As Europe's far right grows, so does support for its minorities

A Pew poll finds that attitudes toward the Continent's minorities are more positive than ever – despite  fears of growing Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Visitors sit on benches at The Louvre museum on March 18, 2014 in Paris. Young Muslim girls laugh at two pigeons.

Geert Wilders, the firebrand far-right Dutch lawmaker, has defied his nation’s parliament this week and promised to air cartoons of the prophet Muhammad from a controversial exhibit on Dutch TV.

Such bold actions have become more commonplace as fringe parties in Europe have sought – with increasing success – to tap into popular discontent over economic woes and the changing cultural face of the Continent.

But now it appears that the growth of these parties may be having an unanticipated effect: bolstering support for minorities, and perhaps the European Union as a whole.

According to a new poll by the Pew Research Center, positive views on average of the 28-member EU have increased markedly in the past year in the six countries surveyed: France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, and Britain, which are home to 70 percent of the EU population. Sixty-one percent say they support the EU, up from 53 percent last year and 52 percent the year before. While Pew attributes most of this to economic recovery, support may be up as well as defenders of the EU seek to drown out its detractors.

There's a similar paradox in the poll's findings about minorities. While Europe has braced for Islamophobia in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris in January, and anti-Semitic incidents are up, views of the Continent's minorities are more positive than ever in many countries. The poll notes that may be a result of greater sympathies in the face of new hostilities:

  • Seventy-six percent of French respondents hold positive views of Muslims. In Britain it is 72 percent, up 8 percent, and in Germany it is 69 percent, an 11-point increase from last year.
  • In all three countries, despite news about Jews leaving a hostile climate for Israel, 92 percent of French respondents say they have favorable views of Jews. That number is 86 percent in Britain and 80 percent in Germany.
  • Even the Roma, though they face the lowest acceptance rates, saw a significant uptick in approval. A stunning 86 percent of Italians and 60 percent of the French hold an unfavorable view, but the average favorable view increased from 38 percent to 47 percent, perhaps the fruit of two decades of Roma rights movements Europe.

Support for the EU and its minorities comes at a time of increasing acceptance of parties that rail against both. Pew’s findings show that in four of the six EU countries surveyed, half or more of the population believe the rise of populist parties on the far-right and far-left has been a good thing.

In Spain, 70 percent hail the rise of the left-wing Podemos, which came third in local elections in May. In the UK, the anti-immigrant, anti-EU UKIP won only one seat in Westminster in May elections, but took 13 percent of the vote, making it the nation’s third-largest party. Pew findings show that 66 percent of respondents there think the party has been good for the country.

In France, the National Front, whose leader Marine Le Pen has tried to refashion her party as a tolerant, modern movement, even ousting her father after he repeated views downplaying the Holocaust, French respondents are more skeptical. The party won 25 percent of votes in European parliamentary elections, but 63 percent of Pew respondents worry it is too extreme.

The Netherlands wasn’t included in the Pew poll. And the latest move by Mr. Wilders is likely to be a lightning rod. While he appeals to voters who think the country has welcomed too many outsiders and lost sovereignty to Brussels, others fear he is contributing to a climate of intolerance.

He is currently facing prosecution for hate speech after he led a group of supporters last year to chant that they wanted “Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!” Moroccans in the Netherlands.

Yet his stances against the EU, similar to the position of far-right and -left parties across Europe, are challenging the mainstream political parties, which have been marred by corruption charges, claims of inefficacy, and elitism.

As Catherine Fieschi, director of Counterpoint, a British think tank, put it in an in-depth look by The Christian Science Monitor at Europe's fringe parties recently: populist parties “are calling into question representative institutions, calling into question electoral systems, calling into question the mainstream parties.” She adds that they might ultimately serve a purpose beyond a vehicle for protest: “They in a sense are the canary in the coal mine."

That could ultimately bolster the cause of those who, increasingly, believe in the European Union.

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