Expected far-right surge in European elections raises worries

Some 250 supporters of the far-right National Democratic Party marched, accompanied by riot police, on May Day in Rostock, Germany, on May 1, 2014. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Some 250 supporters of the far-right National Democratic Party marching on May Day in Rostock, Germany, are accompanied by riot police, May 1, 2014. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

BERLIN (JTA) — Armed with ropes and long sticks, a group of teens in Germany’s capital headed out under the cover of night. Their goal: to tear down from lampposts the campaign posters of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party.

The young people are one small posse among those who fear gains for far-right parties in the upcoming elections for European Parliament.

While the NPD seems unlikely to get more than a single seat, far-right parties in other European countries are looking forward to major advances.

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, told JTA that he is worried about “a surge in the number of extremist, racist and anti-Semitic lawmakers in Strasbourg and Brussels.”

The parliament, he said, should establish a “no platform policy toward those parties to ensure that they are completely marginalized in the decision-making process.”

Taking place May 22-25 amid economic hard times, the elections are expected to yield a strong showing for far-right, far-left and anti-establishment parties.

Polls suggest that Euroskeptic parties are likely to take a quarter or more of the parliament’s maximum 751 seats. Despite their antipathy toward the European Union, such parties — some unable to win significant representation in the national parliaments of their own countries — are eager for the platform provided by the European Parliament.

The president of the European Jewish Congress, Moshe Kantor, warned that anti-establishment and anti-European parties on the far left and far right are a danger to “all Europeans, including Jews.”

While some Euroskeptic parties have built alliances with like-minded factions from other countries, they are a fractious lot.

The extreme left and right, despite some similarities, traditionally avoid each other, and there are fissures within the right-wing scene. Far-right parties aiming for broader appeal have been reluctant to cooperate with overtly fascist parties.

“Even if those Euroskeptic extreme-right parties will be more powerful in the next parliament — and they will be — their power will not be enough to block legislation. I don’t believe this will happen,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a French researcher on anti-Semitism and far-right parties, citing such divisions.

But their growing power reveals profound discontent with how the EU is being run. More and more people are saying “the kind of Europe that is being offered is not our cup of tea,” he added.

Extremist parties have become “more polished, more professional in communication and have changed their way of saying things so they don’t appear as extremist as they are,” said Viviane Teitelbaum, a member of the Belgian Federal Parliament who serves on the steering committee of the International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians.

For example, she said, the leader of France’s National Front, Marine Le Pen, “doesn’t use the same language against democracy in general as her father [party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen] was using … She does not deny the Holocaust like her father did. But it is a matter of time.”

Teitelbaum went on to say, “You cannot be just a little bit democratic or a little bit fascist. When you are a fascist, you are a total fascist.”

In France, the National Front is expected to garner nearly a quarter of the vote for European Parliament and potentially will be first among all French parties. It has agreed to form a parliamentary alliance with Holland’s Party for Freedom, led by Geert Wilders, which polls suggest could take some 17 percent of the Dutch vote.

The UK Independence Party, an ardently anti-EU group, is predicted to finish first in Britain’s European Parliament election, even though it holds no seats in the country’s House of Commons. Its leader, Nigel Farage, has said he will not form an alliance with the National Front, citing the French party’s record of “anti-Semitism and general prejudice.”

The alliance being formed by Wilders and Le Pen also would not include more extreme parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece or Jobbik in Hungary.

Golden Dawn, with its swastika-like symbol and anti-immigrant platform, could finish third or fourth in the Greek vote for European Parliament. Golden Dawn’s leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, a Holocaust denier, is currently in prison with other party activists facing charges filed in the wake of the murder of an anti-fascist Greek musician.

Earlier this month, a Greek court ruled that the party would be allowed to participate in the European Parliament elections.

“We are worried, yes, but not afraid,” said Victor Eliezer, secretary general of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece. “We are sure that European democratic forces generally — and especially in Greece — will safeguard the principles of democracy.”

He added, however, that “all of us have to make every possible effort to educate society that the threat of neo-Nazis is an existing one and not just a Jewish illusion.”

Jobbik, Hungary’s third largest party, won 20 percent of the vote in national elections and is expected to post a similarly strong showing in the European Parliament contest. It is fervently anti-Roma and its leaders have often used anti-Semitic rhetoric.

By contrast, the National Democratic Party has never managed to pass the 5 percent threshold necessary to gain a seat in Germany’s national parliament, though it currently has seats in two state legislatures.

But the NPD has a chance of breaking into the European Parliament for the first time. A German Supreme Court ruling in March eliminated the threshold to gain a seat in the European Parliament, so a party needs only about 1 percent of the vote to claim one of Germany’s 99 seats on the EU body, the largest representation of any country.

“The possibility that the NPD will get a seat is relatively high, and I see this as very dangerous,” said Jonas Fegert, the president of Studentim, a Jewish student group in Berlin that has been working with the Brussels-based European Union of Jewish Students to raise awareness about the threat of extremist and populist parties possibly winning a seat.

Meanwhile, vigilantes are busy tearing down NPD posters in Berlin that proclaim, “We are not the world’s welfare service,” “Money for grandmas, not for Gypsies” and “Stop massive immigration!”

“Their slogans appeal to people who are not necessarily far right, so I think they are relatively dangerous,” said a 17-year-old student at Berlin’s Jewish high school who took part in the recent nighttime vandalism and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Some of the NPD posters were too high for her to reach, even when she tried standing on a friend’s shoulders.

“It’s bad if the posters hang there and nobody does anything about it,” she said. “To be against foreigners and to be racist goes against the democratic values of our country.”

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