How the bold step to unity could backfire

Click to follow
A SMALL but awful fear should nag the leaders of Europe as they launch their common currency. Could it be that this boldest of all projects to cement the union helps achieve the opposite, bolstering the cause of the far right, widening divisions it was supposed to erase, stoking the embers of the nationalisms it was meant to douse for ever?

Naturally, not a whisper of such anxieties will issue from Brussels this weekend, as the 11 founder members of the euro are triumphantly anointed. In less exalted quarters in Paris, however, they were issuing through a megaphone. "No, a thousand times no, to the single currency," thundered Jean-Marie Le Pen at the French National Front's May Day rally. "This is a battle for France, its independence, its life and its people."

It is a battle in which circumstances are giving his own and Europe's other neo-nationalist parties a considerable helping hand. A feeble economy is one factor. Another, though, is the soggy consensus of the mainstream right in favour of further European integration, which has left a space which the far right is rushing to fill.

Across the continent, the pattern is the same: the nationalists feed on a popular suspicion of monetary union which the politicians will not acknowledge. But nowhere are the gains noted with such trepidation as in Germany. Of course, the stunning success of the People's Union (DVU) in gaining 13 per cent of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt last Sunday reflected local factors: the bleakness of life in the poorest German land and anger at the perceived failure of the centre-right coalition to tackle immigration. The DVU's founder, Gerhard Frey, moreover, shuns jackboots and the cruder paraphernalia of neo-Nazism. But anti-Europeanism is a gentler, deadlier weapon. If more unity means more immigrants and no Deutschemark, the DVU asks, then what's the good of it? If the mainstream party of the right will not say "Germany for the Germans", then those on the further right will.

Britain, paradoxically, only proves the rule. The racist, ultra-nationalist right is an extra-parliamentary fringe, thanks to a first-past-the-post voting system which penalises any minority. No less important, though, Euroscepticism is embedded within the traditional party of the right. Where might the British neo-Nazis be, one wonders, if the Tories were pro-European to a man?

Admittedly there are exceptions. In Italy, Gianfranco Fini's National Alliance, successor to the fascist MSI and winner of over 15 per cent of the vote at the last election, is thoroughly European. But in a land where aristocrats could lead the Communist party, being nationalist and European is no contradiction - indeed, it cannot be. For Italians, founder membership of the single currency proves the country belongs to Europe's Serie A, and woe betide he who challenges that article of faith.

But even Italy's blind Europhilia could change if the currency scheme goes badly awry. Suppose the single currency does prove an economic straitjacket, and yet - despite low growth, high unemployment and a continuing inflow of immigrants - the government out of pride refuses relegation from Europe's first division. The public mood could change; even Mr Fini's "modern, open right-wing party" could turn into a nastier creature.

In Austria the anti-EU stance of the extreme right is far more explicit. A soggy pro-European coalition of conservatives and social democrats clings to power. But the Freedom Party of Jorg Haider won 28 per cent of the vote in the 1996 European elections after a campaign in which it rejected the common currency and demanded a cut in Austria's contribution to the EU budget.

And in Denmark and Sweden, where the conventional parties of the right are in equal disarray, there are similar stirrings on the fringes. In the former, the People's Party, led by Pia Kjaersgaard, running on an unashamedly anti-European, anti-immigrant platform, tripled its vote to 7 per cent at the March general election. Much the same could happen in Sweden this autumn, courtesy of the New Democracy party.

Across Europe, a vein of doubt is waiting to be tapped. Why, Le Pen asked, did Europe's leaders not allow a referendum over the euro? "Because they would lose it." If the euro goes wrong, and the old right keeps mum, the nationalists could become a real force across the continent.