The Rise of Extremism in a Disunited Europe

A Torn EU Flag CREDIT: Leena Saarinen (CC)

Across Europe, the dawn of 2014 was clouded by economic, political, and social unrest. An unrelenting economic stagnation keeps the continent in its thrall: as Martin Wolf observed in the Financial Times (FT): "The economic difficulties of crisis-hit economies are evident: huge recessions, extraordinarily high unemployment, mass emigration, and heavy debt overhangs." Yet, as Wolf adds, the crisis is not just one of failing economies: it involves a sense of disengagement from the very idea of One Europe that the European Union (EU) and—fanciful even to imagine now-- the Eurozone were supposed to foster. By what Wolf describes as a "trio of unelected bureaucracies"—the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund," the people of countries throttled by the Eurozone crisis, far from any sense of allegiance, instead feel victimized. This is reflected in polls that show the percentage of voters across Europe who trust the EU has been halved—from 60 percent to 30 percent. And this has a ripple effect into individual countries themselves: continent-wide, only one in four voters express confidence in their national leaders. As Ian Buruma solemnly observed in the FT: "The so-called 'democratic deficit' is real."

It is noticeable that both of the articles cited make reference to an "elite" versus "populist" dichotomy. Throughout Europe, this cleavage is being played out in a particularly sinister scenario—the rise of right-wing populism—and in some cases extreme far-right forces. A fair degree of nuanced approach is required in dealing with this emerging phenomenon.

  • These are, at first glance, a motley group of typically ultranationalist movements whose only unifying impetus might be Euroskepticism. The "right-wing populist" and "ultra-right" labels apply to any number of groups, from single-issue parties (the UK Independence Party, for example) and moderate nationalists to neo-fascist entities such as Greece's Golden Dawn. Their agenda, depending on specific in-country conditions, may be anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-Roma, anti-gay, anti-immigrant.
  • There is an apparent distinction to be drawn between motivating factors for far-right support in the newer, post-Communist EU members on the one hand and the long-standing West European states on the other. In the former, the animus seems to stem from the sense that the EU has failed to fulfill pre-accession promises, and plays itself out in anti-Roma, anti-Semitic sentiment (or, in the case of Bulgaria, hostility toward the most vulnerable of targets, Syrian refugees); in the West, ant-Islam and anti-immigration is the motivating factor.
  • The pattern is, to be sure, disturbing, but erratic. One sees a steady forward march of  forces such as the Front Nationale in France, the Dutch Party for Freedom, and the Austrian Freedom Party—but a stalling or erosion of support for far-right movements in Spain, Belgium, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
  • Where these movements do seek to come together, the courtship seems unlikely to yield a sustained union. For example, the newly formed alliance between two ultra-right leaders, Marine Le Pen of the Front Nationale and Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom, faces the vexatious issue of the Front Nationale's historical anti-Semitism versus the latter 's embrace of Israel.

There are, however, at least two causes of short-term concern. The first is that these far-right, typically anti-EU forces are embedded in the European Parliament (EP) itself. The EP contains the Alliance of European National Movements (AENM). While a relatively new and small organization, AENM counts amongst its members some of the most virulent and successful far-right parties in Europe. And while not the first of its stripe—AENM has a predecessor in the Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty European Political Group—AENM has been able to build upon this previous association both in terms of fostering cooperation among member parties and, remarkably, in acquiring almost 300,000 Euros in funding from the EU as an alliance with "Europarty" status. As such, AENM is a kind of subsidized Trojan Horse within the gates of the very institution it threatens!

The coming year will be a crucial one for the evolution of the fortunes of the far right within the EP. The pivotal moment will be the parliamentary elections in May and, indeed, the buildup to the elections, as one observes how closely the various far-right parties can cooperate and how many seats they can capture. A recent New Statesman report puts in perspective the likely gains:

"In fact, evidence-based predictions of what will happen over the next 12  months paint a very different picture from the conventional wisdom that tells us the far-right is running riot across the continent. Based on results at the most recent election, the academic Cas Mudde estimates that only 12 of 28 states in the EU will see far-right parties enter the European Parliament. It is estimated that they will take around 34 seats—or between 4 percent and 6.5 percent of all seats. Even if we add on all the other non-far-right but still anti-EU populist parties—like the True Finns in Finland, the Alternative for Germany, the UK Independence Party and even Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement in Italy—we are left with a highly diverse collection of parties that are unlikely to win more than 15-20 percent of all seats, and even less likely to build a cohesive force. A record result, notes Mudde, but hardly a serious hindrance." The key word in Goodwin's article is "hindrance;" regardless of numbers, given the history of populist radical right MEP behavior, their forces will be outspoken and disruptive. 

The second ominous cloud on the horizon lies not directly over the EP but in the individual countries themselves. In general, there is the observable tendency for center-right parties (dominant in Western Europe) to shift policies rightward to coopt voters instead of standing up to the extreme right: Witness Prime Minister David Cameron's hardening line by promising a referendum on Europe and in the interim demanding "repatriation of powers" from Brussels. Or in the Netherlands, Liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte pushing back against national policies being ceded to the EU. In particular, one should keep an eye on the March municipal elections in France, bearing in mind that Ms. Le Pen of the Front Nationale won 18 percent of the vote in a third-place finish in the 2012 presidential elections, and has been careful to calibrate the FN message, toning down the extremist rhetoric and cultivating a more "establishment" image. The winning candidate in a recent by-election in Brignoles had a carefully-chosen sober suit-and-tie mien, and beat his government party rival by a whopping 56-44 percent. This occasions a somewhat different evaluation of far-right prospects than that offered in the New Statesman's analysis, illustrated in a policy brief by one of the leading MEP (Member of the European Parliament) observers, the UK's Claude Moraes:

So what is the essential Fascist strategy now? From the European Parliament, often sitting just seats away, I can see how it's a cunning paradigm shift: do not confront democracy as the object of fascist ideas, but embrace it, rhetorically at least…That is what concerns me most. Fascism in the 1930s was easy to spot, uniforms, shouting, marching and symbols predominated. Now, however, the average fascist is indistinguishable from a mid-ranking bank clerk. That is dangerous, especially during a long recession and even more so when their unacceptable views are to be promoted and financed by European taxpayers, potentially entering the mainstream of the debate. 

Carnegie Council's program on U.S. Global Engagement (USGE) is extremely familiar with this "respectable" fascism. Throughout 2013, this program tracked developments among the far right and the gains of far-right populists.  USGE began examining the far right in Europe and Eurasia, first establishing a research base to better understand the complex historical development and key figures of the European far-right movements, then uniting a team of scholars with expertise on the matter, and commissioning a number of white papers to closely examine the phenomenon in Russia In pursuing this initial research, USGE soon identified certain parties, such as Hungary's radical nationalist party Jobbik, which played a role in both domestic and EU politics. USGE began examining the role of far-right politicians within the European Parliament and identified trends that are likely to shed light on the current right-wing populist surge and what role these politicians may play in European politics. USGE thoroughly documented the establishment and operation of the Alliance for European National Movements Europarty and its predecessor to better understand how far-right MEPs and parties work together and what weaknesses are inherent in parties which draw heavily on the exclusion of "the other."

In 2014, USGE intends to move its project on the far right from the research and analysis stage to the publication and dissemination of its findings. While doing so, the USGE team will observe and analyze the European Parliament election, particularly the progress of the Front Nationale and the Party for Freedom. In 2014, it is our intention to build significantly on the work accomplished so far, in the following ways:

  • The research of the scholars, in the form of white papers, will be published.
  • Publication of the papers will be accompanied by public events hosted by Carnegie Council to disseminate the findings. This will allow the material to reach a larger audience, especially through the Council's Global Ethics Studio media and internet outlets.
  • The USGE team is continuing to follow the electoral victories and other developments within the far right in Europe.

In conclusion, and regardless of the polling prospects and final data of representation in the EP or in individual member states, a recent opinion piece in The New York Times captures the mood and times very well: "'Europe', as an idea and a community, has weakened." The task of the USGE research project will be to monitor and report on the prospects for reviving a Europe united that once served as a model for the world, and indeed for avoiding the dangers of reliving the events of Europe's last, and bloodiest, century.

Read More: Diversity, Europe, European Union, Globalization, Nationalism, Economics, International Relations, Europe

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