EUROPE SWINGS: Why Is Europe Moving to the Right?

Monday, July 29, 2002

For decades, Western Europe has been known for its social democracies—large welfare states governed by a coalition of the political left and center. In recent years however, this center-left coalition seems to have broken down. Conservative parties have come to power in a number of European countries, including Spain, Italy, France, and the Netherlands. Why has Europe moved to the right? Have a few specific issues, such as immigration and crime, driven European voters to the right? Are voters merely expressing a temporary frustration with the center-left coalition, or is the new conservative Europe here to stay?

Recorded on Monday, July 29, 2002

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, is Europe moving in the right direction?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: Europe swings right. For decades continental Europe has been known for its socialist or at least semi-socialist democracies, large welfare states governed by coalitions of the left and center. In recent years, however, this center-left coalition seems to have broken down. Conservative governments have come to power in a number of countries. Spain, Italy, France, the Netherlands and the list goes on. The question, of course, is what's up? Have a few specific issues, such as immigration and crime driven European voters to the right? Are European voters merely expressing temporary frustration with the center-left coalition or is the new conservative Europe here to stay?

Joining us two guests, John O'Sullivan is editor-in-chief of United Press International. Christopher Hitchens is a journalist, author and visiting professor at the New School University in New York.

Title: Europe Swings Like a Pendulum Do

Peter Robinson: Just two years ago every major western European nation had a center-left government. Soon the only one left may be that of Tony Blair. France, Spain, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, all have exchanged center-left for center-right governments. The continent of Europe, at least western Europe, has swung to the right. Why, Christopher?

Christopher Hitchens: Well it begins with--the swings, tendencies--with a man called Jorg Haider in Austria, who I've met twice now.

Peter Robinson: Have you?

Christopher Hitchens: And who was the first person to prove that you could have an electoral success from the right in a country where it seemed unpropitious--you know, the historical association of Austria and the right not being a happy one. And I would say that he won for three reasons apart from the fact that he is a very good politician. First, the pre-existing regime in Austria was a two-party collusion between the Social Democrats, Christian Democrats. Very corrupt, very warm, very cozy with an actual system called PROPORZ, p-r-o-p-o-r-z. They even had a name for it. Semi-official sharing out the jobs, you know, Social Democrats will have fifty percent of the civil service jobs in this city and so on, of course, the Christian Democrats thirty percent someone else--it was literally, a racket like that. Haider ran against that very skillfully. Second, immigration--with almost every European state now is in one way or another a front line with a--with a non-European country or with pressure, in this case, from the Balkans and from the Middle East for people to come live in Vienna. And more of them getting in than many of the citizens liked and third, and I think very important--an important--going to be important for Germany, too. He ran in the name of the grievances of the Germans who were expelled from eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War and their descendants, many millions of them.

Peter Robinson: Oh, that's still a live question?

Christopher Hitchens: Not only is it a live question but it's about to become more so, reinvigorated, because if the Czech and Slovak Republics and Poland and Hungary are allowed to join the EU, then in principle there is no reason why all those Germans can't go home. For that to happen the Czech government will have to repudiate the decrees on expulsion that it made under Mr. Benes in 1945, which is now the demand that Haider makes. They say the Czech government must repudiate these decrees and it refuses to do so. So, amazingly, in a sense the moral outcome of the Second World War is being challenged by some of these conservative forces. Now that's not true in every one of the European right wing resurgences, but it's a very important factor in the main one, which is Germany and Austria.

Peter Robinson: John, do you subscribe to that?

John O'Sullivan: No, I don't, although, I subscribe to some of it. The three points I would make that are somewhat similar to Christopher's--I'd say the swing to the right in Western Europe has been due to crime. It's been due to immigration and it's been due to the fact that governments have pushed ahead with a European integration--in ways and on topics and to degrees where a lot of the voters felt disenfranchised. They felt the decisions were no longer under their control. And what's been the different factor, which has made it possible for the right to make such a substantial breakthrough and here I might even get Christopher's agreement, is that the arrival of Muslim immigration of a very considerable size has meant that the liberal traditions and liberal political values of some of these countries have come under attack. And therefore, Pim Fortuyn is the classic case, a number of voters, which might otherwise have remained loyal to the Social Democrats, have switched to the right because they're worried that Muslim immigration is transforming their societies in illiberal ways as well as in more obvious cultural ones.

Peter Robinson: John has pointed to three main factors in Europe's swing to the right. Let's look at them a little further beginning with Muslim immigration.

Title: Sleeping With the Enemy

Peter Robinson: The late Pim Fortuyn: "I'm not anti-Muslim, I'm saying we've got big problems in our cities. It's not very smart to make the problem bigger by letting in millions more immigrants from rural Muslim cultures that don't assimilate."

Christopher Hitchens: Yes--and he did famously say, "There's certainly nothing anti-Moroccan about me. You should see how many of them I've been sleeping with." So, he wanted to make it very clear that it wasn't a racial prejudice, but a cultural one. What he doesn't like is immigrants from countries that are counter hedonistic. He wanted Holland to be a place where you could be elected as a gay man, which you can't in Muslim culture--is well, that much harder.

Peter Robinson: Did he have a point?

Christopher Hitchens: There's no question he has a point. I thought since--in my case since 1989 when in England suddenly there were mass demonstrations of young Pakistanis in favor of not just the burning of a book, The Satanic Verses, but of its author. They wanted to burn him, too. Well, now this really is a challenge because that's the sort of stuff you used to only get, the sort of garbage you used to only get from Christians. And the Christians after being battered a lot and discredited a good deal have given that up. But now Muslims are willing to take up where they left off. That's a very bad idea.

Peter Robinson: I thought he was going to make a straightforward point and, of course, he became mischievous at the last moment.

Christopher Hitchens: What can be more straightforward than that?

Peter Robinson: So you then would have voted for Fortuyn. You would be in favor on the continent at least of shutting down immigration…

Christopher Hitchens: I would not at all say that I would have voted for Fortuyn. Or if I did he would have to satisfy me on a lot of other points, as well. That's a recognizable crisis. You could put the same case in France. It used to be that everyone in France had…

Peter Robinson: France has five million Muslims.

Christopher Hitchens: The same republican education as they call it. Its standard curriculum is secular, it's free, it's for the whole country and then the Muslim immigrants started saying, "Well, we want to go to the schools. We want our girls to be veiled in the schools." And the French government said, "No, we aren't going to have that." And they even deported one of the imams who was making a fuss and demanding the veiling of girls or the separation of girls. And I remember thinking with a slight twinge, I would rather approve of the deportation of this imam I must say.

Peter Robinson: You did?

Christopher Hitchens: Well, sure, yes, this was all pre September 11th; I mean we're talking about.

Peter Robinson: Right.

John O'Sullivan: Yeah. The problem it seems to me for the left is that the Social Democratic governments that were in power during this period turned a deaf ear to all of these manifestations. And when anyone complained about crime and anyone complained about Muslim immigration having this punitive aspect, they would announce it as racist. And that has driven significant section of public opinion, which wouldn't have gone there, to the right.

Peter Robinson: Let's examine another factor in Europe's swing to the right.

Title: Crime Story

Peter Robinson: Crime: new highs in Paris, Madrid, Stockholm and Amsterdam according to a study by the Statistical Assessment Service in Washington. London now has almost as many murders per capita as New York, half again as many rapes, twice as many assaults on auto thefts and four times as many burglaries. London is now more dangerous than New York City. Does either of you have any idea as to where this came from? Safe Europe becoming a…

Christopher Hitchens: Well it won't be--I can say one thing straightaway, it won't be from Muslim immigration because those Pakistani kids I was talking about may have well wanted to burn Salman and his book but it's a consistent finding that the Pakistani Muslim community in Britain is the most law abiding of the lot.

Peter Robinson: Is that so?

John O'Sullivan: I think that is true in Britain. I don't think it's true in Paris. I think, for example, that the North African immigrants and their children and grandchildren in the belts around the major cities, particularly Paris, are in fact quite criminal. I mean a lot of crime is attributable to that immigration.

Peter Robinson: There's a study in--I don't have it at my fingertips, but in Norway, small country of course, but in Norway, something like sixty-five percent of rapes, not a high number of rapes, but sixty-five percent seem to be attributable, according to this study, to Muslim immigrants.

Christopher Hitchens: I'd be surprised, but it's possible.

Peter Robinson: It's possible.

Christopher Hitchens: The only thing that violent crime has ever correlated with in any other study that I've ever seen or heard of is average age. Violent crimes committed by young men.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Christopher Hitchens: So…

Peter Robinson: Is that what's going on in Europe?

Christopher Hitchens: The testosterone level is what usually--the reason it's going down in America in ways that surprised even the Giuliani faction. It went down much more than they thought it would or demanded that it should is because the average age is going up.

Peter Robinson: Yes, but surely in Europe the average age is going up too.

Christopher Hitchens: As a percentage, therefore.

Peter Robinson: Europe has a much lower birthrate.

Christopher Hitchens: No, immigration does. The reason why many people favor it and the reason why there is so much of it in Europe is precisely that it does make society younger. That if in Germany they wait much longer there will be no more young people, Germans, to do most of the jobs. They need all the time to replenish this.

Peter Robinson: But, Christopher…

John O'Sullivan: Christopher is giving a very good example of why it is the people are voting for parties other than the left. Because he's producing all kinds of apparently reasonable sociological studies to persuade people that the evidence of their own eyes and ears is to be discounted as worthless. The fact is that this is not the case. The fact is in Scandinavia and in France and in several other countries, I agree not London, there is a direct link between a rise in Muslim immigration and a rise in crime. It is from these groups for whatever reason you give for it, it may well be that society has not treated them decently, they don't have enough jobs and so on. But it is from these groups that the recent rise in crime has come. People know that and they can't be persuaded otherwise. And it is because there was an unwillingness on the part of the left establishment from these countries to address this and to address people's reasonable anxieties about it that they have moved to other parties. And I think it perfectly reasonable for them to vote for mainstream conservative parties. I wish they would not go further than that. But certainly they have moved directly from post-communist or communist parties to fascist or post-fascist parties.

Peter Robinson: Next topic. To what extent are economic issues driving European voters to the right?

Title: It's the Economy, Dummkopf

Peter Robinson: For some two decades now the growth rate in Europe has been not much more than half that in the United States. The unemployment rate in Europe, Britain special case, but the unemployment rate in Europe roughly twice that in the United States. Tax burdens in the European Union, tax revenues account for about forty percent of GDP in this country it's a little under thirty percent. So, what's going on is that the people who are running Europe failed to produce a growing economy? Is it the economy, stupid?

John O'Sullivan: I think the job growth is poor in Europe. I think that innovation is low in Europe. I think the economies are not as dynamic and I think the Europeans have made a decision, which I disagree with but which is their right to make, to have high levels of unemployment and high levels of job security rather than lower levels of job security and low unemployment as you have in the United States.

Peter Robinson: Was it that same non-responsive, unresponsive elite that made that decision and the populations are saying, "Wait a minute, who asked us?"

John O'Sullivan: No, well, as a matter of fact, I would like to agree with that…

Christopher Hitchens: No, it's not.

John O'Sullivan: …but I think the populations actually support this policy. I think they're mistaken to support it, but they do.

Christopher Hitchens: There's no question that in--I mean there are any--well, in the three cases in which I could claim to have any knowledge of, which would be the United Kingdom and France. And in Germany it's understood that any politician who wants to challenge this does so at his electoral peril. Well, there's a sentimentality about the health service in Britain, for example...

John O'Sullivan: Absolutely.

Christopher Hitchens: ...which will do duty for some of the other things as well. In France there's an absolute belief that, you know, the state should be responsible. And in Germany it's believed to be the price you pay for keeping social peace and the idea of not having a socially peaceful Germany is so alarming to most people. It's surprised they think its…

Peter Robinson: So, on the economy I have produced agreement between the two of you.

John O'Sullivan: I agree. There is agreement, largely, but I would want to stress that as so often Britain is in a sense a Mid-Atlantic power. Its labor market--it has much more labor market flexibility, somewhat less job security than in continental Europe. Though not as marked as the United States.

Peter Robinson: Okay, one other phenomenon in Europe, Charles Krauthammer, writing in the Washington Post: "In Europe it is not very safe to be a Jew. The explanation is not that difficult to find. We are--what we are seeing is pent up anti-Semitism, the release with Israel as the trigger of a millennium old urge that powerfully infected and shaped European history. What is odd is not the anti-Semitism of today, but its relative absence during the past half century. That was the historical anomaly." So, we have here the swing to the right possibly mixed up with anti-Semitism, is atavistic or a reassertion of tribal impulses?

John O'Sullivan: I think this is quite wrong and I think it libelous. Obviously, there is an element in European politics that has been anti-Semitic. And it, by the way, is running away from their anti-Semitism. Whatever else you think of Le Pen and I have a low opinion of him and I suspect Christopher does too. Whatever you think of him, in the recent election he not only did not express any anti-Semitic views, but he went out of his way to express philo-Semitic views. This represents the new reality of European anti-Semitism, which as it is fueled and powered much more by the Muslim populations there who are in turn inspired by what's going on in the Middle East and responding to that. People are sometimes are led to anti-Semitism feeds anti-Zionism. Here, I think it's the opposite way around. It's the hostility to Israel, which is powerfully fueling anti-Semitism in immigrant groups and it is from these groups that the attacks on the Jews overwhelmingly come. And the old anti-Semitic right has shrunk, it seems to me, to tiny proportions. It's still there, but it's no longer a significant social fact.

Peter Robinson: Christopher?

Christopher Hitchens: To which one might add, I mean Krauthammer's got it completely wrapped around his neck.

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Christopher Hitchens: Yeah. Look, it would be a simple argument against--it may be true--it is true that Mr. Le Pen has disavowed anti-Semitism. I believe he is an anti-Semite. The traditions of his party are certainly anti-Dreyfusard to put it no higher. But, of course, like most of the extreme, he's a very great enthusiast for General Sharon. So, he goes around saying, "How could you say I'm an anti-Semite? I'm very pro-Sharon." I continue to see this not allowed for in Mr. Krauthammer's worldview. And quite common among anti-Semites, incidentally is a philo-Zionism. But look Mr. Le Pen's main demand is that all these Muslim thugs who trash synagogues and attack Jews just be deported en masse from France. So, I mean that should be good news for anyone who doesn't like anti-Semitism.

Peter Robinson: Is this all just a temporary protest against the centrist elites or are we seeing the emergence of a genuinely new form of politics?

Title: Le Stuff Droit

Peter Robinson: We have Jean-Marie La Pen, Jorg Haider and funnily enough, Pim Fortuyn saying some of the same things.

Christopher Hitchens: Gianfranco Fini should not be left out either.

Peter Robinson: All right, Franco Fini. Hold back the immigrants, certain--national pride as opposed to European pride. So, what is going on if you have the left, I use that term for Fortuyn, you may say he's not of the left, but he looks of the left to me. You have the left and the right making common cause. Is it that the center, well, John you've written about the "dehydrated ideologies of the Social Democratic/corporate conservative establishment."

John O'Sullivan: A bit of a mouthful that, isn't it?

Christopher Hitchens: Rather well-phrased.

Peter Robinson: Well, I did have to practice in front of a mirror five times.

John O'Sullivan: Yes, and I think that there is at the European politics the elites have made themselves deeply unpopular by refusing to respond to all sorts of popular discontents. We concentrated recently on this conversation on immigration, but I think you could equally well say that the cavalier treatment of electoral resistance to European integration, the demand that if somebody votes against the Treaty of--the Irish vote against the Treaty of Nice, they have to vote a second time. If the Danish…

Peter Robinson: Keep voting until they get it right.

John O'Sullivan: Yeah, exactly. And this kind of thing has fueled popular resentment and other parties have come, have emerged and taken advantage. Now most of those parties have been on the right, but Fortuyn--Fortuyn rather is an example of someone who brought together a mixture of left and right ideologies. And it may well be that what we're witnessing in Europe and maybe here at a later date, is a new form of politics in which the old left-right boundaries don't make as much sense as they used to.

Peter Robinson: That's the point.

Christopher Hitchens: You do Fortuyn an injustice by saying he seems right winged to you, I mean, excuse me, left winged to you because I'm surprised to hear you say that of someone…

Peter Robinson: Well, the hedonistic strain.

Christopher Hitchens: Well, yes but he was for no taxes and less government and all this. I mean much more of a libertarian than…

Peter Robinson: Complicated picture.

John O'Sullivan: He was for gay rights. I mean he was socially very liberal.

Christopher Hitchens: He was for gay rights to the utmost. There's no question about that.

Peter Robinson: My point is, do you see any…

Christopher Hitchens: That's very common…

John O'Sullivan: And for the rights of women…

Christopher Hitchens: In the United States it's very common to find people who are small government conservatives and social libertarians, it's increasingly common. It's a measurable faction in politics and I think I must say a rather wholesome one.

John O'Sullivan: A certain libertarianism is gaining ground and I think that's the best way to describe it.

Peter Robinson: In Europe, as well?

John O'Sullivan: Well, I think Fortuyn was a libertarian. I mean that is in a sense the best way to describe him in a single word.

Peter Robinson: But the point I'm trying to get at is do you see any creative response to the current politics in Europe taking shape? I, for example, as a layman look at the Tories and the Tories in the House of Commons now strike me as utterly clueless. I mean simply pathetic. They're not onto anything at all as far as I can tell.

John O'Sullivan: And there is a reason for that.

Peter Robinson: Is anybody onto something here?

John O'Sullivan: There is a reason for that.

Peter Robinson: Yes, John.

John O'Sullivan: And the reason is very simple, is that on the one hand they know where the votes are to be got. On the other hand, they have lost the support or they've earned the dislike or the contempt of the media and political elites in London. And they think it more important to win back that respect before they address the problem of winning votes. And that cripples them because as we've discussed a moment ago, the elites and the populace are on a collision course in Europe and the Tories basically can't make up their mind which side of that collision course they wish to be on.

Peter Robinson: Is there any way you can take anyone who can bring the populist impulse into the political mainstream?

Christopher Hitchens: Well, I've not seen that which involves--disagreeing twice with John who having made this, I think, rather lenient diagnosis of the total collapse of the Tory Party had just got off his chest the thought of the elites don't respond to what the masses want. Well, on matters that we've just been talking about such as the crime and immigration and so on, you couldn't have a more pandering government than that of Tony Blair. He's now saying that all these new arrivals, they must learn to speak English and drink beer and play cricket and so forth and tough on crime and all these kind of things.

Peter Robinson: So, the answer is Tony Blair's onto it.

John O'Sullivan: Exactly.

Christopher Hitchens: Really. He's the most pro-European of the lot. The other reason for the Tories decline therefore, is that they don't have an issue or it's been taken away from them, but I really do think that the other thing is that there's no one really in Britain who thinks the Tories can be serious when they say Britain shouldn't be a member of the European Union.

Peter Robinson: Can Blair…

John O'Sullivan: They don't say that as a matter of fact, as you know. One or two individuals, Lady Thatcher has said it, but they have not said so and gone nowhere near saying so. Explicitly disavowed that position. But having said that, Blair has done two things. The first is as you said, he has appealed to the populace's fears on these anxieties on these other issues and on Europe, he's taken it out of the political debate altogether by saying the euro is something you'll have a referendum on. No need for it to disturb our politics until that happens. And he's neutralized it as an issue.

Peter Robinson: Last topic, two views of the new Europe.

Title: New Jerusalem or Paradise Lost?

Peter Robinson: Robert Kagan: "A continent free from nationalist strife and blood fueds for military competition and arms races after centuries of misery the new Europe really has emerged as a paradise. It is something to be cherished and guarded." Andrew Sullivan: "The European Union has robbed people of a sense of control over their lives. It has been foisted on populations without their consent. It combines the worst of socialist regulations with the difficult challenges of global capitalism. In short, it's an undemocratic behemoth begging to be unraveled." Well, Mr. Hitchens?

Christopher Hitchens: If we take, what I think is the great achievement namely the common currency…

Peter Robinson: Not peace, not fifty years of peace?

Christopher Hitchens: No, because I don't really think the Europeans are entitled to take credit for that.

Peter Robinson: It's American missiles that took care of that.

Christopher Hitchens: Well, let's say and Russian missiles, too. I mean if you believe in a balance of terror, presumably you believe in both sides of it. I wasn't a great balance of terrorist myself.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Christopher Hitchens: I don't think the most solipsistic European could say well, you know, we kept our own peace. No, the great the summit of European achievement is the common currency because you can go from Northern Scandinavia--from Finland say, to the furthest islands of Greece without having to change money. And pretty soon really don't need a passport either. Not only that you can live and vote in any of these countries, you can settle your business there, you can claim health benefits there. That will be an achievement that will bring about a lasting peace if more countries can be brought into it. To describe that as elitist or imposed on people is simply fatuous.

John O'Sullivan: On Christopher's point about the euro, the idea that you need a common currency to go around Europe with any difficulty has been disproved for forty years by the existence of credit cards, which do everything that the common currency does in terms of convenience for travelers, particularly since, by the way, the invention of the machines in the walls where you put your card in and the money comes out

Peter Robinson: So, the great achievement of the European Union is to spare Mr. Christopher Hitchens from having to go to the ATM machine quite so often.

Christopher Hitchens: It's the first time there's been a common money without a state machine to back it.

Peter Robinson: Aside, of course, from centuries of gold.

John O'Sullivan: Now the answer to your question is that no contradiction or no…

Christopher Hitchens: You will not get gold to come out of the wall with plastic.

John O'Sullivan: There's no necessary contradiction between Kagan and Sullivan because they're talking about different things. Sullivan is talking about the EU. And I generally agree with his remarks, though they seem a little harsh. However, what Kagan is talking about is the new Europe as a whole. He means the Europe of peaceful cooperating nation states, some of which are in the EU, some of which aren't. Switzerland and Norway aren't, they're every bit as much part of the new Europe as the EU member states are. And yes that is a great achievement and yes, it is principally the result of the United States being a European power. Because if the United States is in any group of people as it is in NATO, no other power has to worry about their neighbor. They know that the U.S. will not allow a serious attack and at the same time they needn't fear the United States because the biggest anxiety Europeans have about the United States is that they will pull up the legions and go home.

Peter Robinson: The Maastricht Treaty is signed in 1992, one decade ago. The governments then in place have nearly all been replaced. So, the question is a decade from now what I'd like to get at is the final question. Are we watching a secular shift--a long term shift to the right in Europe or is this just a momentary fumbling around that involves a temporary populist reaction to Muslims and the main establishment parties will figure out how to absorb it? Call it, a decade from now, will Europe politically look substantially different or about the same, Christopher?

Christopher Hitchens: I think its center will be politically much to the right of where it's at.

Peter Robinson: You do.

Christopher Hitchens: Yes. Particularly what I find ominous is the thing I opened with, which is the reopening of this question of the German deportations. Because this very much compromises European enlargement to the east and it's a line in the path. We can't get around it and the appeal it makes to the populations of all countries concerned is one that is more likely to express itself in conservative nationalist reactions.

Peter Robinson: John, you answer and then that's a wrap.

John O'Sullivan: We are only beginning to see what the shape of post-Cold War politics is going to be like. I would like Europe to develop in concert with the United States and develop a much closer Atlantic relationship, precisely because I fear that even if the particular example that was just quoted by Christopher doesn't arise, you can predict that Europe in the future will have internal convulsions and if America is there to make sure they're settled peaceably, we can all sleep more soundly in our beds.

Peter Robinson: John O'Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, thank you very much. I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thank you for joining us.