Share story

MANY tourists will head to Europe this year for the incredible scenery, amazing food and stunning culture. But behind the visitors’ bliss lies the growth of extreme anti-immigrant politics that tear at the continent’s very soul and smear its global image.

Thanks to the recent recession in Europe, the shrill voices of extremity landed on fertile ground as angry populations struggle against job losses, pension cuts and shrinking economies.

Even as Europe recovers, the social malaise remains. In Greece, a quarter of its workforce stays jobless and the future for hundreds of thousands of young Greeks has simply vanished.

Into this maelstrom, undocumented migrants from North Africa and the Middle East arrived on rickety, filth-infested boats risking blood, limb and breath for a better life.

Their presence puts more financial pressure on already squeezed governments. The result is a poisonous brew of anti-immigrant hysteria in Greece that the once obscure party Chrysi Avgi, or Golden Dawn, has brilliantly exploited.

Like other extreme groups, Golden Dawn taps into Europe’s deep underground fascist roots that were never completely eliminated after World War II.

Golden Dawn believes only a strong, authoritarian government can override eternal bickering and vicious internal divides in order to function under something resembling normalcy.

Faltering economies suck these internal tensions to the surface, but cannot fully explain them. Rising political extremism is not just a factor in financial strugglers like Greece and Spain, but also in healthier economies like those of England and the Netherlands.

The United Kingdom Independence Party,
founded in 1993, extols a virulent anti-immigrant, anti-European Union sentiment but in a stronger market. Its poll numbers grow.

In the Netherlands, the Party for Freedom, mixes right wing with libertarianism in its distrust of non-Christian foreigners, elimination of the minimum wage and reduced child benefits.

For some Europeans, extremism is a form of patriotism; keeping the Muslims out of Europe, or in the case of Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, who is skeptical about admitting Turkey to the European Union, is a matter of national pride.

Rather than better integrating outsiders into the social mainstream, extreme parties try to shove them out of the country. The upcoming European Parliamentary elections in May may see a breakthrough in participation by these far-right, nationalist groups.

Fortress Europe can’t handle the hordes of the undocumented because these migrants expose the continent’s ugly dark secret: Its institutions are ossified and its mindset prefers the 19th century.

Its economies only haltingly embrace digital technologies (with some exceptions) and social advancement still depends on whom you know rather than on talent and enterprise.

Extreme parties capture this backwardness perfectly; they offer folks an illusory return to the orderly, rigid, hierarchical ways of the long-gone past that in the digital age has no future.

At least in the United States, when a basketball team owner unleashed vile and filth against African Americans, the NBA commissioner had the decency to force the sale of his franchise. In Europe, racist taunts at soccer stadiums are normal occurrences and little is ever really done to eliminate them.

Political extremism won’t slow the tide of tourists to the continent this year, nor should it.

But it gives us pause whether our tourist dollars prop up governments blind to their internal contradictions even as we enjoy a wondrous Europe of infinite delight, beauty and charm.

Taso Lagos, foreign studies director for Hellenic Studies at the University of Washington, is author of the new book “86 Days in Greece: A Time of Crisis.”