If you want to estimate the future political direction of Europe just ask yourself one question, are Europeans prepared to live like Israelis? Are Europeans, in other words, prepared to accept some level of terrorism as an unfortunate fact of life? If so we have relatively little to fear. The chances of being caught up in a terrorist attack are miniscule, and the idea that Islamic fundamentalists could attain Governmental power in a Western European country is laughably absurd. But my suspicion is that if we continue along our current trajectory patience, somewhere in Europe, is going to snap. And if it does, and people lose faith in the ability of liberal-democrats to protect them, it doesn’t take a genius to guess to whom they will turn. To authoritarian nationalism almost certainly, and possibly even outright fascism in some cases.
It’s impossible to deny that Western Europe has a serious problem with terrorism. Whenever I see a major European city trending on Twitter my heart skips a beat. Around two-thirds of the time it’s got something to do with football, but in the remainder it usually indicates that something truly terrible has happened. The list of cities which have recently been subject to a major attack grows ever longer. Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin, Stockholm, London and now Manchester. In the case of France terror attacks have become so frequent that you could plausibly argue the country is confronting a low level insurgency.
Two British ISIS fighters, Reyaad Khan and Abu Muthanna al-Yemeni, pictured in Syria. Both were later killed by an RAF drone in late 2015.
Of course it should be remembered that a strong majority of European Muslims abhor violent extremism, and are completely blameless in the current crisis. But we can no longer pretend that the minority which does not is small enough to be insignificant. The number of radicalised Muslims who, in the past few years, have travelled from Western Europe to fight for ISIS has been particularly troubling. If you’d have told me five years ago that 850 British nationals were about to go off to fight for an Islamist extremist group more radical than Al-Qaeda I’ve have thought you either quite mad or a bigot, and quite possibly both. Yet even The Guardian admits that this has now come to pass. This must surely be the biggest movement of people from the British Isles to wage holy war since the crusades. The picture across Western Europe is equally troubling, and in some cases considerably worse. All told something like 6,000 Europeans have travelled to Syria to join ISIS, with France producing more recruits than traditional radical hotspots such as Egypt.
If you think the current situation is going to be regarded, in the long-term, as acceptable by the European publics I fear you are very much mistaken. The radical right are on the rise across much of Europe and, should the current trajectory continue, it looks virtually inevitable that they will come to provide the President and/or Government of a Western European state. There have already been a number of near misses, most notably in May 2016 when the Austrian Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer came within 0.6% of the vote from winning the country’s Presidency. Earlier this month the Front National’s Marine Le Pen lost the French Presidential election, in what some interpreted as a decisive rejection of hard-right populism. And yet Le Pen secured 34% of the French vote, a total far higher than any previous radical right politician in the post-war era.
A vigil in Manchester’s Albert Square following the 22 May terrorist attack.
I’m concerned that many of those who want the radical right kept away from power, as I do, underestimate the extent of the theat. In late January of this year, when Trump signed an executive order banning the citizens of seven Muslim majority countries from the United States, Europe appeared to be united in justifiable outrage. The move was condemned by mainstream politicians and journalists from across the spectrum, whilst thousands took to the streets in protest. But, as opinion polling later demonstrated, this consensus was largely an illusion. Indeed regarding popular opinion it was downright misleading. In February Chatham House published a survey of 10,000 across ten European countries, who had been asked whether they agreed that ‘All further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped’. In all ten countries more people agreed with the policy, which was considerably more hardline than Trump’s executive order, and usually by a significant margin. Only in two countries, Spain and the UK, did less than 50% of respondents support the statement. Personally I strongly disagree with the suggested policy, but it would be folly to deny that I’m in the minority. This is the sort of disconnect which, if ignored, allows the likes of Donald Trump to attain power in Western countries.
Truthfully I’m not sure how terrorism can be defeated, but our current policies don’t seem to be working. I’m worried that if the current trend continues for much longer the liberal-democratic consensus shared by those who govern Europe will start to break down, and be replaced by something sinister. It looks like a matter of when, not if, the radical right win an election in Western Europe. And once they’re in power we shouldn’t underestimate how much damage they can do. Our continent has plenty of experience of what happens when nationalism gets out of control. The current problem with Islamic fundamentalism is a gift for every ultra-reactionary and radical right activist in Europe. If the public reaction is strong enough, and given the present disconnect this is quite possible, it could allow them to refashion parts of European society in their own image. Mainstream politicians need to find a way of defeating terrorism, and reconnecting with the public, or they risk both them and their ideology being replaced.