It should have made the headlines, but it didn’t. Meeting on 23 October in Vienna, representatives of five of Europe’s new far-right parties [the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), the Flemish nationalist Vlaams Belang, the Danish People’s Party, the Italian Northern League, the Slovak National Party and the Sweden Democrats] decided to campaign for a referendum on Turkish accession to the EU.

For the moment they have simply announced their intention, and the task they have set themselves will not be easy. Under the terms for citizens’ initiatives in the Lisbon Treaty, the campaign for a referendum has to meet a number of conditions, some of which are very vague. One key requirement is the presentation of a petition with one million signatures from a "substantial number of member countries," and these signatures have yet to be collected. But if a referendum were to take place now, there is no doubt that a majority of the citizens of the EU would vote “no” to Turkish accession.

The prospect of this initiative will be a comfort to national governments who do not want Turkey to join, and act as an additional brake to enlargement. Negotiations with Turkey, which are almost at a complete standstill, will be further compromised, because at a time when Islam-baiting has become an easy vote-winner, no one wants the extreme right to instrumentalise European direct democracy and hog the limelight on a theme that will garner support from voters across the political spectrum.

Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders have broken the mould

The plan for referendum has not made the headlines, but it should for two reasons. First and foremost, the time has come to evaluate the danger posed by this new nationalist and Islamophobic threat that is gaining ground everywhere in Europe, and which has little in common with the small-time crypto-facists of yesteryear. In some European countries, the extreme right has close to 25% of the vote, and where it has yet to reach this level, it already posts double-digit scores.

Buoyed by a wave of social discontent that has swept across the continent, it is in the process of mounting a platform that brings together the defence of the welfare state, an aspiration for protectionism, and an attachment to liberal values that are supposedly threatened by Muslims. Represented by pleasantly urbane leaders, who appear wholly contemporary, it has attracted a hefty swathe of the working-class and urban youth vote.

It has also demonstrated a significant tactical ability that is no longer confined to brass-knuckle politics: to wit, the clever manoeuvres in Sweden and Italy, the stereotypical moulds broken by Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, and its appropriation of the procedural innovation offered by Lisbon, which it is the first to use.

In other words, the new extreme right is only just beginning to upset the balance of power in the EU’s 27 member states, and that is not all. The second problem is that it will also seriously complicate how the EU works: in Parliament where it continues to win more seats, and in the Council and the Commission where its increased influence on national governments, which now depend on it to sustain their majorities, will soon be apparent. Not only will it undermine the compromises between left and right, which are essential to the running of the Union, but it will also fight to block any advance towards European federalism, which it wants ditched with a restoration of national borders and the paradise lost of strong protective nation states.

We too can petition to create a European democracy

The plan for the referendum has not made the headlines, but it should, because it will add to a climate of mistrust that could ultimately stymie the development of Europe. Fear of Islam could deprive us of a historic opportunity to build bridges with Turkey, and in so doing demonstrate our support for democracy and secular government in the world’s most dynamic and Muslim country. If it prevails, it will limit our access to an important developing market, and more importantly undermine the credibility of a positive model for Middle Eastern countries, which are increasingly drawn to political Islamism.

Fear which identifies the post-war social compromise with the borders of nation-states is now the main obstacle to the construction of a federal union that will be needed if we are to exert any influence in a century where the mid-sized powers of the past will now be ignored.

Fear has prevented us from recognising that we too can petition Europe’s institutions to create a European democracy where the Commission would be controlled by a parliamentary majority. In so doing, we could re-establish a public power that has the capacity to put an end to the dominance of capital over labour, and transform the eurozone into a political entity that will ensure the continued enlargement of the union. But we are blinded and paralysed by fear, and therefore it comes as no surprise that the parties who have made fear their core business are fast gaining ground.