In late May, voters in the 28-nation European Union will elect a new parliament for a continent with more than 500 million people. The last election in 2014 was a bit ho-hum and saw a low turnout. But that was before more than 1.3 million Arab and African migrants crossed the Mediterranean into Europe from 2015 to 2016, igniting political panic.
Now EU chieftains are worried that rising anti-immigrant sentiment – tinged by fear and hate – will give an election boost to right-wing populist parties and give them a strong voice in the 751-seat parliament.
The coming elections are not the only concern of EU leaders as they search for ways to quell feelings against migrants. On May 1, neo-Nazi groups marched in Germany and Sweden. And last Sunday, an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim party entered Spain’s parliament for the first time since the fall of the Franco regime in 1975. The Vox party won 10% of the ballots.
Its rise comes after similar parties in France, Denmark, and Germany also saw electoral surges. In nine countries, far-right parties now either rule or share power in a coalition. While these groups reflect other issues such as anti-EU nationalism, they generally play on the fear of immigrants.
So far, the EU has yet to come up with an effective response to deal with either the refugee crisis or its aftereffect, the populist hate against migrants. The solution, however, may not be continental in scope. Rather it could be local, starting with proven programs that replace hate with inclusion, tolerance, and respect.
In March, top European officials met to explore ways to deal with the rise of neo-Nazi movements, the most virulent expression of anti-immigrant feelings. They focused on a successful program in the Swedish city of Kungälv, which has discovered a clever way to curb the recruitment of neo-Nazis. It is now being promoted as the “Kungälv model.”
After neo-Nazis in the city killed a 14-year-old in 1995, Kungälv began to study the rise of such groups and discovered many young people join racist gangs even before they are teenagers. Rather than deal with boys in the groups, the city started a project to teach tolerance to young girls who hung out with them. The training included visits to Holocaust sites in Poland.
“We reasoned that if the girls stopped supporting them, they wouldn’t have people around them,” one Kungälv official told The Guardian. The project, according to a study by Birmingham University, has led to “an increased sense of security, less vulnerability, and most important of all, less hatred.” Sweden has expanded the program across the country.
While still small in scale compared with the bigger problem in Europe, the project at least points to the need to change one heart at a time. The EU election will be a bellwether on the popularity of anti-immigrant parties. But the answer to them lies elsewhere.