The other day, I was back in Leiden, the sleepy Dutch town where I grew up, listening to a rare politician tell — a pro-refugee story. Ahmad Abu Taleb landed in the Netherlands from Morocco aged 15. Now he’s Social Democratic Mayor of Rotterdam and, according to a poll in March, the most popular Dutch politician.
Abu Taleb walked into Saint Peter’s Church in Leiden flanked by enormous blond bodyguards — a scene unthinkable in the placid Netherlands of my childhood. He greeted the VeerStichting symposium with, “Nice of you to give this refugee shelter today”.
I was curious to see Abu Taleb because his rhetoric is almost unique in Europe these days. The flood of refugees has changed the continent’s political order. Instead of right versus left, now anti-immigrant nativists are thrashing silent cosmopolitan liberals.
The nativists were rising even before they received the gift of the refugee influx. Europe saw a “dramatic decline in trust in the last decade”, says a new report by Political Capital, a Budapest-based research and consulting institute. Trust in national parliaments, for instance, has fallen in all “old” European Union (EU) member states.
But now nativism is hitting new highs. In last month’s Swiss elections, the ultraconservative Swiss People’s party expanded its lead as the country’s biggest party. (In one campaign ad, a terrorist wearing an EU armband prepares to decapitate a beautiful Swiss blonde.) France’s National Front says it can win six of the country’s 13 regions in next month’s elections. The rightist PiS party just won power in Poland.
Eastern Europe’s mainstream now talks like the far right, says Cas Mudde, expert on European populism at the University of Georgia in the US. When the Social Democratic Czech President Milos Zeman says refugees will introduce Sharia, who needs the National Front? Europe’s nativists have a very clear story to tell. Even the phrase “refugee crisis” suits them, because it implies (partly correctly) that governments have lost control.
Wilder varieties of nativism are thriving too. “The refugee crisis has led to an unprecedented proliferation of conspiracy theories,” says Political Capital. One popular theory on social media says “the Jews” created Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). The so-called “refugees” invading Europe are therefore Israeli-backed Daesh operatives, funded by George Soros, which explains why they have smartphones. The endgame is “#whitegenocide”. Meanwhile (says this theory) the “Zionist media” are hiding the facts. If you like conspiracies, it’s a good story.
By contrast, says Mudde, Europe’s liberal politicians aren’t telling any story. Their basic ideology, “Never again Auschwitz”, died around 2000 when Europeans finally stopped worrying about the Nazis coming back. Today, hardly any liberal politician dares speak for cosmopolitanism. Thinking they lack support, they are sulking in their salons. Catherine Fieschi, head of the Counterpoint think tank, says that when people complain that “The debate is toxic,” she asks, “What debate?”
Liberals are retreating even in Sweden and Germany. Years ago, a Swedish Social Democratic minister told me that Swedes he met on the street seldom ranted against foreigners. Instead, they said things such as: “The way you treat these poor immigrants, you’re just like the Nazis!” But now Sweden is considering border controls. In Germany, the refugee issue may actually unseat Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Some of us dinosaurs in the liberal media are still pushing our discredited multicultural vision. A response I often get is that I’m an out-of-touch elitist who doesn’t have to live with Muslims. In fact, this jab is off-beam. Europe’s last liberal bastions are precisely big cosmopolitan cities full of Muslims. Nativists are getting nowhere in London, Paris or Amsterdam. In Vienna’s municipal elections last month, held while refugees poured into the city, the Social Democrats triumphed. But cosmopolitan liberals are getting thumped in national elections.
They need a new story. This is where Abu Taleb comes in. The night before his Leiden speech, he attended an angry public meeting in Rotterdam about a planned new asylum centre. (There’s lots of anger in Europe now, partly because immigration policies are still more liberal than the rhetoric.) At one point, Abu Taleb suspended the meeting for five minutes because people were screaming and whistling. But once they quietened down, he listened to them. He always listens. He says people want to know, “Are you still paying attention to me?” However, he adds, leaders then need to decide for themselves. Democracy, he says, isn’t opening your window and shouting: ‘What do you want?’ ‘Cake!’ ‘Then we’ll serve cake’.
When it comes to refugees, Abu Taleb isn’t serving voters cake. In Leiden, he quoted from the Quran in Arabic. He also noted: “A lot of talent from around the world flies over our heads to New York and London,” because many foreigners feel unwelcome in the Netherlands. And he added: “I think it’s fantastic to be in a position to help others.”
Abu Taleb discussed the refugee influx in practical, undramatic language as something the Netherlands can handle. The nearly all-white audience gave him a standing ovation. Perhaps the liberal case isn’t lost yet — when a liberal actually dares make it.
— Financial Times