Guest Opinion: Europe skids to radical change

The Kansas City Star
July 27
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The refugee crisis and a growing fear of terrorism are pushing Europeans into the lap of populist politicians.

The power of far-right officials is on the rise. The United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, or Brexit, was a victory for isolationists, nationalists and populist conservatives around Europe.

The next step in that direction might come in Austria.

In April, Norbert Hofer — the presidential nominee of the Austrian far-right Freedom Party — surprisingly won 35 percent of the vote in the first round of this year’s election. He lost in the second round.

But earlier this month, Austria’s Constitutional Court annulled that election because of “improperly handled” postal votes. There will be a re-election in October.

Hofer had lost to his Social Democrat rival Alexander Van der Bellen by only 30,000 votes in May. The re-election finds Hofer in a potentially stronger position with voters because of the Brexit results and the recent terrorist attack in Nice, France.

The next president of the United States — Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump — likely will have to deal with many populist politicians in Europe.

Crucial relations between the United States and Europe when it comes to trade, tourism and military agreements involving NATO will be on the table for discussion.

All of these issues could pose difficult challenges for either one, though Trump on the campaign trail has expressed some similar far-right feelings with his get-tough policies on trade and immigrants.

How did we get here?

Several years ago — while Portugal, Spain and Greece were on edge of bankruptcy — the future of the European Union was in question. France and Germany, the big brothers of the union, decided to impose economic sanctions on those countries.

That decision triggered political conflicts in Portugal, Spain and Greece while echoing around Europe, which helped empower radical left parties in some countries. They included Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece.

Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras came to power after an election in September 2015.

But other than those success stories, the radical left’s influence did not give them control of many countries’ governments.

In the last few years, the refugee crisis hit: Millions of Syrians left for Turkey, Greece, Germany, France and other nations. In turn, fear of the refugees increased as Europeans feared for their jobs, as housing shortages occurred and as terrorist incidents rose.

Far-right movements were born from this ongoing period of turmoil. And recent anti-immigration demonstrations in Germany, France, Netherlands and Italy have turned into contests of xenophobia.

• Alternative for Germany party (AfD) in Germany stirred up the people against refugees hand in glove with the racist Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West).

AfD managed to transform its hatred into political power, as its supporters won a number of local elections. Terrorist attacks in the last week in Munich and on a Bavarian train have triggered even more hate speech against refugees.

• Matteo Salvini, leader of the separatist Northern League Party, once said that Benito Mussolini did many good things as a World War II ally of Germany’s Adolf Hitler. Salvini has helped grow his party from just 3 percent to almost 17 percent support in nationwide polls.

Salvini also is Trump’s favorite candidate to be the next prime minister of Italy.

Salvini never misses any opportunity to insult refugees, women and democrats in Europe. At a rally last weekend, he compared Laura Boldrini — Italy’s former spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees — to an inflatable sex doll.

• In France, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front Party is becoming the strongest one in that country. After the outrageous attack in Nice, Le Pen has emerged as the most powerful nominee in the presidential race to be held next year.

• Geert Wilders — the Dutch friend of Le Pen and Salvini — is best known for his quote, “I don’t hate Muslims. I hate Islam.” He is getting stronger in political circles in the Netherlands.

Wilders attended the Republican National Convention last week and told delegates that Europe was imploding because of immigration.

The fear is very real that many European countries will veer into being led by far-right governments.

All of that eventually could affect the balance of economic and military power around the globe.