ISIS has claimed responsibility for the truck attack on a Berlin Christmas market on Monday, 19 December 2016. Angela Merkel, in a televised broadcast, expressed concern that immigrants might be blamed – and the anti-immigrant Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party has done just that. Angela Merkel faces an election next year, in which AfD is strongly placed to become Germany’s largest political party – and the Berlin truck attack will help it to do so.
It isn’t only Angela Merkel’s political party that is under attack, and ISIS isn’t the only attacker. The whole of Western liberal democracy is under a 3-way attack: from an Islamic terrorist jihad to set up a universal caliphate, from a wave of anti-establishment authoritarian populism, and from Russian interference with elections. These three directions of attack are not coordinated, but are nonetheless helping each other to undermine Western democracies and the EU.
ISIS is trying to polarise society. It wants headlines, Western indignation and condemnation of Islam – so that more Muslims will join its cause in what it presents as a conflict between civilisations. It did not have to arrange for the truck attack. It merely had to radicalise an individual, provoking the attack, and then claim responsibility for it.
Authoritarian populism is a style of political leadership which feeds on people’s discontent with their current situation. That discontent might come from job losses due to globalisation, from liberalisation in society’s attitudes on gender, from gross financial inequality, or from multiculturalism. Donald Trump, AfD and Nigel Farage can all be categorised as authoritarian populists. Some of their supporters have reacted to multiculturalism by supporting ‘alt-right’ racial supremacists, whose views are similar to Nazism.
It has been alleged that Russia influenced the US presidential election by hacking into email servers, and Internet attacks on German political parties have also been traced to Russia. It has also been alleged that Russia is sponsoring the spread of disinformation on Internet social media. Disinformation is an effective way of swinging elections: Breitbart used it to help Trump be elected and is about to launch a German site. It has been suggested that Russia is also using disinformation as a political tool, to promote nationalism and to undermine the EU and NATO.
It is easier to describe the problem than to propose a solution. The European Union was initially established to counteract the forces of nationalism and fascism that had led to the Second World War, but it and its members are now experiencing this 3-way attack. Sadly, the EU is no longer seen by many people as a force for peace. There is some justification for the accusations levelled at it: bloated bureaucracy, failing to listen to the people and the pursuit of a political dream that seems to threaten the autonomy of its members. It is clearly imperfect, and unless it starts to address the population’s real concerns it is likely to collapse – but now it is needed more than ever.