|France's decision to deport ethnic Roma and repatriate them to Romania resulted in protests across Europe [EPA]
In recent months, Europe has witnessed mass deportations and crackdowns on religious and ethnic minorities. With the burka ban in France and parts of Italy, the anti-Roma movements in France and Hungary and police surveillance cameras set up in predominately Muslim neighbourhoods in the UK, the continent seems to be experiencing a shift in ideology that is centred less on notions of liberty and inclusion and more on protectionism and exclusion.
European elections have yielded wins for right-wing parties in country after country - think Holland, Hungary, Sweden and the UK, where the Conservatives' failure to secure a solid majority is seen as a result of gains for the anti-immigrant UK Independence Party and the British National Party.
This swing to the right tends to sprout with grassroots community movements, frequently presented as protecting European values, or protecting Europe from the threat of cultural demise, Sharia, criminal immigrants and so on. But what, exactly, are European values, and is limiting certain freedoms and resorting to a nearly granular social control the best way to protect them?
To the outsider, European values may appear to rely on human rights rather than religious doctrines as a guiding principle, or they may be perceived as values based on Christianity.
When Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, warned the European parliament against the "new politics of polarisation", he was specifically concerned with intolerance towards Muslim immigrants. "Some play on people's fears. They seek to invoke liberal values for illiberal causes. They accuse immigrants of violating European values," he said in October.
But what can be done when even the president of the European Union feels that non-Christian ideologies contradict European values?
That is precisely what Herman van Rompuy said before becoming EU president, when he argued that Turkey, a secular country (where headscarves are banned in universities and public buildings) with a Muslim majority, could not be considered a candidate for EU membership.
"Turkey is not a part of Europe and will never be part of Europe," he said. "The universal values which are in force in Europe, and which are fundamental values of Christianity, will lose vigour with the entry of a large Islamic country such as Turkey."
But Willy Fautré, the director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, believes "there are no European values ... only universal human values enshrined in the document of human rights". Fragmenting rights, he argues, only serves to weaken them.
Sarkozy claims that "the burka is incompatible with French republican values, but he has not given any example of how it is incompatible," says Fautré, who feels that if a woman is, in fact, coerced into wearing a burka the ban would only "worsen her plight" by further alienating her from society and limiting her access to social services and education.
Fautré rails against the pervasive underlying assumption in the European discourse that Islam is "incompatible or even a threat to European values" - a narrative he says is reinforced by some media and politicians.
And it is not just tabloids that have contributed to the hysteria - social media has played a role in the anti-immigration, anti-Islam campaign, with film clips predicting when various Western countries will become Muslim states getting millions of hits, and clips refuting those claims receiving just a fraction of the interest.
"This is why you have such reactions in Switzerland, for example, where people demonstrated against the building of a Muslim place of worship - with or without a minaret, in fact - in their neighbourhoods," says Fautré, noting that the issue cannot be reduced to Christians versus Muslims, because Roma, Jehovah's Witnesses in Austria and other minorities face the same battle for acceptance in Europe.
Several countries, including France and Italy, have targeted, deported or marginalised ethnic Roma, who, while European, are generally viewed with the same suspicion as other 'undesirable' immigrants. Both countries have escaped disciplinary action by the EU executive for their actions.
However, this rightward swing is not unanimous - protests against the deportations of Roma swept France, and in Switzerland, voters shot down the minaret ban by 60 per cent in Geneva. There are also programmes - such as one in Germany and Austria, which aims to guide imams in helping their congregations adapt to European life - that seek to nurture integration and harmony.
Socially acceptable racism
Matthew Goodwin, a professor at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, says the rise of nationalist movements in Europe predates the current economic crisis.
"It's more closely linked to cultural issues, meaning the feeling that one's values and culture is under threat," says Goodwin, who is an expert on political extremism, immigration and Islamophobia in Britain.
He says far-right nationalist parties have grown more sophisticated in how they phrase their xenophobic jargon.
"So, to say that, 'Muslims are different, their way of life isn't like ours, they don't belong in Europe,' is different from saying that they are inferior ... and that's more acceptable to the moderate voter who is concerned about immigration," says Goodwin, who is also an associate fellow at the Europe programme at Chatham House, an independent think-tank which is currently holding a series of events on the spread of populist extremism in Europe.
While the younger generation of Europeans is far less prejudiced than previous generations, Goodwin says it is important to distinguish between values and attitudes. "Europeans generally do subscribe to values that we want them to subscribe to," he says, meaning universal human rights, "and there's a steep generational decline in prejudice in the younger generation in Europe. But when we flip the coin, the attitudes aren't always the same."
While values are general guiding principles, attitudes are formed by perceptions of day-to-day life. So a perceived threat after the September 11 attacks, or the bombings that followed in Madrid and London in 2004 and 2005 might alter one's attitudes, though perhaps not one's values.
And social movements, kicked off by common attitudes can lead to political movement - take, for example, the Netherlands, where the nationalist Freedom Party made gains in June's elections (with MP Geert Wilders, recently on trial for hate speech against Muslims, as the face of the party).
Goodwin says that the two drivers for the rise of extreme right-wing parties in Western Europe are, "the increased importance of immigration in the minds of voters ... and the fact that established parties have been unable to present an acceptable and adequate response to those concerns".
So combining the perception that established parties, such as the Labour party in the UK, is incompetent or unresponsive in the face of these concerns with a tabloid media "hostile to immigration" says Goodwin, "provides the far-right with a very potent opportunity".
Co-opting 'European values'
| The Swiss People's Party's advertisements have been criticised by rights groups
The Swiss People's Party (SVP) was behind the minaret ban, which was passed last year, as well as the more recent referendum, passed on November 28, which calls for the immediate deportation of foreigners who commit crimes, ranging from murder to benefit fraud.
This law would apply even to foreigners who have lived all of their lives in the country, and whose children were born there.
The SVP's campaign materials have included black crows pecking at the Swiss map and, most recently, a regional ad depicting first naked young women standing in a pristine lake and then elderly women, clothed - some in hijab -wading through muddy waters.
Silvia Bär, the deputy general secretary for the SVP, said via e-mail that the party's values "do not differ in any form from universal human rights," and rejected the notion that a ban on building mosque minarets constituted a restriction on religious freedoms.
While Bär did not indicate how her party's actions fit into the construct of European values, she did point to a key distinction between the Swiss and French approach.
"Switzerland has seen a great deal of crime ... The Swiss laws already allow the expulsion of foreign criminals after they serve their sentence, but the initiative that was approved by the Swiss people now will facilitate the legal process to expel the criminals after they have served their prison sentence here in Switzerland," she wrote. "The Roma in France are being expelled for being Roma."
Of course, right-wing rhetoric in France, Hungary, Denmark and Italy also holds that the Roma are being deported as a means of crime prevention.
Still, there are those who do not feel that the far-right's co-opting of the term "European values" will stand. Radko Hokovsky, the director of the Prague-based European Values Network, a non-governmental think-tank that studies and promotes European values, says those values are not so politically malleable.
"It's not true that majority can decide anything and can change and suspend liberal and individual freedoms," he says.
"The very core of what we call European values is a combination of freedom and responsibility - responsibility for community and society," adds Hokovsky, who believes that European values are the same as universal human rights, as adopted by the United Nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
"This basic value must always be protected."
Just as the term "family values" can mean different things in the US - an anti-gay rights polemic or a call for social programmes that offer financial and social support for all families - the term "European values" also has multiple meanings, depending on who is using it.
Politicians, community activists and religious leaders may each have their own definition of the term, but in the cold language of statistics, the term, on its own, is essentially meaningless.
"I don't know exactly what European values are," says Loek Halman, a researcher at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, which directs the European Values Study.
"If you're going to talk about European values, you can only do that if you compare it to world values, and those comparisons aren't made at the moment."
The European Values Study, which has been conducted since 1981, looks in detail at several aspects of life in 47 countries and regions on the continent. Still, Halman is reluctant to say that it says anything about Europe as a monolithic society.
"It is dangerous to talk about Europe as a whole, because if you look at Europe from the outside, it seems very homogeneous, but from the inside, it is actually quite diverse," he says.
"What you see at the political level might not be caused by what we see at the values level."
You can follow D. Parvaz on Twitter @dparvaz.
Source: Al Jazeera