Leading article: Voters' message to the far right

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The Independent Online
CONVENTIONAL wisdom has held for some years that the dark spirits of nationalism are on the march again in Europe, unleashed in the east by the fall of Communism and in the west by recession and immigration. If we are not careful, we have been told, they will throw European history into reverse, dragging it back into conflicts that were supposed to be long dead.

So far the evidence is pointing the other way. In Poland and Hungary, politicians who invoked right-wing nationalist traditions have been rejected in favour of pragmatic former Communists. In Slovakia, the nationalist leader who broke with Prague is out.

The European elections appear to confirm the trend. In Germany, the Republican Party received only 3.9 per cent of the vote and lost its seats in the European Parliament, apparently going the way of other post-war parties of the extreme right that have sent foreign observers into spasms of anxiety before fading from the scene. In France, the National Front lost ground. In Britain, the British National Party makes little progress, despite its showing in last week's Dagenham by-election. Italy may look like an exception, but the swing to the right there has little to do with nationalism. The only serious gains for the extreme right came in Belgium.

Lest we become too complacent, the Balkans still bubble with dangerous disputes and there are tensions between Hungary and Romania. In Russia, the dangerous face of nationalism is represented not only by Vladimir Zhirinovsky but also by saner politicians, such as Alexander Rutskoi, who want to restore the Soviet frontiers.

In Western and Central Europe, however, it is possible to be cautiously optimistic. With more than 18 million unemployed in the European Union, daunting numbers in the former Communist countries, and almost universal disappointment with conventional politics, it is remarkable that extremists have not had an easier run.

Some of the reasons are clear. The German government, for instance, cut away the Republicans' main platform by introducing immigration controls, while the economy has shown signs of improvement. In Central Europe, the war in Bosnia has had a deterrent effect on some hot-heads. In France, the anti-Maastricht vote was absorbed by a new party.

Even so, the centre might not have held so well. Dissent remains, demanding jobs and, in some cases, a redefinition of national interests in relation to Brussels, but this is a far cry from the irridentism and racialism of historical nationalism. Apathetic the voters of Europe may be; dumb they are not.