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    Péter Márki-Zay: Hungarian opposition's 'non-political' candidate may not be enough to beat Orbán

    Hungary’s parliamentary elections in spring 2022 will give illiberal Prime Minister Viktor Orbán a chance to continue his Fidesz government for a fourth term. An unlikely opposition candidate could disrupt these plans.

    Orbán will face Péter Márki-Zay, mayor of the Hungarian county town of Hódmezővásárhely. Márki-Zay’s win in the opposition primaries came as a surprise. The former manager of an electricity company is married with seven children, and does not align himself with any political party. He has lived in Canada and the US, and has spoken about his admiration for how former US president Barack Obama financed his campaign with small donations.

    He entered the race without any party affiliation, beating Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony and European Parliament vice-president Klára Dobrev. Dobrev won the first round of primaries and has the support of a major opposition party, Democratic Coalition.

    However, she is also the wife of former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány – a socialist – which tarred her campaign. Her rivals argued that the electorate demanded a new candidate without any association with existing parties and politicians in Hungary.

    Márki-Zay’s victory at the 2018 mayoral byelection in Hódmezővásárhely was a surprise as well. A self-described right-wing Christian candidate and an opponent of Orbán’s Fidesz, he consolidated the opposition vote to win in Hódmezővásárhely – where Fidesz strongman János Lázár served as mayor from 2002-12 and an MP after 2014.

    Márki-Zay’s win set the stage for the 2019 local elections in Budapest, where putting forward a joint candidate was a successful tactic for the opposition in defeating Orbán.

    Political landscape

    A major fault line in Hungarian politics has been Budapest – representing left-liberal politics – versus the rest of the country. Liberal politics resonate in county towns as well, but with less momentum and regularity.

    Hódmezővásárhely is an interesting town to this extent. It is located in the county of Csongrád, where former Fidesz parliamentary group leader Lázár is MP – a testament to the popularity of the governing party.

    It is situated in between two major left-liberal centres of power, Budapest and Szeged. Both of these have seen civil action in support of refugees crossing into Hungary, and protests against Orbán’s anti-LGBTQ+ law. Szeged is the only town where the left has continuously held control since 2006, but its mayor failed to transform his success in local politics to become a national rival to Orbán.

    Márki-Zay’s biggest success as mayor appears to have been decreasing the debt of the city. Opposition mayors tend to portray debt accumulated under their predecessors as a result of endemic corruption, but ultimately voters expect investment in infrastructure, rather than austerity.

    In a way, having a non-Fidesz but a conservative and Christian mayor has benefited Hódmezővásárhely, even though the mayor himself has not delivered much. To consolidate support for Fidesz, Lázár has promised Hódmezővásárhely the biggest tramline extension for a century in Hungary.

    Non-political politics

    Rather than focusing on big projects and substantial political goals and slogans, Márki-Zay takes pride in being non-partisan. He is the founder of the Everybody’s Hungary movement, which “welcomes every decent Hungarian who is interested in change”.

    Its primary goal is to present joint candidates against Fidesz mayors in mayoral elections, but it does not propose any policy platforms to show the electorate why their candidates should be elected over Fidesz ones.

    Its vague platform purports to fight corruption and nepotism with new political faces in county towns, but among its founders are some old, rightwing intellectuals, economists and politicians. The movement echoes earlier dissident reformist circles from the 1980s, promoting a clean new beginning that moves away from old politics.

    Radek Pietruszka / EPA-EFE

    Yet claiming to not have any politics is still a political position – and not a very promising one. To have any chance of defeating Orbán, Márki-Zay needs to present alternative policies and projects to those of Fidesz, and will have to rely on a party machine for campaigning support.

    He has already suggested establishing a new parliamentary faction for his own movement after the election, with “civil [society] candidates without any party affiliation”.

    It looks as if Márki-Zay has already realised that not having any party association will hinder his chances in the election. Yet no candidate is “civil” once elected an MP, and some opposition parties already expressed scepticism about whether they could jointly support candidates from another faction beyond the six parties already in the opposition bloc.

    Can having no politics bring political success to Márki-Zay? There is a legacy of successful dissidence movements in the region that displaced ex-communists, but fell apart at subsequent elections. The region’s current politics are much more complex, and vague anti-corruption platforms cannot meet the challenges of Europeanisation, climate change, nationalism and identity politics.

    Márki-Zay attempted to take a stance on the contentious issue of LGBTQ+ rights, with an April 2021 press conference alongside his family. His suggestion that he was ready to stand with gay Hungarians, (including those in Fidesz) raised the ire of Orbán’s party, but signalled Márki-Zay’s appeal for both conservative and liberal voters.

    Márki-Zay will certainly affect the course of Hungarian politics. This ex-manager of an electricity company and avid follower of American politics cannot be underestimated as a political tactician, but whether his strategy will be enough to beat Orbán is less certain. More

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    Gibraltar reform is a small – but important – step for abortion rights in Europe

    Gibraltar has voted to change the territory’s strict abortion ban, which held that abortion was punishable by “imprisonment for life” for the pregnant person and anyone who helped them get an abortion.

    Just over half of Gibraltar’s 23,343 eligible voters took part in the referendum on June 24, with 62% voting in favour of reforms to make abortion legally available. The success of the referendum will mean important changes for people in Gibraltar who urgently need access to safe, legal and local abortion.

    Originally planned for March 2020, the vote was delayed by the pandemic until June 2021. The referendum asked voters whether to approve a set of reforms to Gibraltar’s Crimes Act, to allow abortion in the following circumstances:

    where termination is needed to prevent “grave permanent” injury to mental or physical health
    where there is a substantial risk of fatal foetal abnormality
    where the pregnancy would risk the life of the pregnant person
    and where the pregnancy involves risk to the mental or physical health of the person, greater than the risk if the pregnancy were terminated (no later than 12 weeks into the pregnancy).

    Permitting abortion in the case of risk to health, risk to life, and fatal foetal abnormality are relatively common abortion allowances. The last requires more explanation: it permits abortion, up to 12 weeks, based on doctors’ assessment of the relative risk of ending or continuing the pregnancy.

    This is the same test established in the Abortion Act of 1967 that regulates abortion in England, Scotland and Wales. That law permits abortion where two doctors certify that “the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman” up to 24 weeks.

    In practice, doctors in Britain interpret this provision broadly and use it to permit abortion on request, because carrying pregnancy to full term is almost always more medically risky than ending it. In 2019, 98% of abortions in England and Wales were performed on this ground.

    An important note: this is not the same as permitting abortion on request, because it requires abortion seekers to give reasons that comport with the existing legal reasons to end a pregnancy. It also gives doctors the authority to refuse if they judge that the reasons do not satisfy the legal test.

    By contrast, Ireland’s new abortion law, passed in 2018, allows abortion on request up to 12 weeks, without the requirement that the abortion seeker provides reasons to explain their decision. As lawyers Fiona de Londras and Mairead Enright have noted, Gibraltar’s new regulations maintain some of the shortcomings of the outdated 1967 Abortion Act.

    Poland recently tightened its already-strict abortion laws, leading to protests in Warsaw.
    Konrad Zelazowski / Alamy Stock Photo

    Abortion travel

    Gibraltar’s unique political geography has made travel to access abortion especially complicated for residents, but the new law will make safe services available locally for many people. Historically, some have travelled by car or bus to Spain, where abortion is legal up to 14 weeks, while others have gone to England where abortion is legal to 24 weeks, but only if they had the money and documentation to make the long journey. The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, made this infinitely more difficult.

    The number of abortion travellers is notoriously difficult to estimate, because anti-abortion stigma means people may conceal their identity or nationality. Nonetheless, based on UK government data, over the last ten years, the number of people from Gibraltar who obtained abortions in England or Wales has varied between zero and six annually. Similar national-level data on Gibraltarian abortion seekers in Spain is not available but a Spanish clinic very close to the border with Gibraltar reported 21 Gibraltar residents sought treatment there in 2019.

    As happens elsewhere in Europe, people in Gibraltar who cannot or do not want to travel for abortion obtain safe but illegal medication online. A Gibraltarian pro-choice campaign group reported 29 pill requests in the first half of 2020, when abortion travel was especially impacted by the pandemic.

    Abortion has been highly stigmatised among Gibraltar’s small community of 33,000, according to Mara Clarke from the Abortion Support Network, a charity that supports people from Gibraltar (and other countries) travelling for abortion. Some of the network’s clients reported that they feared even being seen buying a pregnancy test in a pharmacy because word might get back to their friends and family. Clarke says being able to “speak openly and publicly” to healthcare providers about abortion in Gibraltar will be transformative.

    Looking forward

    Gibraltar joins Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the Isle of Man among the European states and territories that have recently liberalised their abortion laws. Reforms in these places are a significant improvement for the reproductive health and rights of people living there.

    Nonetheless, some of the limitations of Gibraltar’s reforms illustrate the familiar pattern of “two steps forward and one step back” on abortion rights. For Gibraltarians who need an abortion after 12 weeks, and do not fall into the very narrow circumstances outlined in the law, they will continue to be forced to travel abroad.

    After this long-overdue reform in Gibraltar, abortion rights advocates will continue to push for liberalisation in Malta, which maintains a total abortion ban, and Poland, which recently tightened its already highly restrictive law. More

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    Jürgen Conings: the case of a Belgian soldier on the run shows how the pandemic collides with far-right extremism

    A soldier has been on the run from police in Belgium since mid-May after being implicated in the theft of weapons from a military base in Flanders.

    The federal prosecutor charged Jürgen Conings with attempted murder and the illegal possession of weapons in a terrorist context after he was connected with threats to kill Belgium’s top pandemic virologist, Marc Van Ranst.

    The case highlights the country’s much overlooked problem with extremism on the right – and how these politics have become entangled with the pandemic.

    Pandemic politics

    It is not just fringe far-right conspiracy groups, such as QAnon and Viruswaanzin, that have been exploiting the COVID-19 crisis. Several Belgian right-wing parties and movements are using the pandemic to spread misinformation and fuel resentment.

    These mostly conservative, pro-Flemish-independence parties include the right-wing New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) and the extreme far-right Vlaams Belang. Both have been vocal about the way the caretaker governments led by former temporary prime minister Sophie Wilmès have handled the pandemic. The criticism grew even louder when a seven-party coalition took over in October 2020. Even though N-VA and Vlaams Belang were the largest elected parties in Flanders in 2019, they have been reduced to an opposition role in the current federal government.

    This has been a bitter pill to swallow, especially for Vlaams Belang, which had hoped to form a coalition with the N-VA in order to bypass a 1989 ruling aimed at keeping it out of government because of its extreme politics.

    The Interpol search warrant out for Conings.

    The tense political climate has been further exploited by the Flemish alt-right movement Schild & Vrienden to sow even more division.

    It is in this complex context that pro-Conings groups have been popping up online ever since his news of disappearance was broadcast in May.

    Homegrown extremism

    Conings had been on a terror watch list since February as a “potentially violent extremist” and was known to be connected to another former soldier, convicted neo-Nazi Tomas Boutens. Yet neither the Belgian army nor the Belgian minister of defence appear to have been informed about this.

    A Facebook group supporting Conings soon attracted more than 50,000 members before being banned and relocating to encrypted messaging app Telegram, which is harder to regulate. Posts praised his actions with fascist memes – which are popular among the Flemish alt-right and extreme far-right.

    Conings supporters at a protest in Brussels at the end of May.
    Alamy/Belga News Agency

    At least three support marches have taken place since his search warrant was issued – one of them coinciding with protests against COVID-19 measures in Brussels.

    The right-wing trolling of experts

    A number of scientific experts have become targets during the pandemic. As well as Van Ranst, infectious diseases specialist Erika Vlieghe and vaccinologist Pierre Van Damme have had to endure online attacks.

    Belgium’s record-breaking federal government formation talks did not help either. Politicians from the caretaker government quickly passed on all responsibility to a team of scientific experts at the start of the crisis. Trying to save political face, most of the pandemic communication was left to the experts. This is how Van Ranst, head of Belgium’s pandemic planning team and an opinionated Twitter user, became the personification of the pandemic.

    Mainstream politicians from the traditional right and extreme far-right have played a part in fuelling personal attacks against experts. Calling Van Ranst “doctor Hatred” in a previous Twitter dispute, N-VA politician Theo Francken, infamous for his anti-immigration stance, set the tone again at the start of the crisis. Quoting a satirical article, he sent out and subsequently deleted a tweet targeted at Van Ranst. The tweet combined the Dutch word for “pandemic” with the gay slur “sissy”, suggesting the virologist was being overly dramatic about the pandemic.

    Francken’s pande-mietje Tweet.
    Twitter Marc Van Ranst

    Van Grieken and his party have taken advantage of their social media know-how during the pandemic, often publicising content from Vlaams Belang-linked “alternative” news sites, such as the Flemish nationalist ‘t Scheldt. Recurrent themes are xenophobic conspiracy theories and the constant suggestion that Van Ranst is the “leftist hand puppet” to Belgium’s “illegitimate” federal government, associating him with China’s alleged communist dictatorship.

    Dries Van Langenhove, Schild & Vrienden’s leader and now independent Vlaams Belang politician, has participated in the bashing of Van Ranst as well. In a recent meme-packed video, he even compared Van Ranst to Stalin for advising against reopening hospitality businesses too soon.

    Van Langenhove with Van Ranst depicted as Stalin.
    Kies Dries YouTube channel

    This excessive trolling, often accompanied by death threats, has had a concrete impact on all experts involved: before the Conings case, Van Ranst already spoke about being prank-called by groups of drunk youngsters, often ending their calls by singing the Flemish national anthem and calling him “leftist vermin”.

    Lessons for the future

    The pandemic climate has proven to be an excellent breeding ground for extremists. It has provided them with an excuse to go after what they see as the “freedom-destroying” establishment.

    In this climate, Conings is portrayed as a Flemish “resistance fighter” by many sharing his feelings of exclusion – despite being wanted for extremely serious crimes. The way people have responded to his case shows there is an urgent need to more closely inspect Belgium’s homegrown far-right extremism problem.

    In my research, I have been looking at how continental urban terrorist violence materialises both online and offline in the aftermath of the Paris 2015 and Brussels 2016 attacks. This pandemic-driven case teaches us that present-day terrorist threats do not only stem from Jihadist milieus, as is often assumed. The actions of people such as Conings – who appear, on the surface, to be outliers or lone wolves – need to be analysed as part of a wider sociopolitical environment, particularly when political parties appear to feel so comfortable spreading misinformation. More

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    Will European countries ever take meaningful steps to end colonial legacies?

    Centuries of European colonialism have had a tremendous impact on shaping inequities within and among countries, many of which are yet to be effectively addressed. This may seem like a trivial statement, but it is only recently being recognised by EU countries.
    In 2019, the European Parliament passed a Resolution on the Fundamental Rights of People of African Descent. It called for a comprehensive perspective on colonialism and slavery, which recognises their historical and contemporary adverse effects on people of African descent.
    Similarly, last year’s ambitious anti-racism action plan for 2020-2025 declares that colonialism is embedded in European history and has profound consequences for society today.
    Still, the EU has some way to go to fully recognise, let alone address, the structural legacies of colonialism – for example, the racial dividing lines between white people and people of colour within the EU. In all major areas of society across the EU, people of colour tend to be the most discriminated against. Yet, speaking of race and differences between white people and people of colour is not part of the political and legal discourse in the EU.

    Sweden as a case study
    Regarding Europe’s dawning recognition of colonial legacies, Sweden is a case in point. After the second world war it projected itself as a “moral superpower” without any of its own issues with colonialism and racism. It was a champion for equal rights, global justice and solidarity.
    From the early 1960s, it stood up against colonialism at the UN and actively supported anti-colonial struggles. It funded the ANC in South Africa.
    Today, Sweden remains among the world’s largest donors of development aid, despite being a relatively small country. Until recently, Sweden had the most generous admission of refugees per capita in Europe. If we are to believe the Good Country Index, there is no country in the world that contributes more to the common good of humanity than Sweden.
    But Sweden has always participated in, benefited from and even contributed to the international racial divisions of colonialism. Between the first and second world wars, the Swedish parliament voted for the establishment of a state institute for studying, promoting and conserving the race biology of the nation. The commonplace conception at the time was that ethnic Swedes belonged to a superior Nordic type of white Europeans.
    Nor was Sweden a mere bystander to the racial ordering of world affairs that began with European expansion during the late 15th century. It participated in the scramble for overseas colonies, holding onto the island of St Barthélemy in the Caribbean, for nearly a century. This became a significant free port where the treatment of enslaved Africans was no different than on neighbouring islands.
    Today, people of non-European descent make up roughly 15-20% of the Swedish population, a segment of society that has much higher levels of unemployment than white Swedes. While the employment rate for native-born Swedes is close to 100%, for those born in Asia and Africa it is 55-60%.
    A Black Lives Matter protest in Gothenburg. EPA/Adam Ihse
    The more educated you are as an African Swede, the larger the pay gap when set against other Swedes with the same educational attributes – and the more difficult it is to find a job that matches your qualifications. Native-born African Swedes with a university education make approximately 49% less than the rest of the population with similar qualifications.
    These hierarchies in Swedish society are part of a global pattern that has come about as a result of a shared colonial history.
    Addressing colonial legacies
    Despite efforts in some respects, Sweden and other European countries do not properly recognise the many global inequities that are the legacy of colonialism. As the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, put it, colonialism still reverberates in social injustices, the global economy and international power relations.
    Former colonial powers are refusing to give up their domination at the UN, World Bank and International Monetary Fund, for example. Many European nations have consistently opposed and ignored UN resolutions passed with overwhelming majority by the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council calling for a democratic and equitable international order.
    This year marks the 20th anniversary of the World Conference Against Racism in South Africa and the world’s most comprehensive human rights instrument against racial discrimination. Among other things, this Durban Declaration and Programme of Action calls for an end to the racial structures established by colonialism and for concerned states to halt and reverse the lasting consequences of the transatlantic slave trade.
    The UK, France and other European countries have opposed the implementation of the Durban Declaration – and Sweden has supported them. For example, on New Year’s Eve 2020 the UN General Assembly passed a resolution for a comprehensive implementation of the declaration, also endorsing the decision to establish a UN permanent forum on people of African descent. When put to a vote, 106 countries supported the resolution. Only 14 voted against – among them the UK, France and the Netherlands. Another 44 abstained, including Sweden.
    Still, EU countries seem to be slowly coming around to recognising the global impact of colonialism. In December 2020, the European Parliament held an inaugural European Day for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. In Sweden, a government agency is making efforts towards raising public awareness of Sweden’s participation in the racialised order of European colonialism. That includes its colonisation of Europe’s only recognised indigenous peoples, the Saami.
    So far, no steps have been taken towards redress, but maybe we are witnessing the beginning of an honest reckoning of the past and its impacts on the present. More

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    Unrest in the US has prompted soul-searching in Europe

    In the wake of the shocking events in Washington, DC, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, published a blog laden with sound and fury, beseeching Europeans to heed the “wake-up call for all democracy advocates around the world world” and to “stand up immediately to every violation of the independence of democratic institutions”.
    Many Europeans have felt downcast about the precipitous slide away from cardinal values, including democracy, instigated under President Donald Trump since his 2016 election. Egged on by the continued egregious allegations by Trump of election fraud, a large body of his supporters seized the opportunity to surround and ultimately break into the Capitol Building while members of Congress endeavoured to approve the results of the 2020 election.
    Europeans are still trying to figure out what happened. Was this flashpoint merely an opportunity for an ill-informed group of violent Trumpites to further express their anger, or was it a localised example of deep-seated discontent that has taken permanent root in America?
    And is it only in America that people have been duped by their leader? A fair bit of duping has been occurring too in some European nations, inflicting serious damage to its democratic credentials.

    How deep does this run? EPA
    For Borrell, democracy itself is at stake, both as a value, and mode of government. He too argues that there is a need to “fight harder against disinformation”. Faith in democracy must be found anew and and those European institutions in which democracy rests must be defended. This means fighting back against governments in EU countries that have turned away defiantly from democracy towards unconstrained populism and authoritarian rule.
    Tech is too big
    For Věra Jourová, European Commission vice president for values and transparency, the problem is simple. In Europe and America alike, “people have simply lost trust in democratic institutions”. Rebuilding that trust means taking aim at a few key antagonists: big tech and social media, lax regulations, unethical coding, and unaccountable algorithms.
    If these seem rather unlikely enemies of the state, for Jourová, they represent the building blocks of digital accountability that make up democracy in a digital age. Without them, neither freedom of expression nor the ability to eradicate disinformation and fake news campaigns can be guaranteed.
    Jourová suggests that the European democracy action plan – a broad roadmap of how 2021 Europe can galvanise faith in democratic governments – should be underwritten by sharper use of new rules and regulations, including an ongoing plan to curb tech monopolies.
    Problems at home
    Europe is going to need something really substantial to rebuild trust in democracy at home. While Biden is fighting to rebuild his country, the EU needs to accept that it has permitted some perfidious descents of its own in both its domestic and foreign policy.
    In Poland, EU leaders and institutions alike have tolerated or even wilfully ignored how Jarosław Kaczyński’s incongruously named Law and Justice party has eroded a whole series of norms, including the independence of the judiciary. In Hungary, the Fidesz party under Viktor Orbán has exercised breath-taking examples of undemocratic governance, from snuffing out freedom of the press, independent academic institutions and NGOs, and misappropriation of EU funds.
    Romania and Bulgaria are exhibiting similar erosions of democracy, rule of law and good governance. Externally, from lacklustre attitudes to Belarus and its own near neighbourhood, to exclusively interest-based dealings with China and Russia, the “pragmatic turn” appears to have taken precedence, rather than balance, with the EU’s former canon of value-led foreign policy designs.
    Optimists, however, may argue that there’s no time like the present. Trust in democracy at home, and soft power aboard, is at rock bottom. What better time to turn with unflinching eye and renewed zeal to addressing the torn fabric of European democracy? To call out the false prophets. To sanction the offenders. To remedy the transgressed.
    A good place to start might be the European People’s Party group in the European Parliament, which ought to expel the Fidesz party from its membership instead of just repeatedly suspending it. Next could be the European Council, which must start insisting that EU funds will only be available to nations who uphold the rule of law, thus ensuring that no European leader can act with impunity.
    In their global dealings, European leaders must speak and act more strongly. Shouting down Trump wasn’t that difficult, especially towards the end. What is more challenging will be ensuring that Europe’s bilateral deals with China and Russia – and indeed the US under Biden – all resolutely promote democracy as a global value, and its role as the keystone of liberal internationalism. The same applies in its dealings with key global clubs, including the UN (and the World Health Organization), NATO and the G20.
    Too idealistic? Certainly, no liberal state or organisation can ever operate wholly on the basis of liberal principles. There will always be pragmatism and even hypocrisy in how national communities choose to govern as liberal democracies. The point is simply to keep at it. Even flawed liberal democracies – simply by continuing to operate and seasonally rededicating themselves to their founding ideals – provide the opportunities for the very struggles that return us to healthy democratic practices.
    Do it right, and both the US and Europe will be on surer footing through the difficult times ahead in 2021. Fail to do it, and the entire governing philosophy of western liberal democracy will carry a mortal wound well into the middle of the century. More

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    The end of Golden Dawn: has Greece shown us how to deal with neo-Nazis?

    When a wave of right-wing extremism hit Greece in 2012, few would have predicted that Golden Dawn, one of the groups involved, would grow to become the third largest party in the Greek parliament. This was the beginning of a long period of turmoil in Greek politics that saw a violent street movement become a viable political force.
    But this neo-fascist “fairy tale” ended in what was considered the biggest Nazi trial since Nuremberg. Golden Dawn has been declared a criminal organisation and its leaders jailed, because of their involvement in unlawful activities – including murders, attacks on migrants, illegal possession of weapons and racketeering.
    The leadership was also found guilty of ordering the murder of leftist rapper Pavlos Fyssas.
    Prior to that, another murder attempt on Egyptian fisherman Abuzid Embarak in 2012, showed that the party was deliberately trying to incite violence, something that has been previously described by a number academics and journalists as an attempt to target minorities.

    The trial lasted more than five years due to numerous delays and setbacks that turned the whole process into a never-ending chaos. In the meantime, the party was free to stand candidates in general and local elections without restrictions.
    In total, 37 members of Golden Dawn were convicted – including leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos and 17 MPs – who have now been convicted and sentenced by the Greek court. Ioannis Lagos, Golden Dawn’s only remaining member of the European parliament, is likely to have his parliamentary immunity revoked any day now. Lagos is best known for ripping up a Turkish flag during a debate.
    Why Golden Dawn was different
    Every European country has fringe groups like Golden Dawn. They are often part of larger right-wing extremist networks with small but loyal bases.
    Golden Dawn went mainstream soon after announcing its first major election campaign. Timing was crucial. The growing political instability in the country meant three general elections were held between 2009 and 2012. All major parties were losing public approval over their handling of the fiscal crisis.
    On top of that, the only active far-right party in parliament back then (the Popular Orthodox Rally) had agreed to participate in a provisional coalition government organised by Lucas Papademos to get the country out of crisis. This move was seen as a betrayal by supporters.
    The Greek far-right scene seemed weak, allowing Golden Dawn to step in and fill that gap without facing competition. Its monopoly allowed it to act in the most politically aggressive way. It embraced national purity, anticommunism, and promised mass migrant deportations. This rhetoric and an obsession with the refugee crisis started to pay off very quickly.
    Calls for more aggressive migration policies became central to its election campaigns. Recent academic findings showed that exposure to the refugee crisis in rural Greece increased support for Golden Dawn.
    The party secured a shocking 9.4% of the vote in the European Parliament election of 2014, while in September 2015 it peaked nationally with 7%.
    Who fills the void?
    During the early years of the Greek economic crisis, it looked as though the public was trying to punish the political system through the ballot box. It is widely believed that this age of anger had passed by 2017, which was when Golden Dawn’s downfall began. Greece rejected populism and abandoned fringe politics, allowing mainstream parties to become popular once again.
    In the general election of 2019, Golden Dawn lost all its parliamentary seats and had to shut down most of its branches to survive financially.
    However, the party casts a long shadow and continues to shape Greek politics. The more mainstream New Democracy, for example, has opened its doors to a number of far-right politicians, who ran successful campaigns in the recent election. Some of them had previously expressed strong xenophobic and antisemitic views.
    Kyriakos Velopoulos’ ultranationalist party Greek Solution, meanwhile, won ten seats in the Greek parliament after a long period of campaigning against migrants. Golden Dawn’s spokesperson Ilias Kasidiaris has formed a new movement called Greeks for the Fatherland – even though he, too, is now in jail.
    Ilias Kasidiaris appeals for his 13-year sentence to be suspended. EPA
    Kasidiari has attempted to distance himself from neo-Nazi ideology in the wake of the Golden Dawn trial but his commitment to that change is yet to be tested. The same voters who embraced violence and legitimised Golden Dawn for its violent practices could support a similar movement. We might expect any such party to be less aggressive and neo-Nazi than Golden Dawn, but its values will be similar.
    Greece has shown us how to deal with neo-Nazis. But when it comes to extremism, it is important to recognise the years of antifascist activism during Golden Dawn’s rise. It was a fight that, at times, seemed like a lost cause.
    Democracy managed to pass an important test in the prosecution and sentencing of this criminal organisation. The court ruling was enough to eradicate Golden Dawn, but fascist remnants are still out there, reorganising and planning their next move. More

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    How COVID-19 is shaping the way Europeans think about politicians

    COVID-19 is an unprecedented doom loop between a severe health crisis and grave economic repercussions. Government interventions to handle the outbreak and its aftermath first stopped public life in its tracks and then entirely reshaped it. This has left us in a kind of “new normal”, in which social interactions and labour conditions will probably never be the same again.
    An experimental research study suggests that when people are thinking about the health crisis, they express less trust in politicians and political institutions such as the European Union. That’s even more the case when they are thinking about the economic ramifications of the situation we are all currently experiencing.
    This is what the findings from four online surveys conducted in Italy, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands as part of the study suggest. The surveys were conducted well into the first wave of the epidemic (May-June) and had more than 2,000 respondents per country.
    Some respondents were first asked about their experience of the COVID crisis, and then asked about their political opinions. They were asked, for example, if they knew anyone who had been diagnosed with COVID, and whether they were concerned about their health. That meant that, for this group, the health crisis was put front and centre in their minds. Their answers were then compared with respondents that were not given such “priming” questions at the beginning of the survey and were therefore not necessarily thinking about the pandemic. “Primed” respondents were 5% less likely to trust their national politicians and 12% less trustful of the European Union. When asked whether their country benefited from EU membership, they were 10% less likely to reply “yes”.
    When posed priming questions about the economic consequences of the crisis, such as on job security or future opportunities, respondents were even more disappointed in their political institutions. They were also less willing to give up personal freedom in exchange for individual and public safety.
    Similar bolts of “disillusion” have occurred before, often in the wake of natural disasters or economic shocks. Such events will always overwhelm political institutions to some degree. Clearly citizens expected their institutions to be better prepared for the shock of the pandemic, and to be quicker on the ball to manage its fallout.
    Students in Rome protest against coronavirus measures. EPA/ Angelo Carconi
    This disillusion also seems to chip away at another pillar of society, as the survey shows that support for financing the welfare state with taxes also goes down. This is true for all spending categories – poverty alleviation, health expenditure, unemployment benefits and pensions – and coincides with a higher dissatisfaction with the general tax burden.
    The return of the expert
    The news isn’t all bad though. Support for scientists and experts was 8% higher among respondents primed to think about health and economic issues first. This is especially true for the group receiving additional priming questions that cast the crisis as a conflict. When respondents were asked whether they perceive the crisis as a struggle against an invisible enemy, and whether they see national solidarity as the best way forward, support for competence and expertise rose by a whopping 28%.
    This result suggests a “rallying around the flag” effect is at play as well, to some extent mitigating the disillusion effect. Precisely because a crisis is an extraordinary event, citizens are more easily united around a common cause and are willing to put their shoulders under any kind of competent crisis response with enthusiasm.
    A new political divide?
    Surprisingly, and although we learn from the survey that faith in political institutions and the EU is wavering, “populist” attitudes have weakened as well. Support for a strong leader to deal with a crisis decreased by 5% for all primed respondents. They were also 5% less keen to let the “people” make the most important policy decisions instead of politicians. Support for populist political parties, if anything, is in retreat too.
    In line with these findings, the latest polls show that populist parties are losing ground across Europe. This suggests that we may have reached a critical juncture, with the crisis potentially pushing our societies onto a different path.
    Of course, the way in which governments manage the economic recovery and the resurgence of the virus in the months and years to come will be a crucial factor here. It will be interesting to see if the rising demand for competence that the survey uncovers, is met in the future. Or whether the “disillusion” effect of the crisis is eventually channelled in renewed, or even bolstered support for populist parties.
    In this sense, a new fault line in the political arena may be opening up, setting simple policy solutions against the complexity of nuanced, yet competent approaches. More

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    Has the coronavirus proved a crisis too far for Europe’s far-right outsiders?

    In recent years, far-right political parties in Europe have capitalised on crises to build their support bases. Many have made it to positions of power as a result of these efforts. The financial crisis of 2008, the refugee crisis that began in 2014 and the ongoing debate around climate change have all provided opportunities to harness growing uncertainty and resentment for political purposes.
    However, early signs suggest these groups have not had the same success during the coronavirus crisis. For now at least, incumbent European governments seem to be in control.
    On the internet, far-right communities have played a role in circulating conspiracy theories about COVID-19’s origins during the pandemic. They have helped spread the idea that the virus was created in a laboratory rather than coming from nature – and even that it was released intentionally – despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They have blamed minorities for the spread of the disease and adopted a racist rhetoric that blames China for the pandemic.
    In turn, many far-right political parties have picked up the themes and brought them into mainstream discourse.
    Read more: Why are there so many coronavirus conspiracy theories? Listen to part six of our expert guide
    Given the massive surge of conspiracy theories that have circulated online in the past few months, there has been concern that another surge in anti-establishment xenophobic politics is on the cards for Europe. The worry has been that the far right will make gains again as a result. But, so far, it seems this crisis has not actually been particularly “profitable” for these groups. In fact, they seem to be floundering.
    In retreat
    In Germany, the far-right AfD openly embraced conspiracy theories. Its members claimed Angela Merkel’s lockdown measures were unnecessary.
    This initially gained traction among a public trying to adapt to a strange new way of life. But the AfD were quickly seen to have painted themselves into a corner when it became clear that Germany’s lockdown was producing the desired effect and infections were dropping.
    The AfD has lost a significant amount of support during the pandemic, sliding from around 15% approval in pre-coronavirus polls to something more like 9% now. This is a blow to German ultranationalists.
    Meanwhile, in Italy, Matteo Salvini, leader of the League party, has found it very hard to hold the attention of the national media – which is a new experience for him. The League’s messaging has been confusing. In late February, the party initially called for the partially locked down region of Lombardy to be re-opened but then later demanded a full lockdown. The news website Politico’s analysis of opinion polling in Italy shows that the League’s popularity is down 11% from last summer.
    The National Rally in France has also seen better days. Party leader Marine Le Pen asserted that it makes sense to ask if COVID-19 was made in a lab. A recent poll found that 40% of National Rally voters believe that the virus was intentionally designed in a laboratory. Support for Le Pen’s party appears to have flatlined during the pandemic.
    In Greece, the leader of a new far-right group called Greek Solution is under investigation by the Supreme Court for producing TV commercials advertising balms that “effectively protect people from coronavirus”. Vox in Spain has also failed to advance in polls, while mainstream parties in the country have enjoyed a significant boost.
    Members of Spain’s Vox party attend a rally during the pandemic. EPA
    Incumbents hold support
    In spite of the far right’s continuous attempts to cause further instability during the pandemic, most European countries have rallied around their governments. Even mainstream opposition parties have struggled to make an impact.
    Germans have been supportive of Merkel’s evidence based approach , while both France’s Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s Giuseppe Conte have seen their approval ratings climb.
    Greece’s success at controlling the virus so far has not gone unnoticed either. It’s hard for opposition parties of any kind to gain traction when the current government has managed to keep total infections to fewer than 4,000 by taking swift action to restrict movement.
    The predicament facing Europe’s far-right and nationalist parties represents a very interesting break with the past. In the last decade, most crises in the continent played out with a familiar winner. There was significant disunity between European leaders when it came to managing the financial crash and the refugee crisis. This fractured the European Union and opened a space for the far right.
    Drawing on old notions of identity and boosted by online conspiracy theories, far-right actors once again openly doubted European policies and attempted to take advantage of the crisis. But compared to the more scientific and realist approaches of most European governments, their response looks insufficient.
    The far right has been the significant loser of the pandemic. Not only have these groups lost credibility, but their nationalist agenda looks highly irrelevant in the era of COVID-19. Amid lockdowns and closed borders, the issue of immigration has lost its significance in 2020 and the failure to come up with viable solutions to the biggest issue of the day has hurt the popularity of far-right actors.
    However, now the focus has shifted towards the need to return to “normality” things might change. Impatience is growing among populations that have been living in lockdown for months.
    A recession looms – and it looks set to dwarf the last. That presents opportunities to governments and fringe groups alike – opportunities that the far right will be actively looking into, to further weaken liberal democracies. More