Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 13
3 April 2000

The EU’s Real Problems with Haider

Andrew Roberts

For the past month or so, Europeans have been bombarded with the saga of Jörg Haider and his Freedom Party (FPÖ). However, amid all the fuss about Austria’s new government, a few things have not been clearly explained. The first is the reason for Europe’s harsh reaction to Haider, and the second is the roots of the far right’s popularity in Europe. Those who oppose Haider ought to be more familiar with both.

Consider, first, the EU. When Haider’s party was included in the new governing coalition in Austria, the reaction of the EU was swift and severe. Portugal, the holders of the EU’s rotating presidency, immediately condemned the move, and individual countries moved to enact unilateral sanctions. General EU sanctions were impossible, because Austria would have had to agree to them.

I have no doubt that much of this reaction was sincere and justified disgust with many of Haider’s xenophobic and pro-Nazi statements (and to a lesser extent with his policy proposals). Moreover, it was basically in line with domestic public opinion in most of these countries.

The EU's double standards

However, politicians are politicians, and no matter how important principles are, holding onto power is more important. So, notice two facts. First, most governments in the EU, among them Britain, France, Germany, Holland, the Scandinavian countries and Portugal, are controlled by center-left coalitions. Second, many states in Europe are home to increasingly popular parties, who themselves bear resemblance to Haider’s Freedom Party.

When you put these two facts together, you find that the European ruling parties have good reason to worry about Haider’s inclusion in government. If Austria gets away with including a xenophobic party in its new government, other center-right parties may be emboldened to try the same thing and current, governing coalitions will soon find themselves in a perilous position. Add the National Front’s 15 percent to the totals of traditional right-wing parties, and Lionel Jospin’s hold on the French premiership no longer looks so secure - and not just Jospin’s. The Vlaams Blok in Belgium and the Lega Nord and neo-fascists in Italy, among others, touch the same nerves as Haider.

A preemptive attack on Haider, thus, looks like good politics for the left. At the very least, center-right parties in EU countries will think twice before entering into coalition talks with extremist parties for fear of igniting a diplomatic firestorm. Further, just as the right once profited by associating social democrats with communists, left parties gain by the implicit association of conservatives and far-right extremists.

Of course, we should not see attacks on Haider simply as a left-wing conspiracy. Rightist leaders such as Jacques Chirac and members of the Belgian government have been equally vocal in ostracizing the Freedom Party. Not coincidentally, France and Belgium are the countries where xenophobic parties score best in elections. The right, too, finds it good politics to inoculate their countries against the possibility of a coalition with the browns. Perhaps because it threatens cozy corporatist relations between the mainstream left and right. Let us also not be too cynical and forget that there is a significant element of genuine moral revulsion on both sides of spectrum. Nevertheless, Haider-bashing is good politics for all concerned.

But while it might be good politics, it is also dangerous politics. While some supporters of these far-right parties may be goose-stepping neo-Nazis, many - probably most - are not. These parties address a fear larger than vulgar xenophobia. That fear is unemployment.

Unemployment and xenophobia

Far-rightist parties emerge in countries where unemployment is high. Belgium, France and Italy all have unemployment of over ten percent and all are home to extremist parties that have garnered over ten percent of the popular vote. With low unemployment rates (between three and seven percent), Holland, Scandinavia and the British Isles are relatively free of this blight. Germany, with high unemployment and the absence of the far right, is an exception to this trend, though an explicable one: its forthright relation to its Nazi past and legal barriers have restricted Haider-type appeals. Iberia is a more complex exception, but the general correlation between unemployment and extremism is clear. It is no surprise, then, that Haider praises Nazi full-employment policies.

The causal mechanism connecting unemployment and extremist parties is not hard to unearth. It is not so much that unemployment leads to dire poverty (Europe is more progressive than the US in this regard), but that it detaches people from the normal workings of society and politics. That these unemployed are mainly young and see no future for themselves, the labor market turns them away from the welfare benefits offered by the left and towards more extreme solutions.

This rejection turns to xenophobia when the unemployed see foreigners working (albeit at jobs or wages that they would refuse). Though these immigrants are not the cause of unemployment, they are its visible face and, since the fall of the Iron Curtain, their number and, thus, visibility has increased.
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The extremist reaction is unfortunate, but natural. Le Pen points to X million unemployed Frenchmen and X million foreigners and everyone (or at least 15 percent of the electorate) sees the connection. Elie Wiesel has said that anti-Semitism would disappear only after years and years of bourgeois prosperity (or to put it another way, after years and years of full employment).

The appeal of the far right is, thus, understandable, but so far governments have attacked the symptoms rather than the causes. Instead of dealing with unemployment, which would cut the legs off the far right, mainstream politicians have instead harped on the horrors of Nazism and encouraged tolerance. The current snubbing of Haider is more of the same.

Grasping the nettle

The real priority should be unemployment. Here, economists are virtually unanimous: job growth in Europe is stalled, because of overgrown welfare states. On the one hand, generous social benefits make workers unwilling to work under less than ideal conditions. On the other, high payroll taxes (to fund these benefits) and restrictions on firing make employers unwilling to hire more workers. The cure is simple, but painful. European states need to trim social programs and labor market restrictions. Not surprisingly, center-left and even center-right governments are reluctant to do this. Social programs are popular, and cutting them imposes political costs. Attacking intolerance is an easier and less costly strategy.

However, the consequences of this choice are dangerous. As long as unemployment remains high, xenophobic parties will remain a substantial part of politics. Moral exhortation may go some way to reducing their appeal, but it remains only a stopgap solution. Including these parties in government is another option. While this will certainly force them to moderate their stances, as it has done in Austria, it also carries the risk of legitimating illiberal values. In both cases, the real interests that these parties represent are not addressed; however, they will make themselves heard one way or the other. The only sure answer is to tackle unemployment head on.

What then of Austria? Strangely enough, unemployment in Austria is low, somewhere between four and five percent. So why did the Austrians vote for Haider? Jobs are certainly part of it: common borders with four Eastern European countries and the impeding expansion of the EU create anxiety for Austrian workers. More likely are other domestic factors, especially the inbred relations between the Social Democrats and the People’s Party that have made it effectively impossible for voters to "throw the bums out." But while jobs may not be the heart of the matter in Austria, they are elsewhere. Doing something about them is the EU’s real Haider problem.

PS Don’t expect any miraculous results from the EU’s current jobs summit. If past summits are any guide, they are more likely to make progress on the Haider front than in cutting joblessness.

Andrew Roberts, 30 March 2000



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