European anxiety and peace of mind — I

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 25 Jun 2024

Tarek Osman discusses Europe’s political landscape


There is a little hope in Europe these days. The liberals, greens, left, and centre right alternate bewilderment with frustration at the rise of the far right, while many of those voting for the far right are themselves angry with traditional players.

Anger in Europe is born out of a mindset of scarcity. This is a new feeling in Europe, not widely felt since the last days of the Cold War in the late 1980s. In the past 30 years, Europe revelled in a sense of abundance. In Western Europe, there was a conviction that history had ended with the victory of liberalism, and the Western model won the intellectual and emotional struggle that had gripped the world since World War I. In Central and Eastern Europe, hope sprang from shedding the Soviet cloak and partaking in Western lifestyles.

The 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s saw a meteoric rise in the power of the European Union, not just as an administrative force on the continent but as a political idea. Some were enamoured with it. In France and Germany, the dual engine of the European project, the power of the European Union was a manifestation of Europe transcending not only the divisions of the Cold War but more importantly the sickness and depredations that were at the core of Europe’s experiences in World War II.

But many in Europe were not really enamoured with the rise of the European Union, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe where the project at the heart of the union was seen as skewed towards Franco-German ideas. But this camp hardly wanted to halt or obstruct it; they wanted to put their own stamp on it. And since they were the primary financial beneficiaries of the European project, they were happy to move along.

The European Union could have evolved smoothly, and like any long-term political project, it could have added to its body by the contributions and the outcomes of struggles between its members. But the financial crisis of 2008-2009 revealed two major weaknesses, not only in the European project but also in many European societies. The first was that financial power centres have accumulated such immense wealth in the past three decades that they’d become too politically powerful. Some would argue they were able to steer political decision making to their interests to an unprecedented degree in modern European history.

The second was that there was no clear way for many European societies out of the tunnel of austerity and strongholds on public services and benefits. The sense of abundance was replaced with the reality of scarcity now and the expectation of need in the not-too-distant future.

Anger was coupled with fear. It is one thing for large social segments to recognise immense inequality in their own societies, quite another to feel that these inequalities are a factor in why their future looks much less hopeful than a decade or two earlier.

Fear favours familiarity. As people become fearful of what the future will bring, they begin to retreat to their comfort zones. This is why fear of immigrants has been rising in the past two decades in Europe, and particularly in the past ten years. And the more the immigrants look and behave differently from the norms of the host society, the more they trigger the rush to the familiar.

This is not to underestimate the scale and impact of the rise of immigration in different parts of Europe. It is also not to dismiss the serious debate on whether immigration to Europe in the past two decades has, in aggregate, resulted in positive or negative economic value creation.

But the deeper drivers of the widespread rejection of immigration in Europe in the past decade are hardly based on rational economic thinking. It has been a deeply emotional issue.

Acute emotions, such as fear, result in a need for control. This is the ultimate driver behind the rise of the far right in Europe. As people feel that the political-economic system governing their lives is mired by inequalities that undermine their future, and as fears of the unknown become widespread, the knee-jerk reaction becomes a need to take control.

Taking control has an immediacy to it. It is a desire that corresponds to the here and now. This is why the far right thrives on slogans, not detailed political manifestos. Not only are the vast majority of far-right groups in Europe intellectually vacuous, often displaying a shocking degree of ignorance, they also understand that they need not be specific. What they represent in the psyche of the vast majority of their voters is a need for a loud cry of anger, of a rapidly sweeping arm dashing elegant wine glasses off the high table and smashing them onto the ground.

The desire to take control often leads to aggression. That is why, although the far right has to some extent successfully managed to evolve its faces and rhetoric to avoid accusations of blatant extremism, it cannot really move towards the centre, because for it to retain its power, it must retain the aggressiveness that corresponds to the fear and anger that empower it.

Some argue that fear and anger remain limited in scale and impact. After all, the June 2024 European Parliament elections have left the centre right, not the far right, with the largest number of seats. And that centre right, with the centre left, continue to form a comfortable majority in the parliament.

This is short-sighted. The rise of the far right in Europe has entered its phase of consolidation. As the next article in this series will show, this will manifest in specific tendencies gradually appearing in European politics in the immediate future that will transform not only European politics but also the essence of the European project.


The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: