>The far right in Antwerp

I’ve just spent two days at an ESRC workshop on the extreme right held – with a certain unintended appropriateness – in Antwerp, electoral power base of the Flemish ultra-nationalist party Vlaams Belang (‘Flemish Interest’). Formerly – until an ineffective legal banning order – Vlaams Blok, VB pulled over 30% of the vote the city, which has a large number of residents of Moroccan, Turkish and African origin as well as sizeable Orthodox Jewish community and looks likely to do just as well again in local elections this October. As Antwerp’s largest party, it is kept of municipal office only by a grand coalition of Socialists, Liberals, Greens and others backed by written cordon sanitaire agreement. Although I wasn’t aware of it, just how grimly toxic Antwerp’s community relations are after 15 years of Vlaams Belang as a major party were being brutally illustrated a couple of kilometres from where I was staying by the random racist murders of an Malian women and a two year old girl, whose nanny she was, and wounding of a Turkish woman (or a Belgian of Turkish descent?) sitting on a bench reading a book.

Not understanding any Dutch, I only later learned later from La Libre Belgique. that the shootings took place near the Old Town where I was staying, taking in the cathedrals, historic buildings, shops and ice cream when not sitting in a seminar room in Antwerp University’s fine new social sciences building. As a Walloon newspaper LLB showed a certain diffidence about commenting directly on Flemish racism, but its reporting was clear enough. The 18 year old gunman, who had bought a rifle and cartridges over the counter for 515 euros that same day, admitted the racist motivation of the killings. But for being shot and wounded himself by a policeman, hw would have killed more. He had just been expelled from agricultural secondary collegefor smoking in his dormitory. but came from a VB supporting family – his uncle was reportedly a party activist. VB leaders condemned the murder, disclaimed any respisnsibility for racist violence (at length) and questioned its racist motivation, noting that the little girl was white. The killer’s profile of quiet, unexceptional youth seems familiar from American and European high school masacres as does the fact that he reportedly expected the police to finish him off, suggesting a desire for suicide-by-cop. However, as the Flemish press (as reported in LLB) and Walloon academics interviewed in the same newspaper noted, the incident is part of a wider climate of exclusionary nationalism which is becoming more normal and publicly acceptable in Flanders and, to a lesser extent Wallonia (the Belgian Front National too has its bastions) – perhaps the most important (if intangible) influence of such parties.

As Cas Mudde astutely noted at the end of the some ‘extreme right’ characteristic such as nativism, opposition to immigration and populist anti-elitism have long been mainstreamed. Indeed, although we talk in terms of ‘immigration’ as an issue, most Western countries had already blocked primary immigration in the 1970s. The issue is more one of integration and mutli-culturalism than policing borders. As Anna Marie Smith’s excellent book on British New Right discourses of race and sexulaity notes, the notion of ‘immigrant’ has less to do with where people have travelled from/to and much to do with contructing political identities through exclusion and inclusion. This rather makes a nonsense of the notion of historicially derived party families with more or less similar ideologies – the divisions between far right, mainstream right and even in certain respects mainstream left are blurred and porous because of the extent of ideological development and convergence. The long ideological journey of New Labour is a case in point. This Mudde suggested meant that the rise of the far right is less a matter of its unique ideology, than its ability to take ownership of certain issues like ‘immigration’, which may at certain times become (be made?) salient for voters

The seminar’s more academic treatment of the far right and its progress (in some countries) noted that parties like VB are not pathological exceptions, whose success needs to be explained as an odd event, by focusing on the ‘demand side’ of social change, economic decline and identity crises, but an established part of the political landscape, which may in certain circumstance enter government, usually after traversing stages – ghettoization, marginalization, acceptance as ‘normal’ populist outsider etc. The cases discussed included not only – inevitably – VB, but also VB, Austria’s Freedom Party, the French Front National, the National Alliance in Italy and Hungary’s (declining) old fashionedly anti-Semitic far right, which for strategic reasons the mainstream right in Hungary might even need to partially sustain – as far as CEE is concerned the agrarian populists of Self-Defence and Catholic conservative League of Polish families have just made it to government office in Poland in coalition with more mainstream Catholic conservatives, this would have made a better talking point. A range of strategies for managing a rising populist radical right was revealed from the Austrian People’s party’s successful “co-opt and castrate” strategy, to cordons sanitaires of varying formality depending on local traditions and how well conventional parties can do without far-right support (quite well in France) to the very fluid Italian situation, where the post-fascist National Alliance seems to be ‘responsibilizing’ itself into a conventional conservative centre-right party – although not responsible enough to be accepted into the EPP. Meanwhile, Forza Italia – a party taht confounds east categorization if ever there was one, beyond noting the influence of business franchising models and the Berlusconi brand of charisma – is interestingly dividing up between liberals and Catholics. The issues to follow is perhaps not party competition but party co-operation and interdependence

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