Q&A: Political violence in Europe ‘is a gigantic challenge for our democracy’

In the wake of the assassination attempt on Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico, Prof. Stefan Ernst Marschall unpacks the root causes of an increasingly charged political environment – and the implications for European democracy.
A solidarity rally in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on 5 May after the violent attack on MEP Matthias Ecke.

By Sarah Schug

Sarah is a staff writer for The Parliament with a focus on art, culture, and human rights.

27 May 2024

The assassination attempt  on Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico on 15 May generated shockwaves across Europe and around the world. A gunman shot Fico five times as he was departing a government meeting, initially leaving the prime minister in critical condition. Earlier in May, a group of four teenagers – one of whom was reportedly associated with the far right – beat up German MEP Matthias Ecke (S&D) in Dresden as he was out campaigning, forcing him to undergo surgery.   

Meanwhile, last week, Germany’s federal criminal police office published a report showing there were a record 60,000 politically motivated criminal offenses in 2023.  

“This is what happens when people who think differently consider themselves enemies,” Prof. Stefan Ernst Marschall, a political scientist at the Heinrich Heine University of Duesseldorf, said in a recent interview. He spoke with The Parliament about the underlying conditions of the heated political atmosphere in the run-up to the European elections on 6 to 9 June.  

Is what recently happened in Slovakia only the tip of the iceberg? 

Yes, it is the tip of the iceberg. What we can see in this case, and what is so typical, is that the act was committed by a single perpetrator who mobilised himself, without a network or terrorist organisation behind him. This makes it extremely difficult to predict and prevent such attacks and aggressions, as these are generally carried out by people who have not been conspicuous before. That’s why the usual approaches in cases of terrorism fail here. Instead, we must approach this on a societal level.  

Does this signify a larger trend across the EU? 

It’s always hard to speak of a trend when there are 27 member states with different backgrounds to consider. Every country has its own specific historic development, some are undergoing transformation processes, and others are dealing with particular economic or social challenges. But what you can see across the bloc is radical, populist right forces becoming stronger. I wouldn’t call it a general, continuous, firm trend, but we are making similar observations in [other] EU member states. 

This increased strength of the populist right accelerates certain developments, such as a society’s level of polarisation. Polarisation means that there is tension between two groups in a society, and violence goes both ways. This is what happens when people who think differently consider themselves enemies.  

Is this polarisation and the rise of politically motivated violence connected to social media?  

Social media is always mentioned in this context, and rightly so. There are developments such as filter bubbles and echo chambers as well as alternative spaces and alternative truths that reinforce polarisation. But there is also an underlying development that is connected to this: a growing sense of insecurity and uncertainty due to exceptional crises or economic imbalances. The populist right tries to give simple answers to these questions. The communication we see on the internet is a result of this feeling of uncertainty paired with both populist right and populist left parties adding fuel to the fire. 

Are the upcoming European elections catalysing some of the heightened rhetoric and violence we’ve seen?  

During election campaigns, politicians are much more easily approachable and thus more vulnerable. They’re on the streets and there are lots of events taking place. It makes it easier for a lone perpetrator, but there are also organised attempts at disturbing election events. It’s a time when people are more confronted with political questions, and politicisation and mobilisation increase. 

How does the violence in this election cycle compare to previous election campaigns? 

Vandalism when it comes to campaign posters has always existed. Assassination attempts on politicians are also nothing new. But we can see that the numbers have increased recently as the German federal criminal police office just demonstrated in its report. It is statistically proven that there is a rise in criminal offences towards officials. It’s the result of an atmosphere, a polarisation that has grown even more in recent years, and certain forces are profiting from it. Every kind of polarisation benefits certain forces who want to present themselves as the ones to restore order. It is part of a strategy. 

What does the uptick in violence mean for the functioning of democracy? 

This is a gigantic challenge for democracy. The democratic process means that you have to be able to have discussions and debates. It has to be possible to engage in conversations with each other, and politicians need to be ready to sit down with citizens and listen to their concerns. Otherwise, there will be a decoupling of the political elite, which will sit behind closed doors, scared to come out. 

We can already see an impact in the area of volunteer work and honorary posts. It is getting harder and harder to find people who want to put up with this, knowing they might experience hate and violence. It will become even more difficult to find people who are willing to be politically active at all. You can’t have police protection for Germany’s 12,000 mayors, for example. Entire groups might become less politically active, people with a migration background, for example.    

How resilient is European democracy, and what can be done to protect it? 

We have to find ways to create safe spaces for these democratic processes. But you cannot protect everyone. That doesn’t work just by employing police or security forces. We have to look at the roots and the reasons. Communication on internet platforms has to be regulated in order to fight against hate speech. 

Additionally, democratic forces should not let themselves get infected by certain ways of communicating and not treat each other as enemies. It has to be made clear that among democrats, we have to engage with each other in democratic ways. The democratic elites have to communicate adequately. And civil society has to make clear that it backs democracy, opposes violence and supports those who choose to be politically active. We need a new appreciation for those who take on official roles, especially those who do it in a voluntary capacity. This is all a long process, which makes it difficult. We can’t just flip a switch - it takes time. 

Actual policy plays a role, too, of course. Migration is a major topic of contention at the moment, and the EU has tried to tackle it and take a step forward in this regard. While you can debate about the how, it at least shows an awareness for what is on people’s minds. Better policy making and better political communication have to be part of the solution as well.  

In the last years, we have become more aware that democracy needs work. I don’t think we have to be too worried, but we need to be vigilant.  

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