Saturday 18 October 2014

The ascent of the fringe parties

How do you win a political argument? Well, establish the terms of reference for any given topic, insist that these are the only legitimate ones and proceed to construct your own position as a genuine reflection of the concerns of the public neatly fitting into the previously established frame.

This is what happened pretty much across the European Union as fringe parties are dominating the public debates. The exact constellations of issues that concern voters may differ between France, Germany or the UK, but the mechanisms of highjacking political discourse are similar everywhere. Identify a concern (no matter how little pressing for voters), frame it in the way that is useful to the progression of your own interest group and then pretend that your own group's interest is identical with that of the country. From Farage to Marie Le Pen or the AfD in Germany, the blueprint for success is strikingly similar.

So, what do they share above and beyond employing the same electoral strategies? And is the rise of the fringe parties an indication of something rotten in Denmark?

One interesting aspect of the ascent of fringe parties is that the concerns differ quite substantially across countries. Whilst Le Pen runs a populist campaign against austerity in France, the German AfD is motivated by an urge to curtail (alleged) profligacy. The point they have in common is that they all have a dislike for anything European, be it European immigration, European bail-outs or alleged European imposition of economic policy (in France). They share a regret about the loss of political sovereignty, the decline of the power of national parliaments and democratic institutions. It can hardly be said that the European elite (if there is such a thing) had not been warned. The issue of the 'democratic deficit' of the European Union has been debated to death in academic circles for decades.

Yet, another element has been stirred more recently into the mix and that is immigration. How dominant the (largely inexact) terms of reference proffered by the fringe parties have become is demonstrated by the use of the word itself. Within the European Union, with the free movement of capital and people, there is technically no 'immigration' but simply migration. Yet, Farage and others have succeeded in shaping the narrative of a 'we' and 'them' which is roughly co-terminous with national borders. It is also fascinating how the prevalence of the immigration issue leaves some of the leftist fringe parties (such as the Greens) out in the cold. They simply have not anything to offer on the topic, which may either be an indication of their genuine lack of policy offers or a recognition on their part of the complexity of the issue.

Once the frames of reference are set by Le Pen, AfD and Farage, the trap snaps shut and imprisons the mainstream politicians. European Union migration cannot be changed or tampered with without unravelling the foundations of the Union itself. Mainstream politicians also become hostage to the deliberately obscure language used by Farage and others which merges issues of extra-European immigration with intra-European migration, quickly adopting racist undertones.

How this bomb can be defused in the public debate is anyone's guess. I have argued before that Farage will have his comeuppance when the electoral system in the UK crashes his hopes for Westminster representation in May next year. The first past the post is a reliable foe of fringe parties. Yet, by then the damage to the public discourse may have been done. And we will all have to live with the undesirable consequences.

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