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Europe seeks to define extremism out of its politics

BERLIN — For years, discussions of extremism across Europe were about Islamic extremism and terrorism, but the debate has now shifted to extreme-right ideologies, with governments saying they need to be regulated to protect their democracies.

The issue is arguably most vivid in Germany, where calls for a ban of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) — the country’s second-most-popular political party — are growing and the government wants to cut off funding sources of right-wing extremist networks. In Britain, the government wants to keep extremists from meeting with lawmakers or receiving public funds, and it plans to publish a new list of groups it considers “extremist,” focusing more on beliefs rather than a propensity for violence.

The debate over extremism has come a long way from the early 2000s and the terrorist attacks in the United States and Britain. As recently as 2015, then-Prime Minister David Cameron declared that “the fight against Islamist extremism is, I believe, one of the great struggles of our generation.”

The threat now is less about extremists planting bombs and carrying out violent attacks than about undemocratic ideology spreading through society.

“There’s been a change of emphasis since the early 2000s. It’s much broader now. It’s about thinking about what we want public discourse to be about, rather than focusing on any specific threat,” said Rod Dacombe, a politics expert at King’s College London.

He noted that in Britain, more people with far-right views than with extreme Islamist ideologies are being referred to Prevent and Channel, the government’s signature counter-extremism programs.

In Germany, where history has made the presence of right-wing movements one of extreme sensitivity, efforts to protect democracy have focused in recent months on the country’s growing far-right extremism, which the Interior Ministry now considers the biggest threat facing society. In February, the government announced a 13-point plan to “use all instruments of rule of law to protect our democracy.” Proposals include new laws to make it easier to freeze bank accounts, as well as to cut extremists’ funding sources.

The country’s domestic intelligence service has put the AfD party under surveillance after classifying it as a “suspected case of far-right extremism.” The AfD, which is polling higher than any of the three parties making up the ruling coalition, is appealing the classification.

If the evidence collected by the intelligence service indicates that the party is “confirmed extremist,” it could bolster efforts to ban it — a risky process that would take several years.

Germany’s constitution does allow for parties that “seek to undermine or abolish the free democratic basic order” to be banned, but the hurdle to do so is extremely high. The country’s Constitutional Court has done it only twice — with the Socialist Reich Party, a successor to the Nazi party, in 1952, and the Communist Party of Germany in 1956.

Calls to ban the AfD completely have grown in recent weeks following revelations in January that a group of senior party members met with far-right extremists to discuss a plan for the forcible deportation of migrants. The report prompted nationwide uproar, with hundreds of thousands of people attending demonstrations described as “for democracy, against the right.”

Earlier this month, regional German broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk also reported that more than 100 people who work for AfD lawmakers belong to organizations that have been classified as right-wing extremist.

The deep-rooted concept of a “militant democracy” in Germany allows for curtailing rights of those perceived as enemies of democracy in the name of protecting it.

“The idea of ‘militant democracy’ arose from the end of the Weimar Republic, where we saw that democracy cannot defend itself at all,” said Andreas Busch, a political scientist at the University of Göttingen, referring to Germany’s post-World War I government that was helpless to stem the rise of the Nazis.

In recent years, many European countries have seen a rise in support for far-right parties, and analysts are predicting a sharp right turn at the upcoming European Parliament elections in June, in which 400 million people in the European Union can vote.

Joseph Downing, an expert in security at the London School of Economics, said that across Europe, voters increasingly feel like they aren’t represented by mainstream parties, a sentiment that groups such as the AfD in Germany or the National Front in France “really exploit.”

He said extreme political views are becoming more popular in part because of growing inequality and an erosion of living standards. “People are looking at the economic structures and saying, ‘Something isn’t working here.’ ‘Why can’t people in their 40s afford to buy a house?’”

In Britain, meanwhile, views on immigration that were once the sole province of the far right have been adopted by the Conservative Party and made mainstream. Downing said that for years there was a “kind of gentlemen’s agreement that the government wouldn’t politicize immigration,” which “clearly broke down during the 2016 Brexit referendum.”

In the coming weeks in Britain, a number of groups are expected to be labeled “extremist” under the government’s new definition of extremism that emphasizes ideology, compared with the 2011 one, which focused more on violence. The government said it was making the change because of a surge in antisemitism and Islamophobic incidents amid the Israel-Hamas war.

Michael Gove, a Conservative Party politician who heads the department that produced the new rules, said that five groups, including three that had an “Islamist orientation” and two promoting a “neo-Nazi ideology,” were being assessed.

“Our democracy and our values of inclusivity and tolerance are under challenge from extremists,” Gove told Parliament on March 14. “In order to protect our democratic values, it is important both to reinforce what we have in common and to be clear and precise in identifying the dangers posed by extremism.”

The government’s new definition of extremism — “the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance” — will mean that more groups will be considered extremist than before, Downing said.

The British electoral system of “first past the post” insulates it somewhat from the threat of extremist groups winning at the ballot box if they don’t have overwhelming support, making German-style “militant democracy” less necessary. Critics fear, however, that the new rules would undermine free speech and sow division in communities.

“We can all agree that advocating certain kinds of violence is bad, whether it’s blowing up the Tube or attacking mosques. When it comes to ideology, it becomes much more imprecise,” Downing said.

Case in point: Gove was grilled recently on the BBC about whether pro-Palestinian demonstrators in London chanting “from the river to the sea” — about a future Palestinian state — would be deemed “extremist” under Britain’s new rules. He said no, not if it was a “single use” of the phrase. Asked if people said it repeatedly and beamed it onto the Big Ben clock tower, Gove said that if there was a “pattern of behavior from an organization that was promoting a particularly ideological point of view, and one could point to the ideology and other actions, then that would be assessed.”

Analysts warn that labeling groups as “extremist” can actually help them flourish. They can then portray themselves as persecuted by the system, which may strengthen their cause.

Oliver Decker, of the University of Leipzig, warned that repressive means alone are not enough to tackle extremist threats to democracy.

“Categorizing a party as ‘suspected extremist’ or banning a party entirely is simply pulling the emergency brake,” Decker said. “The question is: What do we do when we label something as ‘extremism’? The task in the political and public sphere is also to deal with the content and causes of this increasing threat to democracy.”

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