Shoulda Had a Pre-Nup

Last Friday, Geert Wilders, the far-right leader of the Dutch Freedom Party, made his way to the Greek Embassy in the Hague. He went to deliver a blunt message for the country: Leave the Eurozone. He read a letter to reporters outside the building urging the financially embattled Greeks to abandon the Euro -- for their own sake and the sake of the other countries in the monetary union. He was then photographed holding up a blown-up replica of a 1.000- drachma note, the old Greek currency, just in case anyone had failed to grasp his not-so-subtle exhortation.

A 47-year-old lapsed Roman Catholic, Wilders' radical views are a marked departure from the tolerant, consensus-seeking style that has typically characterized Dutch politics. He has described Islam as "fascist," compared the Quran to Mein Kampf, and campaigned for Islam's most holy text to be banned from the Netherlands. He is currently on trial in Amsterdam for inciting hatred. His Freedom Party, founded in 2004 mainly on an anti-immigrant, anti-Islam platform, is the third largest in the country. It won 15.5 percent of the vote in last year's parliamentary elections and serves as a crucial pillar of support for the current ruling coalition.

Wilders is perhaps the most notorious of a new crop of populist, anti-immigrant politicians in Northern Europe. As the European Union (EU) has expanded to include poorer countries -- first in the Mediterranean South, then in the former Communist East -- and moved towards greater integration, "Euro-skeptic" movements have steadily grown in influence in the older EU member nations.

In the past three decades, European elites pushed through ambitious integration projects in the hope of forging a pan-European sense of identity among the citizens of the continent -- including the Schengen agreement for passport-free travel, the adoption of the Euro, and a European Constitution. But these visionary ventures were hashed out in Brussels meeting rooms between heads of governments and EU bureaucrats, far away from the ordinary folk whose lives they would so affect.

As it turned out, people were not so keen to shift their allegiance from their home countries to Europe itself. Populist movements gained considerable ground in the 1990s by emphasizing national sovereignty and opposing immigration, both from within and outside of the EU. The Eurozone debt crisis -- which necessitated multi-billion Euro bailouts of countries like Greece, Ireland, mostly financed by the richer countries of the North -- has increased the sway of those opposed to further integration.

Perhaps the clearest case in point is Finland, which has had to deal with the inexorable rise of the xenophobic, anti-European party known as the "True Finns." Founded in 1995, they have only recently risen to prominence, riding a wave of opposition to further assistance for poorer, fiscally troubled Eurozone countries. Faithful to the generous Finnish welfare state, they are nonetheless virulently hostile toward the country's small immigrant population, which accounts for only 2.5 percent of the population; True Finn leaders have variously described them as "gang rapists" and "parasites." In April's parliamentary elections, the party polled 19.1 percent and was only 38,000 votes short of coming in first in voters' preferences. Its 39 seats in parliament (up from a mere five in 2007) have rendered the True Finns the main opposition party.

Other Eurozone countries have been living with anti-EU populism for a while. In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party has long been a powerful force in politics, and even served in government between 1999 and 2002. After it left office, its support dropped considerably. But in the latest opinion polls, the party is in the lead nationally. Its aggressive campaign to kick Greece out of the Eurozone has played a crucial part in its renewed popularity.

The second unifying thread running through the various strands of northern, Euroskeptic populism is opposition to immigration. Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front in France was the first anti-European party to fear-monger its way into the electoral mainstream, in the late 1980s. These days, his daughter and successor Marine is at the head of a potent political movement calling for a French exit from the Euro and threatening to repeat her father's performance in 2002 by making it to the run-off in next year's presidential elections.

Fearing her rise in the polls and under pressure from the swelling tide of refugees from the Arab uprising, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, along with Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, recently pushed for a reassessment of the Schengen Agreement to give member-states greater control over their borders. Just last week, a diplomatic spat erupted between Germany and Denmark after Copenhagen decided to reinstitute customs' checks on its borders -- a possible violation of the Schengen Treaty. The move was made at the insistence of the Danish People's Party, another stalwart anti-immigrant party that had played a vital supporting role in Denmark's governing coalitions since 2001.

The exact nature of the reassessment of Schengen and the limits to passport-free travel within the EU that it will impose will be worked out in an EU summit next week. It is certain to become easier for member-states to reinstall temporary border controls to deal with law and order or immigration emergencies. What is unclear is how much easier it will become, which will depend on whether states will be able to act autonomously, or with the consent of the European Commission. It is at that same summit that EU leaders will decide whether Greece will receive a second bailout. Without it, it will likely default in July and be forced to exit the Eurozone.

However badly damaged, the Schengen Treaty and the Euro will probably survive the summit. But the influence of xenophobic populism in the richer, better-run, and fiscally more prudent north of the EU grows by the day. Someday soon, it may deal a fatal blow to one or both of post-war Europe's greatest experiments in integration.

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