OPINION
Text in which the author defends ideas and reaches conclusions based on his / her interpretation of facts and data

Putting up a fight

While the rise of xenophobic populism in Europe is cause for concern, civil society is also showing the will to confront it

To judge by the symptoms, next year may be one of triumph for national populism in Europe. In 2013 they formed a government in Bulgaria. They are booming in Norway and Austria. Lately the National Front (FN) won a local victory in France. In the surveys, national-populist parties are moving up from splinter to serious-party positions in the UK, France and the Netherlands, while in Poland the Law and Justice party is 10 points ahead of the government in the polls. With some exceptions such as Germany, Spain and Ireland, the advance of national populism looks unstoppable.

Particularly worrying are the May 2014 EU parliamentary elections, when the problems of the European project and the unpopularity of many national governments will offer a favorable scenario for such platforms. In the same year come other ballots where populist and anti-immigration parties may gain ground, as in Hungary; local elections in Britain and France; and Sweden's general elections.

It isn't easy to win the electoral battle of ideas against these parties, when some of their ideas enjoy wide public support. Harder still when governments, aware of this fact, try to pull the rug from under them by adopting their agenda. Without success. The French government inhumanely expels a Roma family to a Kosovo they do not even know and then, to quell the protest, invites one of the daughters to return, alone, to finish her schooling. The British government puts up posters and sends 40,000 emails to possible illegal immigrants, as a show of toughness. The Greek government harasses non-European-looking people in the street through spot checks, then jails those lacking papers in subhuman conditions. But all have failed in their attempts to "pass the national populists on the right." If governments show themselves willing to jettison their most basic principles in order to stay in power, the extreme right hardly needs to win elections.

The BNP was stopped by British society's resistance to its open racism, and by campaigns such as Hope, not Hate

But not all is failure. In Britain the anti-EU UKIP may be gaining ground, but a more radical, openly racist party, the British National Party (BNP) could lose all of its elected representatives next year. The BNP was stopped by British society's resistance to its open racism, and by campaigns such as Hope, not Hate, which work door to door to hinder the ferment of fear, apathy and imposture on which the BNP built its victories. In France students came out in the street to protest the Roma family's expulsion; as did US students against the deportation of fellow students found to be lacking in papers — the first success of the so-called "dreamer generation," which in the end not only succeeded in changing the law, but also in giving a new twist to the migration debate in the United States. Action, too, has come from civil society in Greece, forcing the government to at last repress the criminal elements who control the neo-fascist party Golden Dawn after the murder of the rapper Pavlos Fyssas; and in Italy, after the Lampedusa tragedy, to put an end to the inhuman treatment of immigrants.

The anti-elitist and pro-reform feeling that the crisis is bringing to the surface in many parts of Europe is being successfully exploited by the national populists — cynical opportunists who don't want to enlarge the democratic space, but to close it. Much of society refuses to accept the language of exclusion and hatred. But political parties must stand up effectively to the national populists. This means undertaking far-reaching reforms, and also holding a political debate encompassing real alternatives. But above all, it means putting up solid arguments against the insidious language of the extreme right. By shamefully knuckling under, the major parties concede victory to the populists in the battle of ideas. They can hardly be surprised if these, in turn, win the electoral battle as well.

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