It seems like a very long time ago when in 2000 the European Union proudly adopted 'united in diversity' as its motto. Rising anti-immigrant anger has now found its way to the union's halls of parliament, badly denting that motto. A combination of terrorist attacks, economic transformations and financial crises has put European liberalism on the defensive.
A rapidly ageing continent may require even higher numbers of immigrants but fears of being crowded out by alien races, religions and cultures are leading many countries to close their borders. The fear has empowered ultra right-wing parties, giving them disproportionate political power. The recent Greek and French elections saw xenophobic parties make substantial inroads in national politics.
The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party of Greece, which has so far made its mark through street violence against immigrants, won a stunning victory. Its 7% vote in the elections gave it 21 seats in Parliament, the first ever by the party. Its rough tactics and Nazi salutes may not win it a much wider following but its victory is a harbinger of societal crisis. And in the first round of French presidential elections, the ultra-right National Front led by Marine Le Pen won almost one in five votes. Railing against Islam, immigrants and the common currency - the euro - Le Pen hopes to build on this foundation to secure enough seats in the coming legislative elections. Emerging as one of the main challengers, if not the leader of opposition, against Francois Hollande, she hopes to alter the direction of the country's policy.
Geert Wilders's Party for Freedom (PVV), Le Pen's counterpart in the Netherlands, did just that. Though only a minority party, it has brought down a government by withdrawing its support from the ruling coalition. In over a dozen other European countries, anti-immigrant, right-wing parties have continued their advance, capturing 15% to 20% of the electorate, and in seven countries, forming a significant minority party to support coalition governments.
Europe has always had an ultra-right, anti-Semite fringe. But the groups have undergone significant changes in politics and character. Since the September 11 attacks and other strings of terrorist incidents - from Madrid to London - Islam and Muslim immigrants have emerged as the major target of extreme right-wing anger. The other ultra-right targets are people from Eastern and Central Europe who have migrated to the West after the expansion of the European Union. They are accused of stealing jobs from locals.
Recent upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East have produced a new wave of immigrants, spooking Italy and France. Ultra right-wing parties in Netherlands and Belgium have set up websites encouraging vigilantism against immigrants. Actions against unassimilated immigrants, accused of stealing jobs and committing petty crimes, have won some popular support for these ultra-right wing parties, and the thuggish Golden Dawn in Greece.
Surprisingly - and worryingly for liberal Europeans - support for ultra-right wing causes is no longer confined to the poor, uneducated and unemployed. Polls show a significant number of the educated middle class, owners of small business and even employees of large corporations supporting anti-immigrant and anti-EU causes. In an ironic twist, they have adopted their erstwhile leftist opponents' slogans of human rights, secularism and gender equality as a battle cry against Islam.
Jeans-clad Le Pen, who calls herself a 'feminist', has the highest following in the 18-24 age group. Heinz-Christian Strache of the Austrian ultra-right wing Freedom Party dons a Che Guevara T-shirt and Wilders woos the Jewish lobby by comparing the Quran to Mein Kampf. Their wide use of social media has brought together extreme right-wingers in Europe who reinforce each other's messages to carve out an increasingly large cultural space.