The English Defence League: Building a European Community?

europeonthestrand |

By Simon McMahon

The English Defence League (EDL) has over the last year been building an increasing amount of support across the UK, particularly in England. Formed in the town of Luton in 2009 as a response to Muslim protest groups’ criticism of British soldiers, the EDL is an organisation boasting thousands of members and that has been accused of using fear of terrorism and a perceived Islamic invasion as a cover for discrimination and racism.

However, recent developments suggest that the EDL may be contributing to rising Islamophobia across Europe. This move beyond parochialism represents ground for academic investigation and moral concern.

The fluid, decentralised structure of the EDL has resulted in the establishment of a whole range of leagues around the same basic premise. As well as the EDL Luton, we find the Scottish Defence League, the Welsh Defence League, the Jewish Defence League, and the Sikh Defence League. Particularly relevant for Europe, however, is the establishment of the German Defence League, the Swedish Defence League and the Dutch Defence League. Between these groups cross-border exchange is increasing, as they travel to each other’s countries for protests and rallies. One example came with a recent EDL has event in the Netherlands. Links have also been made with French anti-Muslim groups.

Now, although the events are small and the Defence Leagues remain on the fringe of politics and society, these developments raise questions about the integration of Muslim communities, responses to ethnic difference and the future of tolerance in the European Union.

Firstly, it appears as if one ethnic group risks being specifically targeted and discriminated against as a scape-goat for social tensions in Europe. Indeed, viewing the tensions and aggression of the Defence Leagues in the context of David Cameron’s recent speech on multiculturalism and debates on the banning of the Islamic veil in a whole series of EU member states, it appears that this is not restricted to far-right protest groups. Some have interpreted it instead as a sign of a generalised Islamophobia in Europe. Stigmatizing and excluding a specific ethnic community in this way represents a dramatic contradiction to the founding values of the European Community.

Secondly, the mobilisation of the far-right around ethnic differences challenges academic conceptions and predictions of the development of an inclusive and tolerant European transnational public sphere. Simon Teune’s recently published edition on transnational protest views transnationalism as a framework of information exchanges between national public spheres. In this sense, social integration in Europe is facilitated by personal, organisational and media networks that enable information on specific issues to travel from one country to another. Does the Defence League movement fit this model? It does appear that the establishment of Defence Leagues around one specific issue – ethnic discrimination based on a fear of Muslim invasion – has enabled groups from different localities to build networks of communication without losing what is specifically local about their own cause. In this sense it could tentatively be suggested that the Defence Leagues appear to be engaging in a building of Europe ‘from below’ in contrast to Muslim outsiders.

For academics, policy-makers and activists there are various possible implications to be taken into account here. On the one hand, there is a hint that the far-right in Europe is willing to go beyond the boundaries of its past in isolated, nationalist, and fascist political parties. Are communicative networks, transport links and a common tension towards Muslims being employed to construct a transnational xenophobia? This is significant if Europe is to be an open, tolerant and just society in which ethnic and religious groups are not discriminated against and excluded en masse.

On the other hand, the focus of research on European social integration needs to move beyond the institution-building elite-led approach that has characterised its history and look at the formation of public spheres around specific issues. One alternative has been the literature on ‘Europe from below’ from academics such as Donatella Della Porta in reference to activist and protest movements in favour of an inclusive European society built on justice. However, these authors have not yet contemplated an equivalent based on the opposite values. In this sense, although the transnational far-right may not be significant for the political mainstream, its presence suggests a need for close political and academic attention to the implications of spreading anti-Muslim sentiments across European member states.