After a fairly spectacular run, it appears that the good times are over for Golden Dawn. Riding high on its anti-austerity, ultra-nationalist, anti-immigration platform, the Greek far-right party leapt from negligible results in 2009 to gaining eighteen seats in the June 2012 parliamentary elections. Now it has been declared a criminal organisation, with several leading members now standing trial for a variety of crimes.
On The 18th of September, Giorgos Roupakias, a member of Golden Dawn, stabbed the anti-fascist musician Pavlos Fyssass in the heart. Events have moved rapidly since the brutal street murder. Six MPs including its leader Nikos Mihaloliakos are facing criminal charges including assault and murder, while Police investigators have recovered weapons and Nazi memorabilia from party offices and suspects’ homes.[i] However, a government crackdown is only one sort of response to the wider problem of politics thriving on violence and hate in the country.
As more evidence of the inner workings of the group emerges, the more undeniable it is that Golden Dawn is a fascist political organisation. The 1990s, the decade in which the modern EU was born through the Maastricht Treaty, also saw a general revival of the far-right. Many far-right parties with neo-fascist links remain capable of operating in modern Europe despite linkages to violence, vitriol, and symbols that harken back to a darker time in Europe’s history. Golden Dawn’s red, white, and black flag is a conspicuous nod to the banners used by Nazi movements, only with a Greek symbol in the place of a swastika. It has also been running vigilante groups that many hold responsible for an increase in the number of attacks on migrants as well as left-wing activists.
Whether Roupakias knew it or not, his actions have spelt the beginning of the end for a minority party whose rise to prominence relied on its ability to play on the fears and resentment of Greek voters. The broadening of its electoral support stems from economic difficulties faced by the country, especially the harsh austerity measures taken by the Greek government to meet the conditions of its bailout agreement with the European Union, ECB, and IMF.
The link made between times of economic difficulty and rises in support for far-right politics is an old one. In his book Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm argued that the rise of Nazism in 20th century Europe could be explained by not only economic, but also psychological factors.[ii] Written for another time in history, parts of Fromm’s theory on why people turn to authoritarianism and fascism remain particularly relevant to Europe today, and Greece is an unmistakable example.
Fromm’s analysis of the turn to fascism in his native Germany during the inter-war period focused on socio-structural changes. Massive unemployment and high national debt, coupled with a sense of ‘national defeat’ and embarrassment saw many people adhere to a party that appeared strong to combat feelings of powerlessness. Greece’s economy is in poor shape following the 2008 financial crisis, and the country has been bailed out twice by the EU, ECB, and IMF (the “troika”) in its continued struggle to reign in its national debt, in two rescue packages now costing over 240 billion Euros.[iii] The austerity measures undertaken to fulfill bailout conditions are deeply unpopular amongst the majority of Greeks, and for some, the continued compliance with the demands of the troika constructs an image of a parliament bending to the will of outside powers.
With people losing trust in traditional political parties and foreign intervention in the country’s finances being construed as an attack on Greek sovereignty, EU fiscal policies have not only exacerbated socio-economic problems, but they have also appeared to have made much of Golden Dawn’s success possible. With ‘Greek only’ food handouts and aggressive scapegoating of immigrants in a country with almost 30% unemployment, the party was able to find appeal beyond its core supporters.[iv] While it has contributed to the creation of a favourable climate for far-right politics, the EU may also provide a prospective cure to a resurgent and violent far-right within its member states.
The government crackdown on the criminal actions of Golden Dawn by the Greek government is only one solution to extremism. The arrests and seizures were only possible because there were clear legal grounds to do so. The violence and vitriol of fascism, by its very nature, goes against the EUs core values of “human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights”.[v] With these commitments, there is scope for greater EU assistance in Greece besides austerity, and it can provide valuable assistance in curbing support for far-right groups with links to criminal networks across Europe. Europol could examine international links between far-right extremism and political parties in Europe as well as provide operational support for the monitoring of suspicious activities undertaken by such groups. It already has arrangements for ‘outlaw motorcycle gangs’[vi], and may provide a valuable source of intelligence and experience in helping expose cases of criminality amongst groups with neo-Nazi links.
Banning groups like the Golden Dawn is also unlikely to eliminate the threat to the peaceful operation of democracy posed by the ideology that it subscribes to. If extremist parties are disciplined enough, they will be harder to prosecute. In these cases, the EU can help highlight the backward and repugnant aspects of the far-right by increasing awareness of the fundamental rights and the responsibilities that membership in the EU affords. It could work more closely with the Council of Europe, which encourages the work of anti-fascist and anti-racist groups like UNITED for Intercultural Action. More can be done to encourage teaching about the EU, its institutions, and human rights in member states. By forging a stronger European identity, it can help inoculate new generations of young Europeans from the draw of violent politics.
Instead of sporadic police actions, a long-term approach is needed to counter the rise of far-right extremism in Europe, which can be seen as a backlash against economic and social change across the EU. While it has unwittingly generated an environment in which neo-fascism can thrive through its attempts to deal with sovereign debt, the EU can also help its members contain the threat to normal democratic politics that neo-fascism poses.
[ii] Erich Fromm, ‘Escape from Freedom’ 1942. (Kegan Paul). Also published as ‘The Fear of Freedom’.