Besides the glories of Europe’s generous welfare states is an often overlooked epidemic of racism and intolerance that plagues the old continent. Europe (especially Scandinavian countries) has long been championed by progressives as a standard America should strive to achieve—an example of how far behind we are compared to the rest of the developed world.
However, this comparison has been under attack recently. Recent polls and legislative activity in many EU countries have shined the spotlight on the dark, racist side of Europe that is often overlooked within the presence of their popular economic policies. Even Denmark, the most cited progressive success story, has introduced legislation that will limit “non-western” residents up to 30% in various neighborhoods. The Danish Social Democrats have also adopted a stricter stance on immigration as well.
But it is not just racism Europe has to worry about. Islamophobia and far-right extremism exploded across Europe during the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015. Austria’s far-right “Freedom Party” still plays a crucial role in the government’s majority coalition, Poland has begun a speedrun towards far-right authoritarianism ever since their 2015 elections, and many other EU countries have experienced concerning upticks in far-right extremism.
The rising intolerance of Europe is an issue that affects me personally. As someone who has spent years of my life in Serbia, I can safely say that Eastern Europe is far behind on a lot of important social issues regarding race, religion, gender, and homosexuality.
Gay pride parades are often met with violence and deep condemnation from sectors of the Orthodox church, vigilante groups roam the narrow streets of downtown Belgrade to “protect” citizens from Muslim refugees, and trans rights simply do not exist. It hurts to witness my home country, which I deeply love, in such a broken state, but even the most limited instances of positive change have served as an oasis of hope in the violent desert of bigotry.
Unfortunately, it does not get much better in Western Europe. Although the LGBT+ community has generally become more accepted, islamophobia runs rampant in countries such as France and the United Kingdom. Xenophobic, anti-Muslim fearmongering played a crucial role in securing the Brexit vote and the French Senate recently passed a law banning minors from wearing hijabs.
You might have once heard of the phrase something along the lines of “The United States is far to the right of other developed nations,” and it is generally true. I often find myself using it to describe the absurdity of American politics to any of my friends or family. However, leftists and neoliberals have united (crazy, right?) to mock the phrase in light of various headlines finally shedding light on Europe’s racism.
It should come as no surprise that many of those who mock the saying were already bitter about the praise Nordic countries have received in American political discourse over the last five years—some leftists correctly recognize that Nordic economies are still capitalist and therefore do not go far left enough (since capitalism is inherently exploitative in their view), while a fair chunk of neoliberals do not advocate for the high level of taxation necessary to run a robust welfare state present within Nordic countries (or they just do not believe it should be enacted in the United States).
As a social democrat myself, I find it confusing when someone purposely interprets my praise of various Nordic economic policies as a complete endorsement of all of their policies. When Bernie Sanders or any progressive gives credit to a country like Denmark, it is pretty clear that they admire their various economic freedoms such as free healthcare, higher minimum wages, and free education—not the appalling racism.
Tweets like the one above are either the result of a misunderstanding of how progressives view Nordic countries or just plain bad faith acting. Those who do act in bad faith are fearful of the idea that America may one day adopt many of Denmark’s policies. Some leftists believe this will crush the revolution since, in their minds, it will make capitalism more bearable (borderline accelerationism) while many neoliberals are just not fans of the policies.
I believe the most reasonable course of action is to simply separate the good policies from the bad ones. Nobody has ever proposed copying all of Denmark’s policies verbatim. Many countries around the world still offer valuable political, economic, and cultural lessons to learn from.
As for racism in Europe itself, the problem is deeply rooted and will require an extraordinary integration effort just to begin the long process of change. As systemically racist as the United States is, there is at least an unprecedented cultural effort involving direct activism designed to raise awareness on race and even class issues. Our government’s ability to change and respond to this activism is up to debate, but what is fairly certain is that Americans are much more racially open than many of their European counterparts.
So yes, racism is a problem in Europe that receives far less attention than it deserves. However, progress is being made thanks to movements such as BLM (yes, even in Europe) and Nordic countries should still serve as prime examples of sound social democracies.
Title Image: ULF SVANE