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June 28, 2016

Racism in the Age of Brexit: A European Trend

By Zahava Moerdler

While a variety of factors led to the victory for “leave,” there’s no denying that bigotry played a big role. The xenophobia and racism that marred the Brexit vote appeared to deepen in the aftermath, yielding a 57% rise in hate crimes reported since Friday, including racist graffiti on the entrance to the Polish Social and Cultural Association (POSK), a Polish community center, and a racist demonstration outside a Mosque.

This troubling trend that will undoubtedly come into sharper focus as other countries struggle with that same question: should we stay or should we go? 

With Euro-skepticism likely to increase post-Brexit vote, far-right populist leaders will use this opportunity to intensify their push for “independence” and scapegoat minorities while portraying Brussels and EU elites as out of touch. To quote Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, “Brussels must hear the voice of the people.” 

poll conducted in May by Ipsos Mori showed that 38 percent of Hungarians would welcome a referendum on their EU membership. This number is now likely to rise. Orban has said the issue of immigration decided the vote in Britain. He says that there should be no migrants in Hungary and that Europe will be strong only if it deals with “significant problems like migration.” But Orban's rhetoric is not a stand-alone. He has also been implementing tools from Jobbik's playbook as he promotes an ethnic nationalistic agenda with significant World War II revisionism. For example, Orban’s Veritas Institute, or Institute of Truth, has continued efforts to whitewash Balint Homan, a Nazi collaborator. Although it seemed that Orban was giving up efforts to rehabilitate Homan’s image, when his bid to erect a statute of Homan failed, the continued focus on Homan at the Institute suggests otherwise.  

Meanwhile Marine Le Pen, of France’s National Front, preparing for a presidential bid next spring, posted “Victory for freedom!” on her twitter account. Le Pen has been calling for an EU referendum for three years and used the UK’s vote to bolster her stance. Le Pen has said the EU is responsible for failing to keep smugglers, economic migrants, and terrorists out of France.   

Additionally, Greece’s Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi political party, welcomed Brexit as a “brave” decision to “deny the ‘crows’ of Brussels and the financial oligarchy of Germany.” The party’s spokesman announced that “a direct consequence of Brexit will be the empowerment of patriotic and nationalist forces across Europe.” 

In Germany, members of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party announced that “the time is ripe for a new Europe.” AfD has a strong anti-Semitic and anti-immigration stance. However, recent polls show that 79 percent of all Germans would vote to remain in the Union. AfD and the German government, as Chairman in Office of the OSCE, has made the fight to combat antisemitism a priority, so this leaves room for optimism. 

Far-right groups have been successful in manipulating public fears and attitudes—drawing on each new act of terrorism as an excuse for closing borders and targeting minorities. Now, more than ever, the United States, the EU, and individual countries of the EU should understand better the concerns of their populations and craft a positive narrative that shows that the answer to their fears is better found in respect for rights and tolerance. 

The Brexit vote has already resulted in increased violence; the UK and other nations should be prepared to prevent, address, and prosecute hate crimes.