As German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Athens on April 11, the streets were empty, having been cleared for security reasons. Those protesters who did turn up despite a ban on demonstrations, were kept out of sight behind police cordons.
The previous day, a car-bomb explosion had shaken the city centre but that was not the main reason for the stringent measures. On Merkel’s previous visit, there had been extensive riots. Incidentally, the bomb exploded a few hours before Greece officially was to return to capital markets, after a four-year banishment due to the implosion of its state finances.
But nothing could deter the head of Europe’s strongest economy from her stated purpose: To lend full and public support to Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and ensure there would be no deviation from the continued implementation of austerity and reform measures.
However, as Merkel’s motorcade drove past the new offices of Greece’s notorious, ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party, a banner with the words “Merkel Raus” (Merkel Get Out), had been slung from the building and a few individuals were heard screaming abuse.
An even more embarrassing episode, this time directed at Samaras’ administration, occurred the week before the visit, just as a meeting of European Union finance ministers was about to conclude in Athens. Politician and spokesperson for Golden Dawn Ilias Kasidiaris submitted to parliament a transcript of what he claimed was a recorded conversation featuring cabinet secretary and close Samaras aide Panagiotis Baltakos.
A video of the conversation later emerged and went viral: Baltakos, on camera, admitted to someone with a voice very similar to Kasidiaris’, that senior ministers had pressured judges to remand in custody Golden Dawn MPs, including party leader Nikolaos Mihaloliakos, on charges of directing and participating in a criminal organisation. Baltakos also let on that the persecution was politically motivated, as ruling party New Democracy, whose leader is Samaras, was losing voters to Golden Dawn.
The arrests had followed the stabbing to death of a man by a reportedly self-confessed Golden Dawn sympathiser last September. Baltakos was forced to resign, while the respective justice and public order ministers mentioned in the video denied any involvement.
This combination of so-called neo-Nazis using Nazi-era rhetoric to spite a German politician, after having taught a democratically-elected government a thing or two about the rule of law, does lend itself to a perverted sense of irony. This same bafflement applies to what seems like a definite rise of the far right across Europe, as mainstream parties seem to lose a great part of their appeal before this May’s European Union Parliamentary elections.
Against the Euro-grain
The list of parties going against the established Euro-grain is remarkable. They are called nationalist, Eurosceptic and sometimes ultra-nationalist, extreme, xenophobic, and racist. They are more apt to be anti-Islamist than Jew-baiting. And any reference to anti-Semitism is taboo, so those parties which might be, make sure not to say it outright in public. The onset of the post-2008 financial crisis is fuelling these parties’ ascent, as voters sense their national governments have conceded their countries’ respective sovereignty to unelected technocrats or opaquely-functioning institutions or both, and over which they have less and less democratic control.
The onset of the post-2008 financial crisis is fuelling these parties’ ascent, as voters sense their national governments have conceded their countries’ respective sovereignty to unelected technocrats or opaquely-functioning institutions or both, and over which they have less and less democratic control.
Let’s start with France, where the National Front did very well in local elections, especially since its leader, Marine Le Pen, made a point of criticising the EU and avoided the xenophobic rhetoric of her father and party founder Jean Marie Le Pen. President Francois Hollande’s Socialist party suffered notable defeats across the country.
In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) again fared very well in local elections, albeit presenting candidates in only two municipalities. Wilders made some odious anti-Moroccan comments, which caused support for his party to drop. Just like France’s Le Pen, he is also focusing on criticising the EU.
In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s economically centre-right but socially revanchist Fidesz party won two-thirds of the seats in parliament, whereas the xenophobic, anti-Roma and anti-Jew Jobbik party consolidated gains of 20 percent and now is seen as exporting its model to the surrounding region.
The Freedom Party of Austria (FPOe) is polling between 21 and 27 percent. One of its better known representatives was forced to quit as a top candidate for the European parliament after comparing the EU to Hitler’s Third Reich and saying the EU was becoming a “conglomerate of negroes“.
It will also be interesting to see which small German parties will make it into the EU parliament, now that the constitutional court has scrapped the three percent entry threshold. Who will gain? The Eurosceptic AfD, the irreverent Pirate Party or the extreme right-wing NPD?
Britain’s UKIP, though deeply conservative and pugnaciously Eurosceptic, does not fall in the far right category. And beyond the EU, Norway and Switzerland have shown tendencies for what is being called a lurch to the right. Even further east, in Ukraine, extreme right hardliners have joined the new government, as civil war with the Russia-supporting population looms.
So where does Golden Dawn stand in all this? Before proceeding, it is worth taking a look at unemployment statistics in all countries mentioned, bar Ukraine. How is it possible that Austria, with one of the lowest unemployment rates, is in the clutches of the far right?
And how can a model country such as Norway be the scene of one of the most shocking events to take place on the European continent these past two decades, Anders Breivik’s murderous rampage which claimed the lives of more than 70 people?
In Greece, the situation is bleak. Unemployment is at a sky high 27 percent, compared to an EU average of 11 percent. Public health services have collapsed, infant mortality is soaring and over a million people have no access to healthcare. According to UNICEF, more than a third of minors are at risk of poverty or social exclusion. A tenth live in households where the parents or guardians are unemployed.
And in the midst of all this, Greeks watch MPs be taken away in handcuffs on flimsy evidence. They learn the party’s state funding is being suspended and one of the few MPs from another party who is against this is Manolis Glezos, a legendary figure in Greek politics, who as a youth took down the Nazi flag from the Acropolis during the 1941-1944 German occupation. It’s not that Glezos is a Golden Dawn supporter, quite the contrary, but he certainly believes in proper legal procedure. At the same time, Greeks see that the two mainstream parties which have ruled the country for the past 40 years, and have caused the mess the country is in, keep getting their funding, enjoying privileged access to loans, while multi-million dollar corruption in state procurement is rife and few are punished.
Yes, people who have links to Golden Dawn might indeed be guilty of certain crimes. But this needs to first be proven in court. As an Amnesty International report on Greek police ascertains, Golden Dawn might enjoy a special relationship with part of the state apparatus. But who is doing whose bidding? According to former US diplomat and political expert Brady Kiesling, the situation is much more complicated than the dominant narrative.
One would expect the left-leaning main opposition SYRIZA party to make more gains but it has yet to show the necessary political dedication in taking on Greece’s problems. The situation is dire and people are desperate. This would explain why a fringe party with a shady past shot from 19,624 votes (0.29 percent of the electorate) in the 2009 national elections, to 426,025 votes (7 percent) in the June 2012 national ballot. And Golden Dawn might fare even better in upcoming contests.
In any case, if Europe is entering an era where every country, every nation will have to look out for itself, it is no wonder that parties professing just that are snappily strutting onto the centre of the political stage.
Menelaos Tzafalias is a freelance journalist and producer based in Athens, Greece. He has worked as an associate producer on the documentary “Palikari: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre”, a story about migrants and labour relations in early 20th century America.