By Arab News
By Chris Doyle
Just how strong is the far right in Europe? And is it getting more popular? These are questions that trouble many people. Democrats question what it means for European liberal democratic politics and the institutions that ensure equality and the rule of law. Anti-racism campaigners are alarmed by what this signifies for European societies. European Muslims, perennially depicted as outsiders and scapegoats for so many issues, ponder what is in store for them. Jewish communities are understandably terrified. Asylum seekers and refugees wonder if fortress Europe is going to become even more hostile. Others fear just how much all this benefits the agenda of President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
The answers are far from simple. It is a mixed picture. Sometimes it is hard to determine whether the far right’s status is as a result of a continental trend, a specific country or regional issues. How scared should democrats be? Are these far-right movements capable of crashing European democracies?
The increasing success of the far right is not an overnight phenomenon. Many will recall the political earthquake that was the success of Jorg Haider in Austria, when his Freedom Party won 27 percent of the vote in 1999. As with Italy, there was never really any national soul-searching in Austria after the Second World War, which perhaps explains why the far right was never really ostracized as it was in other countries. In the Netherlands, Pim Fortuyn was almost an iconic figure, a status cemented by his assassination in 2002. Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the runoff in the French presidential election of the same year.
Some far-right parties are in power, either running governments or as part of a coalition. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is the longest-serving EU leader and a champion of the far right who prides himself on standing up to Brussels, NATO and even embracing Putin. Giorgia Meloni, a leader with neo-fascist roots, has been the Italian prime minister for more than a year. So far, she has perhaps not been as extreme in office as on the campaign trail, but nonetheless she still wholeheartedly embraces the central tenets of the far right and has praised Benito Mussolini.
In Finland, the far-right Finns Party came second in April’s general election with 46 seats, only two behind the conservative National Coalition Party. The Finns Party got seven seats in the ensuing coalition government’s Cabinet and forced it into much tougher anti-immigration positions. In Slovakia, Robert Fico and his Smer party won the September parliamentary election. This is a man who once stated that “Islam has no place in Slovakia.”
Other states may soon have the far right at the helm. Its followers have scored some impressive results, most recently in the Netherlands, where the Party for Freedom led by Geert Wilders won the most seats in last month’s election. Wilders is perhaps the most anti-Muslim of all of Europe’s far-right leaders. The Freedom Party of Austria looks likely to win the Austrian elections in 2024. In March, the Portuguese will go to the polls, with the right-wing bloc, supported by the far-right Chega party, favorites to form the next government.
But the far right does not have it all its own way. Consider Poland. In its general election of Oct. 15, liberal leader Donald Tusk and his allies defeated the right-wing nationalist Law and Justice party. The UK’s Conservative Party, which has at times veered very close to the far right, looks like losing its hold on power after 14 years in office in elections likely to be held in 2024. The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany became the third-largest party in Germany, as well as the largest opposition group, after the federal elections of 2017, but it did not fare so well in 2021.
For democrats, anti-racism campaigners and those who value the goals of the EU, all of this is alarming. Many ask if democracy will suddenly crash or if it will die a slow, painful death. They see the far-right discourse as having become mainstream and normalized. The success of these groups has shifted politics. Where once mainstream conservative parties would shy away from any association with the likes of Le Pen, many now openly consider working with them in coalition governments. They are no longer beyond the pale.
Racism is very much a factor. In a poll of 6,752 people of African descent in 13 EU countries, half stated that they had experienced discrimination, up 6 percent from a 2016 survey. The report, “Being Black in the EU,” should have opened eyes to the risks, but has it?
European Muslims have much to fear. It is not just the far right that has adopted an Islamophobic approach, even if such groups are leading the pack. The Gaza crisis has just highlighted how anti-Muslim and anti-Arab much of the European political class is.
What is the attraction of the far right? Often, voting for the far right is a form of protest. This is a dangerous trend, with voters naively assuming far-right populists have no chance of achieving power.
One of the curious elements is that many vote for such extremist movements not because they necessarily approve of their agenda in full, but perhaps only one outstanding issue. I spoke to some Wilders supporters in Rotterdam. They liked his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric and positions, but they despised his call for “Nexit” — the Netherlands leaving the EU.
The idea that Europe is full up and overcrowded is a perennial theme. It was a key driver behind the UK voting to leave the EU in 2016. Polls often show that voters have a wildly exaggerated sense of exactly how many immigrants have come to their countries or how many Muslims live there.
This is tied to the enduring belief that “indigenous” populations are being replaced. I met Meloni supporters near Milan. One was clear that, for her, “Meloni is the first leader for a long time who spoke up for Italians, who put Italian interests first.” This is a continual theme: that so-called indigenous populations have been cast aside and ignored. This means that solutions to the immigration issue must be found, but they need to be properly thought out and not pander to base instincts. They should appreciate how much an aging Europe actually needs and benefits from immigrant communities and labor.
Are economic issues a factor? The 2008 financial crash, the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis have combined to spark a sense of economic insecurity. A recent Eurobarometer poll found that 73 percent of respondents in the EU think that their standard of living will go down in the next year. This makes many feel less welcoming of migrants, who are too often perceived as coming to take jobs. Many point to the parallels of the 1930s and the rise of fascist parties after the 1929 crash.
Has politics just become more polarized? The far left and the Greens are doing well too, such as in Germany and in the last European Parliament elections in 2019. Is this a crisis of the center in politics? Have consensus and compromise disappeared?
Could disorder and extremism spill over to the streets? Rioting in Dublin in November indicated that this could be the case, as the Irish far right bared its teeth. Observers have been warning about this for some time, even though no far-right politicians have yet been elected in Ireland.
To what extent will policies be affected? Immigration policies have toughened almost everywhere, even in countries that used to be seen as immigrant-friendly. Other issues may get blocked by far-right parties. Orban is determined to prevent Ukraine’s accession path to EU membership, which needs unanimity among the existing 27 members. Will the far right act as a brake on the inexorable expansion of the EU itself and its ever closer integration? Euroskepticism is now widespread, including on the left.
All this will matter in EU politics in 2024. The European elections in June will be a crucial barometer of the level of support for the far right, the popularity of the EU itself and, in many ways, the direction of travel for the continent. Further ahead, many are nervous about the French presidential elections in 2027, with Marine Le Pen being seen as a shoo-in for the second round and very much a contender for the presidency.
The traditional parties need to wake up. They are not seen as delivering at all and are often perceived as out of touch with the concerns of citizens. The same can be said for the EU in Brussels, which is often seen as antidemocratic and unaccountable. It is time for bolder leadership that addresses the challenges and finds solutions in a constructive, evidence-based fashion, but with vigor. The renaissance of the far right in Europe is not inevitable but it cannot be ruled out either.
• Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding in London. X: @Doylech