Op-ed in The Parliament Magazine: Liberalism in Europe ‘facing its biggest fight’

As far-right parties gain popularity across Europe, liberals must stand together against the ‘politics of fear’, write Cecilia Wilkström, Catherine Bearder, Hans Van Baalen and Graham Watson. (Please find the link here)

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Liberalism in western Europe is facing its biggest fight since the 1930s.

Last May’s European parliament elections showed just how steep the mountain we have to climb is. The forces of xenophobia and racism – the populist right across Europe – polled strongly in the UK, France and Italy and in many smaller EU member states.

Parties like the Front National in France, UKIP in the UK and the Five Star Movement in Italy all espouse a politics of division and fear and all made substantial gains.

Since then, anti-immigrant ‘Pegida’ rallies have been held in German cities and immigrants, especially those of different skin colour, have been made to feel unwelcome and even insecure in many countries.

“Only in countries with strong civic values and political engagement are the politics of fear and blame denied a wave of popular support”

As liberals, we will be standing together against the racists, the xenophobes and those who believe Europe needs to return to its fragmented past.

Liberals are naturally internationalist; it is in our DNA. We view the world as a global stage, not one subdivided by borders. We see friendly cooperation with our neighbours as the very key to unlocking a more secure, sustainable, prosperous and market-oriented future for Europe and the rest of the world.

We need to spread the message that liberalism is a home for people who don’t seek to brand migrants as ‘other’, for people who believe a Europe without the EU would be weaker and for people who see a reversion to separatism as the very worst outcome.

In the UK, liberals are fighting against UKIP. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg bravely took the fight to Nigel Farage last May, but paid a heavy price. The Liberal Democrats returned only one MEP to UKIP’s 24. But liberals are not prepared to back down – we fight for what we believe in and that’s not going to change.

The forthcoming general election in the UK will be our next battle. UKIP has veered off even further to the right, with a narrative of blaming migrants for the very worst ills in Britain – for the lack of housing, pressure on our generous welfare system and unemployment levels. Just last week, their leader called for laws against race discrimination to be abolished in the UK.

There is fear in the UK, which has just come out of the worst recession in decades, and there’s an appetite to seek scapegoats. Pointing the finger of blame at migrants, however, whether from the EU or beyond, not only threatens the UK’s economic recovery but also its social cohesion. While the UK’s Conservatives seek to ape UKIP in pursuit of votes, liberals offer a more positive vision for Britain.

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ Dutch Front National lookalike Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) appeared, like UKIP in the UK, to have become a structural force in politics. Yet Wilders’ slogan, “We want fewer Moroccans”, rendered him isolated on the Dutch political landscape. No party wants to work with him anymore.

This is the best antidote to prevent his party gaining momentum again. Wilders lost seats in all elections after he brought down the first Liberal government led by Mark Rutte. Liberals had their best results ever at the polls in May 2014.

What explains the difference between the UK and the Netherlands? Perhaps the level of civic education. As George Orwell observed, human history becomes increasingly a race between education and catastrophe.

At an international Liberal conference last week, Grigory Yavlinsky, a prominent Russian liberal and founder of opposition party Yabloko, said the fight for liberalism in Russia against Putin is alive and kicking, but is facing an increasingly tough battle.

The recent assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov has shaken Russia. Yavlinsky places the blame for the death squarely at Putin’s door. He started the war and this was a public execution to spread fear and silence Nemtsov’s calls to stop fighting with Ukraine.

What’s more, Putin is now more determined than ever to put a block on liberalism across the whole of the continent by funding anti-EU parties, putting up barriers not just in his own backyard but further afield too.

That civic education should be less advanced in Russia than in western Europe should not surprise. What is clear is that liberalism is increasingly challenged.

Only in countries with strong civic values and political engagement are the politics of fear and blame denied a wave of popular support. It is up to us as liberals to keep making the internationalist case.

About the authors

Cecilia Wilkström (ALDE, SE) is a chair of parliament’s petitions committee

Catherine Bearder (ALDE, UK) is the only Liberal Democrat member of the European parliament

Hans Van Baalen (ALDE, NL) is chair of parliament’s delegation for relations with South Africa

Graham Watson is president of the ALDE party