’s party believes in severely restricting immigration and multicultural initiatives, and Malmö makes an obvious campaign target. It has one of the largest immigrant communities in the country, with 40 per cent of the population from a non-Swedish background. The city is divided, with these communities concentrated in particular suburbs; in the restive and crime-ridden Rosengård, for example, the proportion of immigrants is almost 90 per cent.
“It is disappointing to see these Left-wing extremists protesting,” Mr Åkesson continues, raising his voice above the chanting. “I’m trying to maintain a calm tone in the debate about immigration, and it’s necessary for other parties to do the same.”
So he doesn’t know anything about the death threats that were sent to the medical staff who objected to his visit? “No,” he says. “I know nothing about that.”
Young voters take a selfie with Jimmie Åkesson (Drago Prvulovic MalmBild AB/PA)
Mr Åkesson’s carefully crafted image of professionalism is not always borne out by members of his party. In 2012, three of his MPs – including Kent Ekeroth, the Sweden Democrats’ secretary for international affairs and one of Mr Åkesson’s key lieutenants – caused a scandal when a video emerged of them telling the Swedish-Kurdish comedian Soran Ismail that Sweden was “my country, not your country”, being openly threatening, and arming themselves with scaffolding bars.
Some of Europe’s more traditionally radical Right-wing parties march openly to the rhythm of the “boots from the Thirties”. Golden Dawn – the Greek outfit that refers to Hitler as “a great personality” – is expected to win two seats; Jobbik, the notorious Hungarian ultranationalist party, is likely to win four. But given that there are 750 MEPs in total, on a European level their gains will be largely symbolic, if deeply disturbing.
But the real threat comes from a subtler force: a burgeoning European phenomenon known as the “new far Right”, of which the Sweden Democrats is a part. These parties, the most prominent of which is the Front National of Marine le Pen, have gone to great pains to sanitise both their message and the manner in which it is delivered.
The jackboots, skinheads and slogans have been consigned to the past. Instead, in their sharp suits and ties, their politicians look almost respectable. Claiming to have left racism and anti-Semitism behind, these parties now concentrate on immigration and “the Islamisation of Europe”, disillusionment with the European Union, and undermining the political elite. With mainstream politicians blindsided, this new political phenomenon is striking a chord.
The Sweden Democrats provide an especially vivid example of the evolution of the new far-Right. The party started in 1988 as a white supremacist outfit, with members wearing Nazi uniforms to meetings. Two prominent early activists were Anders Klarström from the Nordic Reich Party, and Gustaf Ekström, who had been a member of the Waffen SS.
But in 1995, under the leadership of Mikael Jansson (formerly a member of the liberal Centre Party), the Sweden Democrats underwent a deliberate process of moderation. A “uniform ban” was introduced, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was announced as the bedrock of its policies. When Jimmie Åkesson, a young career politician, became leader in 2005, he intensified the programme of modernisation. In 2006, he changed the party’s logo from a National Front-style torch to a baby-blue daisy.
Sweden Democrat policies have also been sanitised. Alongside a concern for “preserving traditional culture”, the party now campaigns on a platform of law and order and rights for the elderly. A preoccupation with Nordic ethnicity has been replaced by the concept of “open Swedishness”, which implies that immigrants are welcome so long as they renounce their other identities and take on "Swedish ways".
Demonstration against racism and fascism in Malmo (Stig Johanson/TT News/PA)
This is the far-Right 2.0. And it is poised to have a deep effect on Europe. After the May 22 elections, it will almost certainly change the political landscape of the EU. The French Front National, which is expected to win 18 seats – a sixfold increase on its last European performance – is planning to form an axis with Geert Wilders’ Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) and create a new far-Right, Eurosceptic political bloc.
This could receive more than £2 million a year in public funding, be allocated speaking time in the European Parliament, and be allowed to play a more significant role in influencing legislation.
Geert Wilders has said that Ukip will be tempted to join, forming a grand alliance of Eurosceptics in the European Parliament (which has long been Mr Wilders' dream). But given Nigel Farage’s insistence that the Front National has “anti-Semitism and general prejudice in its DNA”, and his promise never to join forces, this seems highly unlikely.
Currently there are seven parliamentary blocs in the European Parliament, spanning the political spectrum; Ukip are part of Europe of Freedom and Democracy, a right-wing Eurosceptic group that is further to the Right than the Tories' group (the European Conservatives and Reformists) but would not be classed as far-Right. The advent of an eighth on the far-Right is likely to shake up the existing status quo.
In order to achieve this goal, Ms le Pen and Mr Wilders would need to muster at least 25 MEPs from seven different countries. The first criterion is not a problem; the Front National and the PVV alone are expected to achieve 23. But in order to satisfy the second criterion, they need to persuade at least five other parties to rally under their banner.
The Austrian Freedom Party, Belgium’s Vlaams Beland, Italy’s Lega Nord and the Slovak National Party have all been mooted as possible members. There have also been talks between the Front National and the Sweden Democrats. Mr Åkesson has played down the significance of these discussions, as the Front National is deeply unpopular in Sweden. But come 22 May, he may yet decide to play kingmaker.
For now, he is keeping his powder dry. “We are looking into what’s going on in Europe right now,” he says. “We haven’t decided who we will join yet. We are friends with the Front National, but we also feel a very close connection with the (anti-immigration) Danish People’s Party, which is not close to the Front National. It is quite complex.”
The new far-Right is characterised by parties that do not want to sully their brand by associating with those further to the right than themselves (a lesson which, separately, seems to have taken on board by Ukip, with its consistent refusal to join the Front National). This makes the formation of a political bloc more challenging – but far from impossible.
According to Vidhya Ramalingam, an expert in Right-wing extremism at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, far-Right alliances in the past have tended to fragment quickly because each party was following its own narrow, nationalistic agenda - and so tended to clash. But the new far-Right parties, she says, are more professional, organised and slick.
But to what extent have they truly reformed their views? This is the central question; and once again, as with the Sweden Democrats, so with many other parties around northern Europe.
The Sweden Democrats certainly show zero tolerance towards members who make racist comments in public. Anders Dahlberg, for instance, a local Sweden Democrat politician, was smartly ejected when he suggested that “ethnic Swedes should be armed” to counter the “immigrant threat”.
Anders Dahlberg had a firebomb pushed through his letter box after his comments (Jake Wallis Simons)
However, according to Daniel Assai, 46, a former high-ranking member of the party who has since turned whistleblower, these reforms are largely PR-driven and meretricious. “There are two groups in the party,” he says. “One is ideologically racist, from the old days. The second group is more interested in power, money and publicity. But the majority, I’m sorry to tell you, are still racist.”
The party, he says, has different ways of talking in public and backstage.
A new far-Left, anti-austerity communist bloc is also expected to emerge after May 22. Europeans are now tending to experiment with their vote, creating a surge in support for many non-mainstream parties.
But some believe that there is something especially disturbing about the rise of the new far-Right.
“Given European history, the far-Right is particularly toxic,” says Marley Morris, senior researcher at Counterpoint. “It could impact legislation protecting minority groups in Europe. This could be a turning point, potentially undermining openness and tolerance in the EU.”
A new Eurosceptic, far-Right group, he says, is likely to try to sabotage the European Parliament by giving long, disruptive speeches in plenary debates.
The threat of disruption is even more far-reaching than this. The surge in populist and Eurosceptic support will potentially put pressure on the mainstream pro-European blocs – the European People’s Party group and the Socialists and Democrats – to respond to the change in the political weather. But they will find themselves surrounded by cul-de-sacs.
The centre-Right may be tempted to advocate the tightening of policies such as the free movement of people or the limiting of benefits to migrants (the sorts of initiatives that have already been proposed by the British and Dutch governments), in order to acknowledge far-Right concerns; but this could be interpreted as pandering to extremists. On the other hand, to do nothing would run the risk of weakening the mainstream further. And if this state of affairs provokes friction between the blocs, this lack of unity could be exploited.
Moreover, to complete the Gordian knot, if the centre blocs form a solid grand coalition to fend off pressure from the fringes, this may strengthen the populist portrayal of mainstream politicians as an out-of-touch, vanilla elite, leading to further far-Right gains in 2019.
From the British point of view, this dark cloud could turn out to have a thin silver lining. An increase of Eurosceptic and far-Right heat in Europe could make the mainstream more receptive to David Cameron’s demands for conservative reforms, and make the EU a more British-friendly institution. It could also, paradoxically, make it less likely that Britain will leave Europe.
Back in In Malmö, Jimmie Åkesson’s day of campaigning continues to be dogged by demonstrations.
When he visits one of the city’s police stations, a Latin American immigrant with a petition says that Mr Åkesson is “normalizing Nazi racist politics he stands for”. At a fire station, a sizeable contingent of firemen have purposely stationed themselves elsewhere in the city, and taken their fire engines with them. Yet amongst the crowd gathered there are Sweden Democrat supporters, muttering about the “extremist Left”.
Finally, Mr Åkesson’s fractious day draws to a close. He gets back into his black SUV and speeds away, followed closely by a car-load of bodyguards.
As the convoy disappears into the distance, it whips past graffiti after graffiti, all of which say the same thing: “Fight on, Showan. Fight on, Malmö."