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Is Europe tiring of its immigrants?

Gavin Hewitt | 10:11 UK time, Monday, 20 September 2010

Jimmie Aakesson, (centre) leader of the far-right Sweden Democrats

"I pity the poor immigrant who wishes he would've stayed at home," sang Bob Dylan. In many parts of Europe the welcome mat for immigrants is being withdrawn. Anti-immigrant parties are making considerable gains at the polls and influencing power.

The latest is the Sweden Democrats. With over 4% of the vote they passed the threshold to enter parliament and now have 20 seats and potentially hold the balance of power.

There was nothing coded about the campaign of the Sweden Democrats. In one advertisement they showed a white pensioner being edged aside by burka-clad mothers in the benefits queue. Their leader, Jimmie Akesson, described Islam as the biggest threat to Sweden since World War II. In his and his party's view, Islam is not compatible with Sweden's values. In a country famed for its tolerance the party has benefitted from a backlash against what is seen as liberal asylum laws.

Of course, the party's share of the vote was still small, and voters rated unemployment as a more important issue than immigration. It might be possible to dismiss the vote as a one-time protest - if it weren't for what is happening elsewhere in Europe.

In the Netherlands the anti-immigrant Freedom Party was the third largest in the June elections. Since then the country has been unable to form a stable government. Polls suggest that if an election was held now Geert Wilders, the leader of the Freedom Party, would do even better. He campaigned on shutting down Islamic schools and banning face veils.

In Italy, the Northern League - which is the fastest growing party - has embraced a tough new law enabling authorities to fine and imprison illegal immigrants.

In Austria, the anti-foreigner Freedom Party captured 17.5% of the vote two years ago and is now pushing in regional elections for a vote to ban minarets and Islamic veils.

In Germany the former member of the Bundesbank, Thilo Sarrazin, has attracted large audiences to hear him discuss his book Germany Doing Away with Itself. His main critique is directed at Islam.

"With no other religion," he writes, "is there such a fluid connection between violence, dictatorship and terrorism as there is with Islam." He goes on to argue that Muslim immigrants are "unwilling or incapable of integrating into Western society".

The German establishment has disowned him; the polls and his book sales suggest that many German people agree with him.

The French parliament has passed a law banning the burka and niqab. There is a debate about national identity, and President Sarkozy believes he has the majority of the people with him in expelling the Roma.

So what has brought about this mood? Firstly, there is the economy. There are fewer jobs. Fewer outsiders are needed. But the economic downturn provides only part of the answer. In both Germany and Sweden the economy is rebounding strongly.

There seems to be a growing fear about identity, of living in a fast-changing society where people's known world recedes.

Much of this new populism is built on questioning whether Muslims can ever successfully integrate into the West. If they can't, so the argument goes, then Europe risks developing into separate, parallel communities.

Many Muslims argue that they are barred from fully integrating into society, and so assert their own identity.

What is the political fall-out from this? Firstly, immigration is rising up the agenda as a political issue, and the European left is struggling to find a message on immigration.

Yesterday, in the Sunday Times of London, the Italian Professor Raffaele Simone was quoted as saying "what has damaged the left most, in recent years, is its silence on immigration".

This new populist movement should neither be exaggerated - but neither can it be ignored. At its root it raises fundamental questions about the type of society Europeans want to live in. These parties tap into a desire for new arrivals to become "European". They are often suspicious of EU officials whom they regard as elite and distant from the concerns of ordinary voters.

Hugo Brady of the Centre for Economic Reform said that "immigration has stepped into the post-Lehman Brothers world and the EU is probably seen by ordinary people as more part of the problem than the solution".


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