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Illiberal Europe: migrants and far-right white nationalism

Updated: May 3, 2021

Authored by Dr. Helen Hintjens (

Far-right, populist, nativist and even fascist discourses, movements, political parties and insurgent groups are emerging across Europe, as they are globally. Taking the case of Europe or The Netherlands, why is this happening?

1. Environmental stress and warfare

2. Collapse of old certainties

3. Economic crisis and unemployment

4. Nativism as politics of anxiety amidst 1-3

5. Mirroring

6. BUT

1. Environmental stress and warfare

“Rising ecology of hate”. Some parts of the world are sinking, the sea is rising, floods and storms more prevalent. Threats, perceived or not, to urban populations but the illiberalism is as much rural and small town, if not more, than urban. Syrian war had environmental engine. The fear of flooding is not irrational, but quite rational. Often environmental stressors are operating at unconscious levels as anxiety in the White West. Such stressors are now operating at the planetary level. Young people are responding with stress themselves; suicides are rising globally especially in areas where environmental stressors combine with economic crisis. Perhaps talk of a civil war in Europe between ‘cultures’ is one expression of a diverted anxiety at environmental threat to all human civilization. Displacement activity.

2. Collapse of old certainties

Fall of the Berlin Wall produced a temporary euphoria soon followed by paroxysms of ethnic reinventions, using past battles that dated back decades, even centuries. In the West, bizarre alliances emerged with the end of the Cold War. The far right in Europe, in the US, in Australia, firmly linked to the nativism of Russia’s regime. Chechnya the first anti-Islamic genocide, after Russia ousted from Afghanistan. Slowly but surely the far-right has been redefining whiteness as under threat. The Old Empires of Russia, the Ottoman-Turkish, British, French, German, Austro-Hungarian all revived through collective imaginaries projected from the past into the present and future. The emerging far-right movements have many parallels in being a) anti-Islamic in a very coherent way; b) anti-semitic but also pro-Israeli to the extent that my enemies’ enemy is my friend; c) homophobic but also pink washing of the West vs. the Rest d) fascist and militaristic; e) denying and reinvention of elements of the past like the Holocaust, colonialism and imperialism. White people’s ugly past has been brushed over; no reparations for past crimes, too vast to acknowledge the planetary scale of suffering from China to the Americas, from the Arctic to Patagonia. With the passing of the last direct Holocaust victims, the humanistic lessons of the Second World War are being forgotten. Indian video shows some examples of the way history of colonialism is very much alive today in mediating sympathy or not for white racism. There is also a gender dimension to this which is very important to appreciate, for both men and women. The desire to reassert old-fashioned ‘family values’ is tempting for those who feel alienated, who long for community and closeness to others. But anti-feminist ideas, and trying to prevent women from exercising their autonomy, is part of the far-right agenda as well. So migrants, women and other groups that are marginalized by the far-right, have a powerful future of collaboration.

3. Economic crisis and unemployment

Structural changes from labour-intensive production to capital-intensive and machinistic production. Jobs are casualised, zero-hour contracts, agency work, part-time jobs and irregular employment, frequent changes of job, almost all at low or minimum wages, including in the West. These structural changes are offset by remains of welfare systems, but affordability is squeezing people hard in some parts of the West – the US and UK in particular have very high levels of domestic household debt. The economy grows, but incomes for most people decline at the same time. There is the perception of fierce competition even for low-paid jobs, with shortages in sectors that are dirty, dangerous, difficult. Anti-immigrant sentiment is highest in low-wage economies, like Greece following economic collapse, UK with squeeze on the poor. Russia too has high anti-immigrant sentiment. Welfare seen as for natives, jobs too, but many natives find themselves redefined as non-natives. Romani in Romania or Bulgaria face violence daily. Migrants in UK towns face violence too; attacks on mosques, synagogues, churches, temples, increase in Europe and globally.

4. Nativism and the politics of anxiety

Not knowing one’s place in the world, makes people anxious, makes communities anxious, and lack of control over the economy even makes state leaders anxious. The appeal of certainties grows as uncertainties and lack of control over real variables diminishes. The illusion of control is what is desired, at almost any price to democratic processes. Trumpism in the US is not about Trump, but about this desire for certainty, for the illusion of simple truths. The unholy alliance between Russia and the far-right reflects this search for a lost glory, this anxiety, in Europe as well as in US, for a simple narrative about the past, the present and the future. The ‘White West’ is being redefined along nativist lines, ignoring class and gender, much like India is being redefined in religious terms, ignoring caste and gender. In Netherlands, the determination of many whites to deny that Zwarte Piet is racist, is an example of the clinging to old ways, rather than a new form of racism, this one is quite old. The UN Working group on People of African descent noted: “The Working Group feels that a large amount of the population still does not understand why the manner in which “Zwarte Piet” is presented is perceived negatively and hurtful by some groups of Dutch society. In the view of the Working Group, this is a symptom of denial of the existence of racism and racist practices and an erroneous understanding of history among its society. It is also a mark of structural racism affecting the [Dutch] society”, p. 18, 2014. See also Joost de Vries article:

5. Mirroring

Radicalisation, extremism, terrorism, call it what you will, but it is all around us. Who remembers Osama bin Laden today and Al Qaeda, when they are replaced by ISIL and Daesh, ISIS and Boko Haram as the baddies in the play of certainties, black and white, good and evil. Mirroring is the kind of unholy alliance between those who look to all the world like enemies. The way that Bush needed Saddam, so too today the far-Right in the West needs ISIS. Nativists are similar the world over; they believe in the struggle between dark and light, good and bad, the forces of evil and the forces of good. And often they prefer to fight evil rather than live in peace or support the common good. Each group projects itself to its members and followers as victimized, as weak, as requiring protection, defence, against a formidable foe. Using enemies to define ourselves. Each group depicts itself as subject to unacceptable attacks, and uses this narrative to justify attacks on the other. The myth of white vulnerability mirrors other myths of vulnerability worldwide that similarly justify aggression against invented enemies.

BUT there are good prospects for organizing against racism

“Tackling racism and racial discrimination requires a holistic approach, reaching out to and including all levels of society”. The strategy for gaining back public opinion is to create as broad alliances and coalitions as possible so that we fight for each other’s (for everyone’s) rights.

There are now examples in every country of the EU of alliances between migrants and women’s movements, but this must also include other groups who are threatened like LGBTQI rights. Roma rights are also critical to the whole human rights climate in Europe, as what happens in Spain, Romania, Greece, Slovenia, Italy and Croatia has consequences elsewhere for the rights of refugees and immigrants generally. In the last 5 years a very strong collaboration and coalition building took place in Romania among feminist, Roma and LGBTQI NGO sector. They are trying to join up to fight racism, and also sexism, homophobia, Romaphobia and classism. Protest actions include petitions, open letters in the media, addressed to government representatives, research reports for EU and national policy makers, and awareness-raising activities like Gay Pride, the 28 November March “God does not do politics” (as a reaction to Coalition for The Family initiative). Altogether, twenty-eight human rights groups, including Amnesty International, joined forces to urge the court to reject the proposal to organize a referendum on same-sex marriage in Romania.

Would such recommended broad collaboration be difficult for the Pakistani diaspora to swallow? Yet it is ss to organize inclusively.

There is thus plenty of room for improvement. Conspiracy theories about white people, muslim people, Hindu people, being under threat, need to be confronted wherever they arise. In reality those who are vulnerable are minorities, not the major groupings. All poor people are vulnerable to a system that seeks profit for those with businesses, in banks and so on. To be able to manage a decent life within a low income is an important and creative skill, which makes us resourceful. But below a certain limit, people can be careful with money, and still run into debt and have problems of making ends meet. Survival skills in this new world include economic contacts, caring for the environment, overcoming economic insecurity. Being brave we have to try and deal with 1,2,3,4 and 5 above and we have to do this in a way that tackles all at the same time.

To combat racism and planetary destruction we need to work on both the economy and the environment together, and to be as inclusive of other minority groups, not letting ourselves be divided. People should mobilize within their networks to encourage others to vote, to demand rights, and to reach those who are isolated in the community. Lobbying by vested interests and the far right can be countered by popular action, petitioning and letter-writing. In Europe there are strong responses from the green movement, from the ordinary people not on the far-right, from the left which is pro-migrant and also pro-LGBTQ.

In France the yellow vest movement has thrown out the far-right elements from its alliances, refusing to allow them to take part in demonstrations. Social democratic movements are growing in the US with demands for a Green New Deal now on the agenda. Young people worldwide are starting to move on climate change. Support them in your communities – it may not look like anti-racism but it is. I want to share some videos that encourage us towards optimism about our species, and our planet.

There is hope because people do not all react in the same way to stress, anxiety and alienation. The far-right does not have answers to our most pressing problems, like the environment and work. Their policies are instead even more damaging to the planet and to jobs for their own people. ISIS and their offshoots did not end up killing its enemies, but mostly has killed innocent Iraqis, Syrians, Nigerians. The far-right also kills the very white people it claims to love, like Anders Brevik in Norway.

There are people working Europe from whom we can draw inspiration, like Soraya Post, a Roma activist and the first Member of the European Parliament from an anti-racist, feminist party – the Feminist Initiative from Sweden. This kind of movement when it emerges, like the Greens, support it. Soraya Post is the first Roma person in Sweden to stand as a candidate for a political party. She founded the International Roma Women’s Network, and is co-founder of the European Roma and Travellers Forum, and has been a human rights strategist in Sweden. In the EU Parliament, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group heads up opposition to the bloc of centre-right, which is increasingly sounding like the hard right. This alliance has 129 members from 29 countries. Get involved in the EU election processes if you can. There are plenty of EU Parliament bodies, like the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) and the European Parliament Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup (ARDI), but also the Disability and LGBTI Rights Intergroups.

Another possible source of strength is to put your ideas together with civil society groups, academic researchers, local government representatives, trade unions, political parties (perhaps) and apply for Horizon 2020 funding for creating jobs for those who are over-qualified for the jobs they are able to find. There are many schemes for over-qualified refugees who cannot find suitable work.

As Soraya says: “We need to show that we do politics differently and collaboratively. It is not only what we do but also how we do it. How we are collaborating, seeking common grounds, teaching people to debate with respect”. It is not easy, but we must try.

Another way of supporting initiatives is to start a collective fund through crowd-sourcing. You need good, inclusive and imaginative goals, and then you need to go out there and make a short video and get people to support you with donations. That can raise funds only if you are quite convinced that your idea is great! Environmental projects in empty lots or in neighbourhood green plots, small farming initiatives where people can grow herbs, plants from home and enjoy the garden, are all great for inclusion and can tackle racism at the same time, by involving everyone together in a task that is ecological, physical and creative.

Here is some advice from a report by Soraya: "We have to talk to people, in people’s language. The Home Party idea turned out to be a great idea. People were delighted that they could have a politician in their own home, with their own friends and neighbors. And it was easy, and a good way to start a relationship. A lot of people are sure that they are not represented in the political system. That is why it is so important HOW we do it. It’s about introducing a new dimension of politics – the human rights dimension. We work out policies with love as the strongest force. With respect for every human being. With understanding. A relationship without power and control. We call it solidarity”

So migrants and women, muslims and atheists, disabled people and LGBTQ, trade unionists and the poor, all have a common cause. They should not be divided against themselves. If you can, ally with these groups. Help to be a bridge between them. After all, whether you like it or not, insidethe Pakistani diaspora there are women, men, LGBTQ people, disabled, rich and poor.

Use arts and culture, organize meetings and get EU funding, collaborate across boundaries that you are not usually comfortable with – do things that may not seem to be profitable, but which bring people together across the divisions in society of faith, class, gender, disability, sexual orientation and so on. As Soraya puts it in her report:

"Something that occurs in many places is that far-right movements are trying to take over the human rights discourse, by claiming that they work for women’s rights by protecting them from immigrants, or by safe-guarding what they claim are “western values” against “Muslim values”. Similar arguments are used to win the LGBTQI population. Do not be taken in. Also, do not believe everything you hear on youtube. Campaign for:

- Equal rights for immigrants and nationals

- Ending violence against all migrants

- The right to abortion, to health care on an equal basis

- Right to education

- Tackling violence including domestic violence whoever commits it

The UN Working Group on People of African descent (2014) recommended:

“inclusion in the curriculum of information on the slave trade, enslavement and colonialism as a way to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance”, p. 118. Also “Anti-racist human rights training for all public officials, including personnel in the administration of justice, particularly law enforcement, correctional and security services, as well as healthcare, education and migration officials, should be undertaken to counter stigmatization and to ensure that people of African descent are not discriminated against, and are treated equally”, p. 119.

The recommendation for countries to draw up National Action Plans Against Racism came out of the UN World Conference Against Racism (WCAR), which took place in Durban, South Africa in 2001. The Conference’s Declaration and Programme of Action called on countries to “develop or elaborate national action plans to promote diversity, equality, equity, social justice, equality of opportunity and the participation of all.”

ENAR – European Network against Racism report (Published by the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) in Brussels, in 2019, with the support of the Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme of the European Union, the Open Society Foundations, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, the Sigrid Rausing Trust and the ENAR Foundation.

“National Action Plans Against Racism (NAPAR) can be a unique tool to develop a comprehensive framework which puts victims at the centre of the social justice and equality agenda, with an intersectional anti-racist perspective, and ensures coherence across different areas”.

Vera Egenberger: NGO representative Germany;, Leif Magnusson: NGO representative Sweden; Camilla Molin: civil servant Sweden; Natasha Moritz: civil servant Netherlands; Saila Oualb Chaib: researcher Belgium; Carol Young: NGO representative Scotland.

There is for example a Race Equality Framework for Scotland! And a Comprehensive approach to combat Racism and Hate Crime in Sweden. French plan against Racism and anti-Semitism. The report comments:

“Anti-racism…should never be disconnected from mainstream social policies and the struggle against other forms of discrimination since racism is a major hurdle for significant parts of the population that prevents them from enjoying justice and equality”, p. .

We shall focus on the Anti-Discrimination Program of the Netherlands (from 2016).

The report says:

“Migration policies at both EU and national levels, are rooted in institutional racism, hierarchising workers according to implicit racialised criteria (expatriates, low/medium or high skilled migrant workers, students, researchers, family reunification migrants, seasonal migrants, circular migration migrants, blue card migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, subsidiary protection beneficiaries...This contributes to the ethno-stratification of the labour market.

According to the report, work could be at international or local level:

“In the Netherlands, the impetus for establishing the [Anti-racism] Programme seems to have partly come from its requirements under several UN bodies, exemplified by the fact that it formed part of the submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review. In addition, the Programme states within its section devoted to specific grounds, including race, that it has dedicated a section on discrimination on the grounds of race, skin colour, descent and religion, as a result of observations made by the UN CERD and the Council of Europe’s ECRI.”

“In the Dutch Programme, there is a strong focus on the local level, with an entire section dedicated to supporting municipalities and local anti-discrimination offices in implementing effective anti-discrimination measures”.

This is interesting – so whether you have friends in the UN or in Rotterdam or The Hague municipality, consider getting together with other diaspora groups to lobby the Gemeente departments concerned or even to work with lawyers and others to submit a document on The situation in the Netherlands to CERD and ECRI.

Finally, the report explicitly provides a space for participation by those most directly affected by racism, when it says: “Although the leadership behind the setting up of a NAPAR should come from governments, this should be done with the input and active participation of civil society organisations and representatives of the communities affected by racism”.

Some cities have gone ahead and made their own plans, in the absence of a national plan. Barcelona was a good example of this, and examples like this can ‘shame’ the Dutch government into wider consultation, including on Islamophobia, since: “In planning for the Barcelona Plan, a comprehensive consultation plan was implemented over two months and included meetings with organisations fighting racism and discrimination, Muslim groups, including young Muslims and Muslim women associations. In total, 63 people participated in the meetings. In addition, 14 interviews were carried out with key stakeholders who are recognised experts on the issue of Islamophobia”.

Follow the Money!

“Apart from the Barcelona Plan against Islamophobia, none of the plans make clear reference to the budget they intend to allocate to their respective strategy. Financial information is at best patchy and at worse totally absent from the documents examined…a notable gap in the plans analysed”.

RESOURCES – a TED talk against pessimism World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance Declaration and Programme of Action.

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