Repudiating intolerance will not be enough: New Zealand attack unsettles Europe

New Zealand is thousands of miles away from Europe, but the Christchurch attack on mosque worshippers must have raised alerts across Europe. The New Zealand massacre exposes the vulnerabilities of multicultural Europe in the age of globalized social media and fake news, when fringe elements can be radicalized via the internet. Furthermore, the Christchurch attacker, a “lone wolf” not connected to any particular organization, drew some inspiration for his hate from his travels to Europe, and his actions put the European anti-immigrant far right in the spotlight.

In recent years, Europe has experienced a series of terrorist attacks by radicalized Islamists and the waves of irregular migration from predominantly Muslim states. Extreme right-wing parties have joined the political establishments in Europe, having become parliamentarians in Germany and members of coalition governments in Austria and Italy. These new nationalists rode to power on the wave of populist dissatisfaction with the European Union and the national governments, including discontent with mismanagement of the mass migration originating from dysfunctional states of the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

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Besides having concerns about radicalization and terrorism, European citizens worry about the immigrants’ integration into the mainstream societies. According to a 2018 Eurobarometer opinion survey, just over half of the European Union’s citizens think the integration of immigrants has been successful, though the figures vary between countries. Shockingly, in some of the most tolerant and welcoming countries, that figure is less than 50 percent: only 46 percent of Swedes, for example, believe that integration of immigrants has been a success.  

Furthermore, while perpetrated by a tiny radicalized minority recruited from the newly arrived or domestic born immigrants, the Islamist terror attacks have profoundly shaken Europe, whose citizens previously enjoyed decades of domestic peace and stability. Abandoning assimilation, the Western liberal democracies no longer insist on imposing the traditional national identities, allowing the immigrant communities to develop separately on the margins of the mainstream societies. European majorities feel insecurity and cultural dislocation in the multicultural societies of Western Europe.

Such is the backdrop that has allowed the Eurosceptic, anti-establishment nationalists to increase their political power and influence in European societies.

Migration also has become a source of deep disagreements between Europe’s established democracies in the West and the new democracies in the East. Moreover, eager to see a weaker, disunited Europe, Russia has been supporting far-right politicians, having provided money for France’s Marine Le Pen. 

Concerns about the extreme far right, rising intolerance against immigrants, and reprisals by radicalized individuals already have been on the radar screen of European agencies and think tanks. Engaging with policymakers across Europe, the European Union Institute for Security Studies has developed a series of imaginary scenarios that seem unlikely from the present-day perspective but that still might happen at some point. One of these “what if” scenarios envisions a devastating far-right attack against the institutions of Karolia, a fictional Western European state, followed by spontaneous assaults on immigrants and the increased radicalization of immigrant communities.

Europe already has seen the rise of intolerance and some anti-immigrant attacks. When a Syrian asylum seeker stabbed a German to death in Chemnitz last year, the East German city saw anti-immigrant violence directed against those who “looked foreign.” Gratefully, however, Europe has not seen anything on the scale of the Christchurch attack, and the Karolia fictional scenario so far remains an academic exercise aimed at increasing preparedness among European policymakers.

Nevertheless, we should not exclude a possibility, even if distant, of copycat attacks and reprisals in Europe. Obviously, European agencies will need to increase surveillance of radicalized fringe elements, and governments will have to find a way to address the potential for radicalization on social media and internet sites. Established parties and leaders need to be more responsive to the concerns of their constituencies.

European majorities not only worry about economic inequality and lack of opportunities; some also feel insecurity as their states fragment and traditional identities get redefined amidst the pressures of globalization, migration and sometimes failed integration. Mere condemnations repudiating intolerance will not be enough.

Marta Vrbetic is affiliated with the Global Europe Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. An expert in European politics and security, she has testified before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe. She is writing a book on peacemaking and reconciliation in the Balkans and the lessons for contemporary conflict management and resolution. Follow her on Twitter @MartaVrbetic.