The specter of sexism haunts Europe: Some notes on the EU elections

The European elections, which wrapped up this past weekend, are a grim warning that should be raising alarms and hackles the world over. Without a doubt, the biggest beneficiaries of this election have been a cadre of mostly right-wing, anti-EU parties united by strident anti-immigrant policies and over-the-top rhetoric that has made enemies of everyone from Muslims to Romanians.

Why should we be concerned about this on this side of the pond? Because much of this political rhetoric is simply localized variants on themes that bedevil us in the U.S. as well, and their success at the polls is a stark reminder to us that the battle to confront racist and sexist extremism is a global one, including in those countries that fancy themselves “tolerant” and “civilized” paragons of progressivism.

No less a country than Denmark returned several members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who belong to the viciously anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party, after all. If there was ever a time to ditch comfortable liberal illusions about the social-democratic utopianism of Northern Europe, it is now.

But of equal worry to us, and less emphasized in even the most hand-wringing electoral editorials, is the fact that many of these parties embody a sexism as reactionary as their xenophobia. We can take the UK Independence Party (UKIP) as a worthwhile case study, particularly since its breakthrough in this election has meant that it secured a plurality of British seats in the next Euro Parliament

Its putatively “charismatic” leader, Nigel Farage (pictured above), came under fire for saying that there was literally zero sexism afflicting women in the British banking industry. Perhaps he knows this because his former party whip in the EU Parliament, Godfrey Bloom, has said that “draconian maternity-leave” in the EU causes women to get fewer jobs, and that a business owner would have to be “stark raving mad” to hire “young women.” As Daily Telegraph correspondent Rowena Mason noted, “He also once joked he wanted to get involved in women’s rights issues because ‘I just don’t think they clean behind the fridge enough.’” He also referred to female UKIP activists as “sluts” (it was a joke naturally).

Farage’s response to Bloom’s comment about hiring young women? “Dear Old Godders! Godfrey’s comment has been proved so right.”

In spite of such approbation, Bloom was finally forced to stand down in 2013 after attacking a journalist who questioned him about this and several other gaffes (including racist references to “bongo bongo land”).

But another older, distinguished gentleman—Roger Helmer—is currently at UKIP’s vanguard in the Newark by-election being held on June 5. This is a vital poll because, should UKIP win it, it will have its first member of Parliament in Westminster, which would be even more troubling than their Euro Parliament success. A former Conservative Party member, he made headlines by comparing being queer to choosing between different types of tea (one has to admire such distinctly English homophobia), and by saying:

“The homosexual lobby is not content with decriminalisation. It wants to be accepted as a ‘valid alternative lifestyle’. But it is not a valid lifestyle worthy of equal respect. At the risk of offending the politically correct, I will argue that homosexual behaviour is abnormal and undesirable.”

This man could be UKIP’s first MP.

As bleak as these election results are, plenty of Britons have had a remarkable sense of humour about it, and a delightful genre of satire has grown up around UKIP's xenophobic adverts, like this one someone put up on London's Tube. Mind the gap, UKIP. (Photo credit @Loonytoad).

As bleak as these election results are, plenty of Britons have had a remarkable sense of humour about it, and a delightful genre of satire has grown up around UKIP’s xenophobic adverts, like this one someone put up on London’s Tube. Mind the gap, UKIP. (Photo credit @Loonytoad).

But what about women leaders in the party? In spite of sharing UKIP’s xenophobic and neoliberal ideology, they seem to have quite a hard time with what UKIP MEP Marta Andreasen called Farage’s “anti-woman Stalinist” leadership, claiming that his view of women is that they ought to be “in the kitchen or the bedroom.”

What happened to the other woman MEP for UKIP? She was expelled for challenging the party’s caucusing with even more extreme right-wing parties in the Euro Parliament, including the Italian Lega Nord. When one of that party’s MEPs declared that racist/misogynist mass murderer Anders Bering Breivik had “excellent ideas,” and its chairman said that Breivik’s ideas were “in defence of Western civilisation,” UKIP MEP Nikki Sinclaire balked and demanded that UKIP cease their alliance with Lega Nord. She got dumped instead.

It is worth remembering that UKIP still caucuses with Lega Nord in spite of an unbelievable speech by a party member Mario Borghezio (who was in no way sanctioned for it) that averred:

“Long live the Whites of Europe, long live our identity, our ethnicity, our race… our blue sky, like the eyes of our women. Blue, in a people who want to stay white.”

The entanglement of racism and sexism ought to surprise none of us.

And these are the parties that benefitted mightily from the 2014 European Elections. There is no sign that UKIP will disavow any links with other racist parties, nor any sign that it will seriously address the misogyny that it is both passively and actively promoting. The resurgence of this far right, populist crusade against the progress of the last four decades should worry us all, and the fact that UKIP, a party whose manifesto consists almost entirely of racist dog-whistles has done so well at a national-level election should only fuel that worry.

It is worth noting here that Farage himself was recently feted on the Fox Business Channel –and equally worth noting how many American commenters on that video, including the uploader, wish he were in U.S. politics.

The specter haunting Europe now is the mangle of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny that is infusing the right flank of the EU’s parliament. It has been a long march for Europe’s far right, but now they’ve reached a critical mass we can no longer afford to ignore, to say nothing of the fact that this ugly episode in European electoral politics is a reminder that some very unquiet ghosts in European life have been stirred. The impulses that have led to the bleakest moments of human experience, from colonialism, to slavery, to the Holocaust, to the depredations of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe still have filaments of life in Europe that are being vivified by widespread discontent with democratic politics.

These parties, often campaigning on platforms that take advantage of public displeasure with EU policy, are trojan horses for far uglier views.

I do not think it’s unreasonable to say that non-Europeans also have a role in standing against this darkness. It will affect us all, one way or another.

Katherine CrossKatherine Cross is a proud, paid up member of the homosexual and transsexual lobby.

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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