The murder of an anti-fascist rapper in 2013 dealt a severe blow to Greece's extremist, virulently anti-immigrant political party Golden Dawn, whose popularity had been increasing (relatively unchecked) since 2010. The party, which rejects the neo-Nazi label that many have applied to it, provoked a national outcry in September after a party sympathizer confessed to killing Pavlos Fyssas. What was perhaps most surprising was the decisive action taken by the government: within two months of the murder, the leader of Golden Dawn, Greece's third-most popular party, was arrested (along with eight of his deputies and fellow parliamentarians), and the party was stripped of its state funding.
The Greek government's action against Golden Dawn marks the first time in decades that sitting parliamentarians—who normally have immunity—have been arrested. The prosecutor's report outlining the legal basis for the arrests said the party's structure parallels a military-type operational force that attacks mainly immigrants and its actions mirror those of a criminal organization.
Foreigners have served as a popular scapegoat in recession-scarred Greece, where nearly 60 percent of youth are unemployed and without prospects, former middle-class citizens are forced to line up at food banks, and a seemingly unending flood of unauthorized immigrants is viewed as competing with natives for scarce resources. Golden Dawn has been able to exploit the undercurrent of immigration-related anxiety running through the country, leading numerous indiscriminate intimidation campaigns and violent attacks on immigrants. Party leaders have also launched several highly visible symbolic campaigns, including providing escort services to elderly citizens in immigrant-dense neighborhoods, and in May 2013 attempting to serve free food during Easter to "native Greeks only." At a charity event, a Golden Dawn member of parliament attempted to attack the mayor of Athens, who had banned such exclusionary activities in Athens' main square.
A Tipping Point
Outsiders have long accused Greek police and politicians of looking the other way in the face of the violence—until now. The Fyssas murder prompted the government to officially designate the party a criminal organization. While some commentators cheered Golden Dawn's reversal of fortune, celebrations may be premature: a retaliatory strike in November 2013, in which two Golden Dawn members were murdered, seems to be restoring some of the party's support. The party's approval ratings began to rebound after the retaliatory murders, for which a previously unknown leftist group claimed responsibility. Against the backdrop of a society stretched to the breaking point after years of austerity and rampant unemployment, Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias warned of "the beginning of a spiral of terrorist attacks and a bloody vendetta with insecurity spreading in society."
Experimenting with Different Scapegoats
Far-right parties elsewhere in Europe have experimented with different scapegoats to explain society's woes, but immigrants and minorities have been the most highly visible targets. The Netherlands' Geert Wilders is most famous for his public anti-Muslim stance (opining for example that the "specter of Islam is haunting the free world"); France's Marine LePen took over a party well known for its earlier anti-Semitism and sustained anti-immigrant rhetoric; and Hungary's far-right Jobbik party has openly targeted both Jews and Roma. But far-right groups are far from being "single-issue" parties; in fact, they seemingly target foreigners when it is most politically expedient. Most such groups select from a cocktail of insecurities afflicting society—including rapid cultural change, deep economic distress, the typical tensions between a country's central and regional governing bodies, growing inequality, and security concerns—gaining strength by stoking fears that those in power (at all levels) are not in control.
A repeat "culprit" is Europe itself. The target seems to be the (growing) role of Brussels—seen as strengthening its own power at the expense of average citizens—casting the European Union itself as the villain. This anti-establishment strand has been gaining popularity across the continent. A senior leader of Hungary's Jobbik party recently burned an EU flag to rally his supporters. And most notably, Wilders and Le Pen announced in November 2013 that they plan to form a new euroskeptic alliance ahead of the May 2014 European Parliament elections (along with Italy, Sweden, and Belgium) to "fight this monster called Europe."
These politicians are betting that their common disdain for Brussels can bridge their ideological differences—and also give them a boost in the polls. But while anti-Brussels rhetoric is the rallying cry, the effect could be to amplify distrust of the "other"—particularly foreigners and minorities. (See Issue No. 5: Is Europe Faltering in Addressing Its Multiple Migration Challenges?)
Combating this will be no easy task. Governments all across Europe will have to convince their electorates that they have a solution for real problems like catastrophic unemployment (especially of youth and minorities), poverty, and social unrest. Otherwise, the risk is that Europeans will seek answers from the skeptics in 2014.
Agence France Presse. 2013. Greek minister fears more unrest after political murders. November 11, 2013. Available online.
Associated Press. 2013. Greece's neo-Nazi Golden Dawn's No. 2 official arrested. September 30, 2013. Available online.
Economist, The. 2013. Greece's neo-Nazis: Breakthrough or backlash. October 5, 2013. Available online.
Ekathimerini. 2013. Golden Dawn: From fringe group to game changer. October 1, 2013. Available online.