Fear, change, and the rise of the right as the world shrinks
Walking through the streets of Amsterdam, one of Europe’s most vibrant capitals, it is easy to get caught up in the cosmopolitan nature of the city. Being World Cup time, the city is not only awash in Dutch flags, but an array of other nationalities hang their national banners alongside the recognisable orange of the Dutch team.
The backpackers, tour groups, sightseers and locals politely wrestle for space in the crowded streets and bars, while cars with engines smaller than 50cc and motor scooters share bike lanes. On the bikes, no one wears a helmet, people smoke, talk on their phones and sometimes can be spotted drinking beer. Here, everyone rides: from the men and women in expensive suits, to girls dressed in glamorous outfits on their way out to club, as well as families of four on various sized bikes, and young Muslim women wearing hijabs.
I sit in a café (as distinct from the famous Amsterdam ‘coffee shops’) and speak to various politically active young people. Telling them that I am slowly falling in love with their city and pointing to Geert Mak’s fascinating historical account of Amsterdam, we turn to the political landscape of the Netherlands and the rest Europe.
It becomes very clear, very quickly, that while on the surface things are quite merry, you do not have to look far to see the emerging tensions.
The most obvious manifestation of these tensions is the growing political influence of nationalist, right wing and reactionary parties. In the week I have been here, elections in both Holland and Belgium have seen such parties emerge as powerful political forces. This follows the rise of such parties in Austrian elections (2008 where far right parties gained 30 percent of the vote), in the European elections (2009) where ultra-conservatives gained over 15 percent in Denmark and Slovakia, as well as the British Nationalist Party (BNP) wining two seats in the European Parliament.
While the Belgium election is complicated by a separatist element, in the Netherlands, the big winner is Geert Wilders and his populist right wing Freedom Party. Not only is it openly anti-Muslim, but is generally antagonistic to all foreigners. Their message leading up to and during the election was clear: the Netherlands is for the (white) Dutch only. They achieved 15 percent of the vote that translates to 24 seats in parliament and making them a real political force.
The rise of Wilders did not eat into the traditional right-wing vote, with the right-of-centre party, VVD, which takes a strong anti-EU stance achieved 20 percent of the vote (or 31 seats) and is most likely to front the next government.
Why has Europe seen a revival of right wing politics?
It would appear that the answer is that the very processes of globalisation that promised a smaller, closer and tight knit world are, paradoxically, the ones that seem to be behind the rise of nationalism and a lurch towards isolationism.
At the turn of the millennium, the promises of globalisation were everywhere. The then treasurer, Peter Costello , raved about the economic possibilities of tighter economies while chastising ‘anti-globalisation’ protestors. More recently, US political commentator, Thomas Friedman, declared ‘the world is flat’, and only last month The Economist spoke about the continued globalisation of banking as something that is inevitable.
Globalisation is a complex phenomenon that is driven by the decisions that we all make: from investment bankers in New York to consumers in Jakarta. Consequently, there is nothing pre-determined or inevitable about it, and the rise of nationalistic movements and reactionary parties should be enough to show us that there are as many doors closing as ones opening.
There are three key reasons why this is the case.
The first is loss of control. If there is one fundamental characteristic of globalisation, it is that decisions that affect our lives are made further and further away, and this is something that makes us feel vulnerable. The decisions of investors overseas have real impacts on our lives – impacts that they can never appreciate.
The second is that this vulnerability is aggravated because the many promises made have failed to materialise. The interlinking of economies was supposed to bring peace, stability and opportunities. In an age defined by terrorism, financial instability and environmental devastation, the optimism has quickly vanished.
Thirdly, globalisation means change – and rapid change at that. If we throw this in as the third ingredient, we can see how the flow of migrants that accompanies closer economic links is changing the nature of communities and has been identified, for political expedience, as a destabilising force.
Far right parties have been quite adept at taking advantage of this situation by promoting a sense of fear and insecurity even if they offer no solution beyond an imagined ability to end immigration. Even if they fail to gain votes, the problem is that centre parties begin to echo some of the more reactionary language.
In Australia, this has been aimed at refugees and genuine asylum seekers . In parts of Europe, it is more indiscriminate – a real concern for many here given Europe’s history. It is a slippery slope, however, and if the Government and Opposition do not ensure a ‘race free’ election, fear of difference and outsiders, this may mark Australia’s next phase of globalisation.
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