Across Europe, as centre-Left parties are moving to the right, the centre-right parties are adopting issues associated with the Left. And in this game of musical chairs, immigration and asylum are key.
There is nothing new in the mainstream political consensus on immigration and asylum issues. European Social Democratic parties have been quick to bring in harsh new laws, or have showed no inclination to repeal such laws once they come into office. But whereas in the past there would have been unease about playing the race card overtly, the centre-Left is losing all inhibitions and is prepared to be just as opportunistic and populist as the Right.
Left moves right
The United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva recently criticised all the French mainstream political parties. ‘Anti-immigrant sentiments are crossing political lines,’ says the UN report, ‘fuelled by positions taken and declarations made for electoral purposes by politicians from left and right.’
In Germany, though, the Social Democrats are not merely responding to a Right agenda, but are creating their own populist campaign against foreigners, and in particular the poor eastern Aussiedler.
Aussiedler versus Ausländer
Under German citizenship laws, Germanness depends on blood, not being born in Germany. While the German-born children and grandchildren of Turkish parents are destined to remain Turkish and never German, anyone whose ancestors were members of the German Volk prior to the second world war can claim citizenship, no matter where they were born. Since the late 1980s, when emigration restrictions were lifted in eastern bloc countries, these descendants of Germans, called ‘Aussiedler’, have migrated to Germany in large numbers: 200000 so-called ‘Volga Germans’ migrate from Russia annually.
At first, the Aussiedler were welcomed to Germany. Their ‘Germanness’ and belongingness to the Fatherland were used to point the contrast with the ‘foreignness’ of other groups seeking immigration or (particularly) refuge in Germany, such as Roma, Turks, Asians and Africans. In 1988 the Social Democrats condemned the government for stirring up xenophobia by playing Aussiedler, foreigners and asylum-seekers (collectively ‘Ausländer’) against each other.
No longer. Instead of fighting for inclusive and democratic citizenship laws, the Social Democrats have launched a vicious populist campaign which employs the stereotypes normally used against non-Germans.
As Christian Democrat Chancellor Kohl hurtles into full-scale confrontation with the unions over his new austerity package, Social Democrat leader Oscar Lafontaine (left), posing as the champion of the welfare state and the rights of German workers, has attacked the Aussiedler for ‘walking straight into unemployment’, for gaining easy access to benefits, welfare support and pensions.
He has gone further, calling for all work permits to foreigners to be stopped in the face of high unemployment amongst German workers – although the reality is that ‘foreigners’ are merely doing the dirty jobs that even unemployed Germans do not want to do.
The Social Democrats have opened up a Pandora’s box of racism and nationalism. Opinion polls suggest that the Aussiedler are not much more popular than Bosnian refugees. And callers to chat shows claim that the Aussiedler are not real Germans, speak in strange tongues, bring increased crime and have a deplorable work ethic.
Linking ‘Germanness’ to a strong work ethic is particularly worrying given the associations this evokes with Germany’s Nazi past. Similar sentiments surfaced during a referendum on the question of a merger of the Brandenburg and Berlin states on the lines of the old Prussia. Social Democrats and Christian Democrats united behind the idea of a ‘Christian Prussia’. In the event the voters rejected the merger, but not before politicians had waxed lyrical about the ‘old Prussian values of hard work and discipline’. Anti-racists point out that these were the very sentiments manipulated by Hitler. After the second world war, historians found evidence to show that Prussia was a military forerunner of Hitler’s Germany, describing its legacy as generally malign.
Lafontaine’s attack on the Aussiedler was part of his election campaign in the southern state of Baden Wurttemburg, the third most popular destination of the Aussiedler this year. In the event, the Social Democrats did badly. But their populist campaign aided the far Right in Baden Wurttemburg, where the fascist Republikaner party gained 9.6 per cent of the vote, making it the only state in Germany where they are represented in parliament.
In Italy, the Left has not campaigned on a racist ticket. Instead, it has worked in alliance with racists. And those who sleep with the dogs get bitten by the fleas. Prior to Italy’s May general election, immigration was the hot issue with the racist Northern League, which held the parliamentary balance of power, threatening to oppose all amendments to the 1996 budget unless a tough anti-immigrant decree was passed.
The Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), parliamentary allies of the Northern League, made outraged noises but ended up supporting the decree as a ‘realistic attempt to get a handle on immigration’.
Right uses left rhetoric
The Left’s support for a racist bill bodes ill for the future of the Olive Tree Alliance, the first centre-Left government in the history of the Italian Republic. However, events have moved on since the election, with the Northern League’s demagogic leader, Umberto Bossi, ruling out any alliance and demanding the right to ‘negotiate the country’s partition’.
The Northern League has set up its own shadow parliament in Mantua and called for the ‘right to self-determination for the people of Padania’ (Bossi’s name for the north).
Bossi is seeking to use the language of the Left. He talks in terms of the underdog, the victim, the oppressed, where in reality the Northern League represents the powerful north against the impoverished south. And in creating the Committee for the Liberation of Padania, Bossi even dares to situate his party in the anti-fascist tradition (the initials, CLN, are the same as those of the National Liberation Committee which led the opposition to fascism at the end of the second world war). Reality is being turned on its head.
Furthermore, Bossi has promised to link up with ‘oppressed people’ across Europe in order to further the creation of a ‘Europe of the regions’. He voices his admiration for Scottish nationalists and vows to attend the SNP conference dressed in a kilt.
Against centralisation, for devolution
It is the Right in Europe that is posing as the voice of the oppressed, champions against centralised state power and for devolution and the power of the regions.
In France, Le Pen has sought to distinguish the FN from the Gaullist Right, which stands for a centralised tradition, by speaking out for the regions, particularly Alsace, Brittany, Corsica and south-western France where there is strong resentment to a historical pattern of forced annexation and unsuccessful rebellion.
In Belgium, the extreme-Right Vlaams Blok has declared that in the next talks on constitutional reform, it wants outright Flemish independence.
In Spain, the April general election saw the return of the first full-blooded right-wing government since the death of the dictator Franco. Now the Popular Party has been forced into alliance with the Catalan nationalist coalition ‘Convergence and Union’, four Canary Island nationalist MPs and conservative Basques in order to stay in power. The irony is that the Spanish Right has always stood for the unity of the nation state, yet it is a right-wing government that is being forced by its allies to go further down the road of devolution than any Socialist government of the past.
It is too early for CARF to predict what this move by conservative and far-Right parties into the terrain of devolution will mean. But clearly anti-racists, left-wing and minority parties need to beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing.