Maurice Earls writes: Having experienced setbacks in a number of countries, including Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Italy, social democrats have been on the back foot in Europe for some time. Losses have largely been at the hands of various ethno-nationalist far-right parties.
Some commentators have predicted that the far right will continue to grow, becoming the most coherent political movement across Europe and facing a fragmented and incoherent opposition. This is almost certainly wide of the mark.
The European Parliament elections being held this week will probably see an impressive result for a diverse and divided far right. However, according to polls, the centrist EPP will still be the largest grouping, with the socialist bloc also coming in well ahead of the far right. The socialists might even determine who becomes next president of the commission.
No socialist has served a full term as commission president since Jacques Delors, who held the job from 1985 to 1995. With the failure to complete Brexit, the left will be assisted by the arrival of some Labour MEPs. Support from other sources is also expected. As Marco Aguiriano, the Spanish government politician with responsibility for the European Union, commented: “With Socialists, Liberals, Macronists and Greens, we can be more than the EPP,”
Some social democrats in Europe are buoyed up by recent successes in Sweden, Finland and Spain. However Spain, which saw Pedro Sánchez’s party increase its seats from eighty-five to 123 was the only substantial success. In Finland support of 17.7 per cent gave the socialists forty seats. Social democratic party leader Antti Rinne commented, “I have to make an honest confession: I hoped for a still better result.”
The results of the Swedish election in autumn 2018 were also far from spectacular from a social democratic point of view. The social democrats polled a few points higher than expected but it was their worst result in a century. Sweden, with its extensive welfare state, is the iconic polity for European social democrats, who have traditionally taken inspiration from the Scandinavian country’s egalitarian practices. To see the nationalist far right rise to 17.5 per cent in the home of social democratic achievement was demoralising for many social democrats around Europe.
The threat to Western social democracy, the most effective and long-lasting of the twentieth century’s overarching political ideologies, has not passed. The hard right, at least in part, feeds on its traditional support, securing votes from that significant element of the working class which is prepared to sacrifice the security of social welfare in order to achieve immigration controls and protect what they see as a threat to the cultural cohesion of their communities.
Social democrats in Denmark have responded to the threat from the right dramatically. The Danish Social Democratic Party was established around 150 years ago and was in power for much of the twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, thus far, it has had to adjust to significant periods out of power. The far right is blamed, and the party has responded by taking an anti-multiculturalist and strongly pro-integration position on the question of refugees and immigrants.
While the language employed is not overtly racist, the tone is certainly unfriendly toward newcomers and the party advocates that integration should be obligatory and if necessary forced. The Danish general election will be held on June 5th and the polls are showing a positive response to the party’s new position. (Currently the social democrats have three MEPs. It is thought likely they may increase their tally to four this week.)
One of the party’s targets is so-called ghettos where large numbers of immigrants live. The government proposed that children from these areas would be obliged to attend day care for 25 hours every week in order to learn Danish values and language. There would also be heavier sentences for crimes committed in these designated areas and parents who take children back to home countries, other than for short periods, would risk deportation or imprisonment. The Danish Social democrats supported these measures but argued that they were not strict enough. Mattias Tesfaye, the party’s spokesman on immigration and integration, is reported as saying “We tried to negotiate this to be, you might say more draconian …We think the government has been soft on this.” The social democrats back a ban on face veils and are also reported to have supported a call to confiscate jewellery from immigrants as a contribution to the government for the costs incurred in their care, a policy which has a very definite whiff of the Third Reich about it.
Policies of forced integration are defended by arguing that people should only be asked to pay large amounts of their income in tax only if they believe they are in a common unit with their fellow citizens.
Muhammed Aslam, who moved to Denmark from Pakistan with his parents in 1969 is a recently disaffected member of the social democrats and a resident of one of the target “ghettos”:
Given my fantastic experience growing up with such a fair democracy as Denmark I couldn’t have imagined even five years ago that we could have ended up with a law that’s so discriminatory … It takes away the principle of equality before the law.
Social democrat spokesman Mattias Tesfaye is the son of a Danish mother and an Ethiopian refugee father. He argues that immigrants will benefit from knowing what is expected of them when they enter the country. He also argues that immigration is currently uncontrolled. (Since 1980 the non-Western proportion of the population has risen from 1 per cent to 8.5 per cent.) Tesfaye says Danes are unable to control who comes into the country and from where, and because of this his party supports border controls with Germany until it is clear that the external borders of the EU are protected.
The party also wants to set up a processing centre for refugees outside Europe where asylum seekers can apply, to stop them travelling to Denmark in advance. It is argued that the number accepted should be capped, family reunifications limited, and immigrants incentivised to return to their country of origin or be deported where needed. Muhammed Aslam is not impressed:
It has become a competition about who can be the toughest against immigration, refugees and Muslims … That’s going to be the basis on which the next election is won or lost.
The Danish social democrats argue that “[i}t should be a core issue for social democratic parties to break down these parallel societies and make sure we all belong to each other”. But with its special laws for so-called ghetto areas it is itself creating parallel societies in Denmark and enshrining this in law. It would appear that the Danish social democrats, under the leadership of Mette Frederiksen, have decided that on the issue of immigration they will not be outflanked on the right.
They dress up their policies in an attenuated language of equality and community but the tone in unmistakable: they do not like foreigners with dark skin. It is not easy to see how they differ from parties such as the Finns Party or Marine le Pen’s National Rally. It will be interesting to see how the Danish electorate responds on June 5th.
Image: Mette Frederiksen, leader of Denmark’s social democrats.