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EU: Will There Be A Law-and-Order Backlash In Europe?

  • Kathleen Moore

A hard-line political party led by a judge known for his harsh sentences caused a major election upset in Germany in September, when it polled enough to push the governing Social Democrats from power in Hamburg. RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox explores whether voters throughout Europe are likely to follow suit in a law-and-order backlash after the 11 September terrorist attacks in the U.S. that killed an estimated 6,000 people.

Prague, 1 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- During his time as a local judge in Hamburg, Germany, Ronald Schill gained notoriety -- and the nickname "Judge Merciless" -- for his tough stance on crime.

He once sentenced a mentally ill woman to two years in prison for scratching cars, and he advocates castration for sex offenders.

His Party for a Law and Order Offensive recently ran on an anti-crime platform in Hamburg's local elections, challenging the "red-green" coalition of Greens and Social Democrats, who govern the country at a national level.

The outcome was dramatic. Judge Schill's party scooped up almost one-fifth of the vote, pushing the Social Democrats out of government in the city-state for the first time in 44 years.

Schill's opponents said the fallout from the 11 September terrorist attacks on the U.S. had given him a boost late in the day, as voters' concerns naturally turned to security. And in Hamburg, perhaps more than in the rest of Germany, it all seemed closer to home. Some of the men suspected of hijacking the planes used in the attacks were said to have studied there.

So was Schill's victory a one-off, knee-jerk reaction, or a sign of a wider swing toward parties advocating a tougher law-and-order stance in the wake of the attacks on the U.S.?

Bernhard Wessels is a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin. He says law and order, together with the economy, have long been the two issues dominating German politics. But in Hamburg, he says, Schill's message struck home for specific reasons, as crime is high and local authorities have taken a liberal approach to issues such as drugs:

"I wouldn't necessarily say it's an indication of a turn in Germany toward law-and-order policies. However, we have, unfortunately, experienced the 11th of September and fears of people that things like that can happen in Germany get stronger, so it means law-and-order policies get more importance for the people."

Heather Grabbe works at the London-based Center for European Reform. She says that far-right parties tend to benefit at times like this, for several reasons:

"One is a perception among some people that somehow the law-and-order position is 'out of control.' They feel that the government is failing to provide for their individual security and failing to ensure that criminals are tracked down and arrested on time. It's a general anti-liberal sentiment that you get. But I think that against that runs [the idea] that obviously there are a lot of things being done to crack down on that at an international and European level. The EU has taken a number of measures last week that were stalled for months, to do with extradition, to do with police cooperation.

"There's an awful lot happening that should reassure people that governments are working together on cross-border crime."

She says another possible impact of the attacks is that opinion may harden against immigrants -- at a time when some policy-makers are promoting immigration as a way of easing the burden of an aging population across Europe:

"What's dangerous about this election result [in Hamburg] and about the boost it gives to the far right is that there's a perception that can grow that terrorism is a racial problem and that it's do with immigrants and that there are too many immigrants in society. That is really dangerous and quite insidious, and that's why it's really important that national politicians stress that -- although the people who attacked the World Trade Center did so in the name of radical Islam -- they are not supported by most Muslims. The problem is that racial overtone, and the failure of some politicians to tackle that directly, has basically boosted support for parties on the far right."

Wessels of the Free University says the gloomy economic picture in Europe can also fuel anti-immigration feelings and make it harder for politicians to persuade voters of the need for immigration:

"One is the security aspect and the other is that the economy is not developing as expected. We have a low growth rate and unemployment has risen again, which then, of course, produces reactions like, 'Why do we need more people here? We don't have enough work places for the people who are [already] here.' That's one line of argument you can hear already. And the second, of course, is that we have to look at who we let into the country."

Wessels says similar reactions could take place across the European Union.

Charles Westin is head of the Center for Research in International Migration and Ethnic Relations in Stockholm. He agrees there's a risk the climate in Europe will become more anti-immigration. However, he adds:

"This is something that's been going on anyway, but it's been aggravated by the terrorist attacks in the United States."

Grabbe of the Center for European Reform agrees that even mainstream parties are adopting a tougher stance on law and order. As an example she cites the U.K., where the government is considering an emergency package of tough legislation to crack down on terrorist networks. She notes that it is a Labor -- or left-of-center -- government that is proposing these measures, which include introducing identification cards -- something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. But she stresses that it is crucial to steer the debate over anti-crime measures clear of simple racial profiling:

"The key issue is taking race out of this debate on law and order and ensuring it doesn't focus on migration as a source of crime. That's important because across Europe, particularly in Germany and also in other countries like the UK and France, there's been a worrying tendency by some commentators and some media reports to link migration with cross-border crime as if they are causally connected, whereas they should be dealt with separately and require different policy responses."

But Westin of Stockholm's international migration and ethnic relations center says that if carried out "sensibly," the war on terrorism could deal a blow to growing anti-foreigner sentiment:

"The side effects of increasing xenophobia might be counter-balanced by the fact that the countries in the Western world [and] other countries in the Islamic world can cooperate in the fight against terrorism. This could have a counter-effect toward xenophobia, that those political parties and politicians who want to exploit the terror attacks for their own purposes will be [put] out of business."

However, as Westin notes, this is a very optimistic view of the future.

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