(Photo: Women in headscarves shop in Berlin’s Neukoelln district September 6, 2010/Tobias Schwarz)
A little-known Berlin politician named Rene Stadtkewitz, who wants headscarves banned, mosques shuttered and state welfare payments to Muslims cut, is the newest face of a powerful anti-immigrant strain in European politics that is winning over voters and throwing mainstream politicians onto the defensive.
Experts say public concerns about immigration have grown in the wake of the economic crisis and politicians across Europe are scrambling like never before to exploit these fears, breaking unwritten post-war taboos along the way.
“What we are witnessing is not a new trend, but a deepening and acceleration of something that was in place,” said Dominique Moisi of the French Institute for International Relations (Ifri) in Paris. “These politicians are playing with fire, because feelings on this issue run very deep and may not disappear when the economy recovers.”
Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society Institute in Brussels, says more European politicians are realising that by focussing on immigration, they can tap into voter fears about a range of issues — from the economy and jobs, to globalisation, change and an increasingly uncertain future.
“People in Europe have grown comfortable in the decades since World War Two and now they see that level of comfort threatened,” Grabbe said. “The result is that tolerance is no longer held dear as a European value, even in countries that used to be proud of being open and liberal.”