Racism entering the European mainstream once again

Populist xenophobes are threatening to lead us back down the dark path of European history with their nationalist rhetoric

A Dutch website has been recently set up to solicit complaints about central and eastern European immigrants. Internet users are urged to answer whether they have lost a job because of "a Pole, a Bulgarian or a Romanian". They can also check assorted boxes to report "noise", "parking nuisances" or "drunkenness". Such incitement to racial hatred – a clear and shameful attempt to stir up xenophobia against immigrants and moreover against those from Central and Eastern Europe – comes from none other than the far right PVV "Freedom Party". The website’s initiator PVV leader Geert Wilders has already amply illustrated himself in this field as he was previously notorious solely for his fierce anti-Islam rhetoric, More recently, Wilders has started expanding his populist repertoire to include the above-mentioned attacks.

This party is not just any extreme right-wing party; Wilders’ party props up the Dutch minority government headed by Mark Rutte and officially is part of his parliamentary majority. When speaking about this controversy, we can only say the Dutch government’s silence is "deafening". Last week, prime minister Rutte was invited to come to Strasbourg to clarify his government’s position to the European Parliament. Our debate went ahead, but Rutte was conspicuous by his absence. In other respects, the PM also refused to answer calls to distance his government from the PVV site.

Unfortunately, this case is not merely symbolic as it involves a party – which is a full member of a political majority, whose influence spreads far beyond Dutch borders. Similar practices are developing in many member states. Two extreme-right Polish websites designates leftists, homosexuals and foreigners as "race enemies". In Latvia, Russians are targeted via their car registration plates. In Luxembourg, a law was passed restricting access to family benefits for foreign residents. We cannot leave Hungary and Viktor Orban’s catastrophic record off this list. These past weeks in my own country, France, racist rhetoric has taken on a new dimension since President Sarkozy – in his electoral campaign – is making use of themes usually the preserve of the extreme right-wing Front National. After attacking the Roma, he announced plans for referenda on immigration and threatened to suspend France’s membership of Schengen, ignoring one of the European Union issues to which citizens say they are the most attached.

During this week’s EP debate, the Danish EU presidency and the European Commission issued condemnations of the PVV site. But they did not go any further than making reference to sanctions by individual member states and their courts. The commission never stops telling us that it is the guardian of the treaties. Is freedom of movement and non-discrimination no longer one of the core values of the EU then? Has the commission been relieved of the key part of its responsibilities?

The sad truth is, unfortunately, much more simple. On economic matters – free movement of goods or capital and barriers to competition – the commission is quick to act. When it comes to attacks on fundamental rights, even the most long-standing ones – which include free movement of people and our right to non-discrimination throughout the EU – we are suddenly informed that it is a member state issue. And then they wonder why people are calling into question the true values of the EU. Such inflammatory speeches call to mind Europe’s tragic history and there should be a legal obligation to act. Now, EU leaders must not only unreservedly condemn but also firmly deal with all breaches of fundamental values. It is time we started closing our doors, not to those seeking to build a new life in another country – but to the populist xenophobes who will lead us back down the same tragic path of European history.