Across Europe, the sky is falling. Jean-Marie Le Pen blusters his way into the second round of the French elections, and statesmen far and wide rush to repudiate him and everything he stands for, stopping short only of likening him to Hitler. The umbrage is understandable but misses the point. The issues Le Pen raises are real, and Europe ignores them at its peril.
Few understand this better than Pim Fortuyn, an openly gay, shaven-headed former Marxist with a liking for lap dogs and exquisitely tailored suits. He travels around in a chauffeur-driven Daimler. Home is a marble-floored villa in central Rotterdam where his family standard flies from a flagpole in the front yard. But in anything-goes Holland, it's not Pim Fortuyn's lifestyle that attracts comment. It's his politics. The 54-year-old former columnist wants an end to all immigration and the reimposition of border controls. He describes Islam as a "backward culture." What's more, he says, "the Netherlands is full."
The Continent is looking and sounding very much like Fortress Europe these days. And the sound and fury is coming from all over--not just France, where the right-wing extremist Le Pen made such a surprisingly strong showing. On May 5, he will face Jacques Chirac in a runoff election for president. Two weeks later Fortuyn's newly formed party, Pim Fortuyn's List, which won 17 of 45 seats in municipal elections in Rotterdam in March, will flex its muscles in national elections. Never mind that Le Pen and Fortuyn--the "polished demagogues of our time," the writer Ian Buruma calls them--will be buried under an avalanche of opposition. The important point is that they cannot be written off.
Call it the Fear Factor--an emerging awareness of the social conundrum at the heart of modern European life. That's the economic necessity of immigration colliding with a visceral and widespread unease about immigrants. Alarm bells are sounding everywhere. From Athens to Dublin to Oslo, anti-immigrant sentiment is growing, especially among the working classes. For years the Continent's hungry economies have drawn laborers from around the world. And if immigration scholarship has demonstrated anything, it's that supply and demand are migration's masters. Yet one government after another has sought to restrict immigration, rather than wisely manage it. They've rather ineffectively tried to close some doors, and not opened others that should be. Andrew Geddes, a migration expert at the University of Liverpool, describes the strategy as the "the logic of closure," and it has backfired spectacularly.
What's happening, says French demographer and political analyst Emmanuel Todd, is the product of decades of bad policy--resulting today in nothing less than "the rebirth of class conflict." For too many years, French politicians have either taken working-class voters for granted (on the left) or (on the right) considered them out of reach. Le Pen built on this de facto disenfranchisement, winning support point by point from single digits in the early 1980s to 15 percent of the vote in 1995 and almost 17 percent on April 21--enough to edge out socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Combine Le Pen's support with mass defections from the mainstream socialist and Gaullist parties (plus the 11 percent won by Trotskyist candidates on the extreme left) and you have what amounts not only to a stunning protest vote but also a sign of coming social upheaval. "It's like an iceberg coming out of the sea," says Todd.
The Le Pen Effect is already having dramatic impact. Along with the windy rhetoric from leading parties and statesmen, condemning Le Pen and all he stands for, there were also some none-too-subtle jumps to the right. Britain's Labour government, for example, quickly promoted hard-line legislation designed to crack down on asylum seekers who were, in the words of one minister, "swamping" schools and doctors' offices. Failure to act against foreigners who are stretching public services, he added, would be handing a "firelighter" to Britain's small but rabidly anti-immigrant political party, the British National Party.
The impulse to talk tough is understandable. Polls and elections across Europe reveal a hard core of discontent, not only over immigration but also two hot issues often associated with it--globalization, seen as a cause of immigration, and rising crime, presumed to be an effect. To many Europeans, it's no accident that crime has risen sharply with an influx of immigrants. And consider these disturbing results from a Eurobarometer survey in 2000: about a quarter of all Europeans report that they are dissatisfied with the idea of a society made up of different races, religions and cultures. Half would reject the American idea that multicultural diversity is a source of social strength. In Norway, Denmark and elsewhere, politicians have responded by moving right in immigration--a key factor in the triumph of center-right governments or coalitions over the past year.
If Emmanuel Todd is correct, this may only be beginning. Greece, for instance, has no extreme right-wing party of consequence, but the immigration issue has given birth to a potential one: the Hellenic Front. The Front got only about 10,000 votes in national elections two years ago. Nonetheless, the fear factor in Greece is especially pronounced--perhaps because of the shock left by the caravans of immigrants who added 10 percent to the country's 10 million population in just a decade. Take Dimitra, a first-year university student who doesn't want her family name used. She says her mother was laid off from her factory job, only to be replaced by a Romanian woman who earns half of what her mother did. Dimitra turned to the Hellenic Front because none of the mainstream parties seemed to want to deal with her concerns. "Until recently," she says, "I was totally indifferent to politics and then I realized the daily injustices around us." Dimitra is not alone in her disaffection. In a poll after the French elections, nearly 12 percent of Greeks surveyed said they would vote for a far-right party like Le Pen's if they could.
The Germans have a word all this: Uberfremdung, or, roughly, overforeignerization. As if attitudes inside the EU weren't already complicated enough, EU expansion into Central and Eastern Europe over the next half decade is a source of yet more concern. "There's a fear that there will be large-scale migration into Western Europe," says Geddes.
Here the fear factor is almost certainly unwarranted. When Spain and Portugal entered the Union, for instance, similar warnings were heard. Yet not only did the feared flood of migrants seeking work in the north not materialize, a sort of reverse effect was revealed: that former emigres tend to return to countries whose economies flourish once they become part of the EU. Yet that reassuring precedent seems to carry little weight among today's Cassandras. Because of the politics of fear, the EU plan now is to delay full "freedom of movement" provisions until seven years after expansion takes place.
To give politicians some credit, they are sandwiched between the rock of economic imperatives (there will be immigration) and the hard place of political reality (over my dead body). But ultimately they have no choice. "Politicians will have to be bolder and sharper," says Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform in London. "They're going to have to talk about subjects they are uncomfortable with--because not talking about them at all will be disastrous."
Here in a nutshell is the real problem. As Richard Medley points out in an essay concluding this package, Europeans have for the most part not been able to freely and openly debate this most profound and sensitive social issue, except by casting a protest vote. In this sense, Le Pen's success can be viewed as an opportunity--even a good thing. With luck, it will open up healthy public debate. This is critically important, because many Europeans do not realize how dependent they have become on immigration--nor how much more dependent they will be in the future.
Consider what draws immigrants in the first place--the so-called "pull effect" in the social equation. It's economic. Europe offers jobs, and it needs immigrants to keep its economies humming. One reason the United States outperforms Europe is that its labor force absorbs many more newcomers, and that immigration itself fuels growth. Consider also demographics. The PricewaterhouseCoopers European Economic Outlook 2000 report estimates that the European Union, with some of the lowest birthrates in the world, will need about 1.4 million immigrants a year to counteract the downward trend in the working-age population, expected to fall by about 56 million between 2010 and 2050. By itself, the fastest-growing EU economy--Spain (population: 40 million)--needs 10 million immigrants over the next five decades to keep its labor force viable, according to a U.N. report.
The failure of governments and politicians to address this "other half" of the immigration dynamic has left Europe in "a right old mess," says Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a writer on such matters in London. She is distressed by the failure of political leaders to deal with immigration "in the round." Displaying "a complete lack of vision," she says, they are being "appallingly hypocritical--knowing immigrants are needed but claiming they're unwanted."
Can Europe wake up? Perhaps, but doing so will require Europeans to accept that "immigration is inevitable," says Geddes. Despite last week's uproar, there have been encouraging signs. A small one came last week when EU interior ministers agreed on initial steps to "harmonize" national policies on asylum and establish a common immigration policy by 2004. But the deeper problem is psychological, tapping into hidden wells of cultural identity. Unlike America, notes Aristide Zolberg of the New School University in New York, Europeans do not have a deeply ingrained tradition of ethnic assimilation. There is no myth of the melting pot that shapes its identity as a "nation of immigrants." That's more than a matter of passing a few smart laws and tinkering with a system that's already profoundly broken. For Europe to think of itself differently will require a major social transformation--and no small amount of courageous and enlightened political leadership.