Fears grow over new Euro fascist movement

Opponents warn of more violent attacks as far-right plans summit to discuss unity. Paul Cahalam and Kevin Rawlinson investigate

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The Independent Online

They achieve notoriety through a mix of combustible characters and often ugly protests, yet are kept on the political margins due to infighting and ill thought-out policies. But, next month, at a meeting in Denmark, some of Europe's most notorious right-wing groups will meet for the European Counter-Jihad Meeting.

Those people who attend the Denmark meeting could be present to see the birth of a new right-wing movement, the European Defence League. But they may also be there to bear witness to the start of a dangerous new phase in extremist politics in Europe .

Representatives from right-wing groups in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the United States, Italy, Poland and Finland are due to attend the meeting, along with the anti-Muslim groups Stop Islamisation of Europe, Stop Islamisation of the World and the far-right European Freedom Initiative.

Opponents are worried that any new right-wing umbrella organisation could co-ordinate right-wing activities across Europe and fear that it could also become influential in sharing ideas while politicising and unifying a number of disparate groups.

The idea of uniting far-right groups, which is championed by the English Defence League (EDL), could be modelled on the European Union – with the delegates from participating countries meeting at regular intervals.

Weyman Bennett, spokesman for the pressure group Unite Against Fascism, said the meeting in Denmark's second city, Aarhus, would be the first serious meeting of such groups – which were looking at the EDL model and aiming to mimic the success of right-wing political parties in Eastern Europe, some of whom have made it to the ranks of government.

He said: "The Euro-leagues are a new danger. We should not forget that it was the Norwegian Defence League that gave us [Anders] Brevik. The growth of a Euro-league in a time of economic crisis threatens to resurrect fascist street armies such as those that destroyed European democracies in the 1930s. The development of this network allows fascists and right-wing populists to share ideas, finance and experience in a way that should worry us all."

Mr Bennett said that the groups would be using the present euro currency crisis as a way to pull in new members, particularly from the middle classes.

He added: "We used to have a number of disparate groups. Now we are moving to a stage where we have fewer groups but they are more organised and sophisticated."

Some 50 EDL leaders – whose members have been involved in a number of violent clashes with anti-fascist groups in the past – will be travelling to the meeting.

"This is the first proper European Defence League meet. We have been building bridges for the last two years and this is going to be the launch pad," said Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the leader of the EDL, who is also known as Tommy Robinson.

He said national defence league leaders would sit on a panel and meet "every three to four months".

"We will discuss tactics. Each country's delegates will get time to describe the problems they have," Mr Yaxley-Lennon said.

"We will try to pool resources. For example, if another defence league wants to run a demonstration in their own country, they are unlikely to get as much media interest as if we were involved, so we would go over there and lend some support."

Dr Matthew Goodwin, an expert on far-right politics who is based at Nottingham University, warned that an alliance of far-right groups in Europe would help extremist groups to organise demonstrations. He feared that this might carry an inherent possibility of violence and potentially provide access to better resourced and organised groups in eastern and central Europe.

Dr Goodwin said: "The strategy is to organise large marches for the media attention and to provoke anti-fascist and Muslim groups, as well as the local population.

"Wherever these movements go, there is a possibility of violent clashes. With the EDL, there are question marks over where the movement is heading, if not towards elections. This would be an indication of where it sees itself going."

Dr Goodwin added that historical evidence reveals that far-right groups have often tried to build links and alliances on the continent.

"If there is anything the Brevik experience taught is, it is that the European-level movements, which share ideas and resources, are very dangerous," he said.

"It is coming at the same time as far-right political parties in the European Parliament have secured funding to represent themselves in that institution."

Farooq Murad, who is the current secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) said the move was "worrying". He said that the MCB was now trying to bring together Muslim groups to counter an increase in Islamophobia.

Last year, Mr Yaxley-Lennon announced that negotiations to set up a political wing of the EDL were at an advanced stage.

An alliance with the far-right British Freedom Party was discussed and Mr Yaxley-Lennon said he hoped to put up candidates in the next round of local elections.

That deal has not yet been concluded and it is thought that it has been met with some resistance among the EDL's grass-roots.

Yesterday, about 600 people travelled to Hyde to take part in an EDL protest against an alleged attack carried out by Asian youths on two white teenagers in the town.

Eleven people were arrested for minor public order offences.

The Danish Defence League, which is hosting the forthcoming event that is being billed as the European Counter-Jihad Meeting was set up just over a year ago. It presently has groups in 10 cities.