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The Fifteen and movements on the borderline of democracy. Is there a European approach?

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Default profile picture jacqueline hale


The recent "illegalisation" of Batasuna raises an old question from a different perspective: What should a state do when faced with a movement or a party which, for whatever reason, places itself at the limits or beyond the scope of democracy.

In its purest and simplest terms, the act of declaring a said party illegal was, until recently, inconceivable, but such a stand has been made possible by the climate of authoritarianism and heavy-handedness which has swept across the international scene since 11th September. Given the fact that each country is facing movements with a specific historical base, we will try to discover whether it is possible to speak of a 'European approach' to such a situation.

Challenging democracy

What can and should a democratic State do when it finds itself up against a movement wihich questions the nature of its regime? We can identify two principle ways of calling into question a democratic regime. The first consists of questioning its borders, for example by calling for the independence of a region. Nationalist movements of this type are becoming more and more usual in Europe and are now almost commonplace, from the PNV's recent shift towards semi-independence, to the madmen of the "Liga Nord'' in Italy and the Flemish Vlaams Blok, all of whom prey upon the nationalist fibre of a region with heady frequency, playing with the fire of identities and thereby destroying national solidarity.

The second approach is the questioning of democracy itself. Faced with the sluggishness of the democratic process, anti-parliamentary movements often speak out in favour of authoritarian regimes. Whether Fascist, far-right or simply populist, these parties are riding high in the European polls on a racist and authoritarian ticket, which is based in a nationalist discourse. By this we are of course referring to the French National Front (FN), the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the Pim Fortuyn list in Holland.

How can a democratic State respond to such parties? In principle, nothing, given that it is by nature democratic and should guarantee freedom of expression. However, many

many sectors of society are asking in one way or another for them to them to be excluded from the game, thus denying them the right to participate in democracy. The refusal of certain French journalists to interview the leader of the FN, or even the negative reaction of the EU to the forming of the right-wing coalition government in Austria, as well as the assassination of Pim Fortuyn in Holland might all be viewed as attempts to deny a voice to groups, or people considered to be dangerous. Whilst it is not our intention to pronounce judgement on the suitability of these stances, it has to be said that they are dangerous: extremist parties are experts at using attacks such as these to their advantage and at winning votes through claiming that they are the true democrats.

However, governments do not intervene in such actions and often adapt to the presence of these parties: Mitterand exploited the FN to neutralise right-wing opposition in the French parliament, whilst the general rightist tendency has taken a number of these parties into government: the FPÖ, Portuguese liberals, the Liga Nord, the Pim Fortuyn list and, happily, some days ago, the Danish nationalists...Whatever the case may be, it is a recognised fact that a democratic government cannot act against a party on the basis of its discourse, fortunately!

The border is up in arms.

There is only one exception to this golden rule: If a political party incites violence it has to be brought to justice. Moreover, if it is linked to a greater or lesser extent to an illegal, underground and violent movement, then it is clearly nationalistic and antidemocratic.

Faced with this situation, it is clear that the State has both the option and the obligation to put a stop to it. In effect, and in this sense we should be seen to be firm, a violent movement has no place in a true democracy, even if it is defending a just cause, and nor does it merit the indulgent gaze which is bestowed upon it by the sons and daughters of certain leftist tradition, according to which the legitimacy of the Revolution justifies the call to arms. That represents an absolute falsehood in a real democracy and a way of thinking which is as dangerous, if not more so, than Haider's neofascism. On the other hand, it is easy to cast an eye over the problems of your neighbour and say that perhaps the struggle 'over there' is justified as often happens with ETA, which is indulged by certain French or Italian pseudo-intellectuals, or likewise with the Brigate Rosse .

How can a State react in the face of movements like these which are either violent or implicated in acts of violence? In our opinion, there are three possible ways forward:

The first is to treat the legal party as channel for obtaining a dialogue which might open up the way to peace. In so doing, the State grants a double legitimacy: that of the claims of the armed faction - without thereby legitimising violence - and that of the political wing as an outreach toward dialogue. This is only possible, however, when the State is in a position to respond to the claims made by the movement. This is what happened with the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland which was signed by Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA. It was not the case with the cease-fire declared by ETA in the year 2000, having reached agreement with the PNV without any sign from central government that they were willing to enter into discussion.

The second approach is to try to destroy the violent movement by means of police networks and the secret services. At certain moments governments decide to give priority focus to this approach ignoring the political party as did the Spanish Partido Popular government. This option is of course legitimate, but governments frequently go beyond the limits and become embroiled in a "dirty war", in the sanctioned murder of those who carry on the armed struggle. In its infancy during the PSOE years Spanish democracy seemed to lose its way by maintaining an infrastructure of secret institutional activity which it had inherited from the Franquista regime, namely with the sadly infamous GAL. For years the British government also made this mistake in Northern Ireland. Fortunately, nowadays, it seems difficult to go down this route, even though it is important to point out the worrying fact that current trends in public opinion appear to favour it, not least in the Spanish case...

The third and final approach is the least well-known, comprising of the pure and simple illegalisation of the party. In his article Antonio Asencio analyses the case of Batasuna in this context, although it can be said here that this approach should only be taken when it is clear that the party is really implicated in violent acts or in the financing of violence. In legal terms, this solution may be useful in the fight against violence, however it should be implemented with caution, in particular with view to social base of the movement.

Two tendencies in Europe, but no common approach.

In view of the various situations which we have seen we don not believe that there is a single European response to this problematic, although we can point to two tendencies which seem to extend across the continent. On the one hand, there is the alarming inclination towards ''normalising" parties which, whilst not being directly violent, occupy the limits of democracy. We are witness, in effect, to the end of a politics of ostracism towards neofascist tendencies, a politics which was upheld for years in Europe. All this as a mere result of electoral successes which such ideologies have garnered and which have led several classical Conservative parties to accept them as partners or, perhaps worse, to use to their advantage some of those arguments as their own. On the other hand, there is the judicial route. Until now, with the most recent examples being the Good Friday Agreement and the negotiations over Corsica, dialogue was the only means one considered viable. Today the judicial route is opening up new possibilities which will doubtless be exploited.

Translated from Los quince frente a los movimientos al filo de la democracia ¿Exste una via europea ?