No Flemish, no rights

Preachers of Hate: the rise of the far right

Angus Roxburgh <em>Gibson Square Books, 320pp, £18.99

English is the new lingua franca of Europe, right? Wrong, if you are the Brussels correspondent of the BBC and want to settle your family in a suburb of the Belgian capital. Even though most Flemish Belgians, like their Dutch neighbours, speak good English and understand French, their ultra-nationalist municipal councillors insist that anyone who comes to the town hall for help must speak Flemish. The poor BBC man, who had lived through the extremes of the post-communist upheavals in Russia, was quite flummoxed by the fanatical zeal of the Flemish-language purists as he tried to settle the little Roxburghs into a local school and get advice on when the binmen would call. No Flemish, no rights.

From this start, Roxburgh leads off into a discussion of the extreme right-wing Vlaams Blok, the Belgian personification of the hate politics that is bubbling away in modern Europe. I have lost count of the books, reports and articles I have read on extreme right-wing politics in Europe. Some are academic, some are ideological, but most are overexcited. Roxburgh has lifted the discussion to a higher level. He has produced this extended piece of clear, factual reporting based on his first-hand experience of the activities and politics of the far right and on interviews with its leaders.

Our newspapers are awash with columns and commentaries on foreign affairs, but the art of reporting, describing and telling the story has been sacrificed on the altar of opinion and pontification. Roxburgh is a perfect antidote. The story he tells is a simple one: there is a nasty virus of anti-democratic, right-wing politics in Europe and no one quite knows what to do about it. Its sources are linked, but revolve around three themes. First, a hatred of the European Union. Second, a hatred of non-white, non-Christian peoples. Third, more in code than in the open, a specific hatred of Jews and an obsession with Hitler. Thus Jean-Marie Le Pen, who knocked the socialist Lionel Jospin out of the French presidential elections last year, campaigned mainly on an anti-EU and anti-euro ticket. The Brussels "federasts" (homophobia seems to fold in with racism and anti-Semitism in the new politics of the right) were taking over France, he proclaimed.

Although the Jorg Haiders and Vlaams Blokses are quick to deny their slips of the tongue, and even to remove leaders who are too obviously devoted to the cult of the Fuhrer, the Nazi connection is clear, as Roxburgh demonstrates in his polite but penetrating interviews with the leaders of the new-right parties. His book reflects the alarm that swept Europe at the end of the 20th century. Today, in 2003, we see a different picture. Le Pen is, in truth, a very old man with no future. Haider devotes his time to visiting Iraq. The German Christian Democratic Union used the slogan "Kinder statt Inder" ("children not Indians") to highlight the willingness of Gerhard Schroder's SPD government to accept Indian IT technicians as immigrants; but Schroder's brave efforts to liberalise Germany's nationality law did not cost him votes. He remains chancellor. Jacques Chirac, who refused any dalliance or electoral arrangement with the National Front, and who has just confirmed the appointment of a Muslim woman to his cabinet, is president of France.

The rise of right-wing, often racist politics in Europe has coincided with the long crisis over reform of the EU. Although there has been a welcome increase in employment since the euro was launched, the continuing stasis in the employment market and the failure to modernise and reform the post-1945 social-economic model has left too many vulnerable and tempted by the age-old argument that it is the blacks/Jews/Muslims/foreign capitalists/Eurocrats who are responsible for the absence of a decent life.

Contrast this with the United States, which was going through the same angst 40 years ago when George Wallace was leading a significant racist politics and Malcolm X providing a validation for fear. Yet, as a recent report shows, it has been the 13 million immigrants into the United States since 1990 who have provided the labour market energy that even today is driving GDP growth in America well above that of the eurozone countries while, in Europe, many remain uneasy about opening our societies to new people.

Preachers of Hate is a timely reminder of the dangers in our midst. The fears described here must be addressed, but without compromising our democratic values. Anti-Semitism did not disappear in 1945. Racism and hatred of the outsider will never be eradicated. But a Europe that moves and reforms, that creates jobs and sees black and Asian Europeans holding high national and EU office, a Europe that accepts and honours all the great faiths and shares its wealth with the poor of the world by means of global trade, will put the racist politicians where they belong - firmly in the footnotes of history.

Denis MacShane, Labour MP for Rotherham, is Minister for Europe