“France is scared,” Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National declared this week, as she stood on the promenade in Nice where a terrorist ploughed into revellers on Bastille Day last year. A new report from Demos charts this turbulence. As the author, Sophie Gaston, writes: “There is a spectre haunting Europe: a culture of fear that is finding its form and asserting its growing influence in myriad ways.”
Ukip stalks Labour in its Northern heartlands, with an anti-globalisation, anti-immigrant message. In Germany, Alternative für Deutschland spills into the streets. Commentators on both the left and right have joined the dots and declared a populist wave.
But while Europeans may be indulging in a collective political shriek, the Demos report has a second message. The huge bogeyman they fear does not exist.
The report is based on analysis of six European countries, including original survey data and studies of political rhetoric. It is an essay about fear. But it also becomes clear from the findings that each European nation is frightened of different things.
For all that populists like Nigel Farage and Le Pen like to imagine a political wildfire, the scars of history run deep. In once-proud manufacturing countries like France and Spain, globalisation is a menace eroding the economic fabric of society. In others, it is the wave that has brought modernity and liberalism.
The 19th century colonial powers of France and Britain still mourn for their lost place in the world, and express this through support for far-right populists. Germany and Spain, countries that experienced far-right politics for real, have remained restrained in the face of the populist conservative backlash.
Then there is reality versus fantasy. France has suffered brutal terror attacks in recent years, and its residents worry accordingly. Poland has experienced no such terror attacks, yet its population is convinced it is a terrorist target. France worries about national decline, after years of economic stagnation.
Poland has been an economic success story, but voters don’t seem to have noticed.
You could argue that reality makes no difference – France is on the verge of voting for a populist leader; Poland already has. But mainstream politicians can only respond to real fear, not the feverish dreams of the night.
What makes Europeans terrified
The British nightmare is familiar to anyone who has read a post-mortem of the Brexit vote. Those who voted Leave were nervous about immigration and globalisation. They were also less likely to have friends from other countries, or even other parts of the UK.
In France, by contrast, one of the driving fears is terrorism – a response to the Charlie Hebdo, Paris and Nice attacks. More than eight in ten French people believe another attack is probable. The French are more fearful of globalisation than the British. But while they are also Eurosceptic, unlike les rosbifs, they do not want to relinquish their EU membership. Just 22 per cent clearly want to leave.
While British and French voters grappled with the threat of national decline, Germans were less worried about not having clout in the world. What keeps them up at night instead are domestic and bean-counting issues, like the idea that social security is deteriorating and they might have to pay more into the EU. Two-fifths worried about the loss of national identity.
Compared to their neighbours on the north side of the Pyrenees, the Spanish are markedly more positive about globalisation. Despite suffering more than other countries since the financial crisis of 2008, at a time when suspicions of immigrants are rising, the Spanish say they feel closer to people from other backgrounds. In a country once under the thumb of the fascist Franco regime, voters have favoured left-wing populist parties over the right.
In former Communist Poland, one of the biggest fears is an economic collapse (even though the Polish economy has been chugging away without a hiccup since 1989). This dislocation from the facts extends to immigration. Despite immigrants making up less than 1 per cent of the population, Poles are likely to believe they are a burden to society. While there has not been any Islamist terror attacks in Poland, Demos found Poles perceived this as the biggest threat to their country. More justifiably, perhaps, Poles also get nervous about Russia’s incursions into Ukraine.
In contrast to Poland, Sweden has taken in many refugees and asylum seekers, and one of its national preoccupations is protecting “Swedish values”.