The Rise of the New Far Right in Europe and Implications for European Parliament Elections

May 6, 2014


DAVID SPEEDIE: Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to a very special event here at the Council on the rise of extremism in Europe.

Just by way of brief introduction, a few months ago, a colleague and I wrote the following: "Across Europe, the dawn of 2014 was clouded by economic, political, and social unrest. As Martin Wolf observed in the Financial Times, "The economic difficulties of crisis-hit economies are evident—huge recessions, extraordinarily high unemployment, mass immigration, and heavy debt overhangs."

But the crisis is not simply an economic crisis. It involves, I think many would agree, a sense of disengagement from the whole idea, the very idea, of one Europe that the European Union certainly and—although it's fanciful to think now—the Eurozone were supposed to foster. Polls at the beginning of the year showed that the percentage of voters across Europe who trust the EU had been halved, from 60 percent earlier to 30 percent. This has had a ripple effect into individual countries themselves. Continent-wide, only one voter in four typically expressed confidence in their national leaders. As the Bard scholar Ian Buruma put it, very well and very solemnly, the so-called democratic deficit is real.

It's noticeable that one consequence of this has been the rise across Europe of right-wing populism that really has, in a sense, cashed in on this sense of disengagement, the sense of malaise. This is a rise that will probably—most likely—be demonstrated in the elections to the European Parliament that will take place at the end of this month, on May 25. Already, we have seen in recent weeks a man called Geert Wilders, from the Dutch Party of Freedom, outlining a case for what is called "Nexit"—in other words, the exit of the Netherlands from the EU. [Editor's note: For more on Wilders and the Party of Freedom, check out this 2012 Carnegie article by Mladen Joksic and Marlene Spoerri.] Over the weekend, at their annual May Day parade, Ms. Marine Le Pen, the head of the Front National in France, called for all French patriots to reject Brussels.

So it's tough times for European unity and cohesion. Here to help us navigate through these difficult waters are three genuine experts that we're very pleased to have at the Council.

In order, we will hear from Cas Mudde. Dr. Mudde is at the Department of International Affairs at the University of Georgia. Cas will give us something of an overview in terms of the lead-up to the elections—what may happen and what the implications may be.

He will be followed by David Art, professor of comparative politics and European politics at Tufts University. David will focus on Western Europe, in this very diverse, continent-wide scenario.

Finally, we welcome Virág Molnár from the New School for Social Research here in New York. Virág is a specialist in Eastern and Central Europe, particularly Hungary.

We will then have plenty of time for questions and answers from the floor.

Cas, welcome. Would you please get us started?


CAS MUDDE: Thank you.

I was asked to give a little bit of an overview of the European elections and the role of the far right. I want to focus in particular about how the media has covered it so far, then what we're really talking about here and the potential consequences.

Now, the media has very much obsessed about the alleged rise of anti-European populism as a consequence of the economic crisis. That has been going on for quite some time, I would say at least three or four years. Most of the stories are primarily based on the success of the Front National in France and the extraordinary fascination that a lot of the media have with the leader of that party, Marine Le Pen. The fact that it is a female party leader has led to a lot of semi-psychological and intellectual reflections.

The story of the media is in part fed and in part used by the EU elite, which has used the whole story about the rise of an anti-European populist wave to frame the upcoming European elections in terms of a struggle between a pro-European and an anti-European camp, or a pro-EU camp and an anti-EU camp. It's striking how many of the most prominent EU politicians have used this frame. The EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, the EU Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, as well as the European Parliament president, Martin Schulz have all spoken about the upcoming election becoming a real fight between the pro-EU camp and the anti-EU camp. Some commentators expect the anti-EU camp to win between one-quarter and one-third of the seats in the next European Parliament.

That's a lot. But the question is, who are these anti-European populists? That's a pretty diverse group. The media focuses mostly on right-wing Eurosceptics and populists. The right-wing camp can be divided into three subgroups, which are quite different and don't always work together.

The first is the extreme right. These are truly antidemocratic, let's say, neo-fascist groups. They are actually very few that are relevant, but one has really captured attention, and that is Golden Dawn in Greece, which is a neo-Nazi party, by and large, which actually entered Parliament.

Most of the parties that we talk about are generally referred to as "radical right." These parties do accept popular sovereignty and majority rule, but they are anti-liberal democratic in the sense that they generally have a problem with pluralism and they have a strong problem with minority rights, particularly of ethnic minorities.

These are the parties that are the largest group. We think about Front National of Marine Le Pen, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands of Geert Wilders, the Austrian Freedom Party, parties like that.

Then you have a last group of non-far-right Eurosceptics. These tend to be Eurosceptic. They are populist. But they are not nativists. They are not so much focused on keeping their own country pure, so to say. The examples are, most importantly, UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party—although some people see them as far-right—and the Alternative for Germany, which is doing reasonably well in polls.

On top of that you have non-right-wing Eurosceptics. Leaving aside radical left parties like SYRIZA [Coaltion of the Radical Left] in Greece, the party that is most often covered is the Five Star Movement of the Italian clown—who actually was, to a certain extent, a clown and comedian—Beppe Grillo.

All of these are within that one camp that could get between a quarter and a third of the seats according to the media. But they don't necessarily see eye to eye on virtually anything.

Why are the European parliamentary elections important? As far as the media is concerned, there are generally three arguments used.

The first has to do with just the functioning of the European Union as an organization. The European Parliament is only one of three institutions. You have the Council and the Commission and then the Parliament. Traditionally, the Parliament was the weakest of the three. But particularly since the Treaty of Lisbon, there is a so-called co-decision necessary for most of the important decisions. So the European Parliament has to approve by majority all the important decisions. As a consequence, when there is a strong anti-EU camp, some people fear that what they call a self-hating European Parliament will shut down the European Union in a similar way as the Tea Party has done here in the United States.

A second aspect, which has come up only recently, is that a more anti-EU European Parliament could actually have an effect on the foreign policy of the European Union. The European Union has a common foreign and security policy, which is not overly coherent and forceful, but it's nevertheless trying to be. Obviously, with the current Ukrainian crisis, this is one of the things that plays a big role. Various anti-European parties have spoken critically towards the role of the EU in Ukraine, and some have at least been said to be pro-Russian, pro-Putin. So there has been speculation that if these parties win in the European Parliament, the European Parliament will become more pro-Russian.

The third aspect is actually, I think, the most important, and that is the effect of the European elections on national politics. That is, all the parties, of course, are looking now at what is going to happen. When strongly Eurosceptic or far-right parties are going to win, they might adjust their policies so that in the next national elections, they are not going to lose again.

A couple of months in politics is a long time. For, particularly, two countries, this is important. Sweden holds elections in September, but everyone really is focused on the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom holds elections in 2014. At this point in time in the polls, UKIP is leading. That means that particularly the Conservative Party is under a lot of pressure to become more Eurosceptic.

Now, to make it even more complex, there is also a referendum coming up in Scotland about independence. [Editor's Note: For more on Scotland's independence movement, check out Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond's 2013 Carnegie talk "Investing in an Independent Scotland"] Scotland is traditionally much more pro-European, pro-EU, than England. At the moment, the difference between the yes and the no camp in the referendum is pretty small, single digits. There is some speculation that if UKIP wins a lot and the Conservative Party will react to that by becoming more Eurosceptic, the Scots might feel more of an urge to become independent because they will fear that, under pressure from a more Eurosceptic Conservative Party, there could be a referendum where the Brits vote to get out of the EU, which the Scots don't want.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Thank you, Cas. That's a masterful tour d'horizon of a very complicated environment. I think the key point is the diversity and the fact that this really is kind of a motley crew. The terms "fascism" and "neo-fascist" are too easily thrown out, but, as you say, there is a genuinely fascist element here.

I did not bribe Cas to say that thing about Scotland at the end. This was entirely unsolicited. It will save me from saying it later. It is a genuine concern for the Scottish independence vote.


DAVID ART: Excellent. I have about twelve minutes, and I want to cover at least three European countries, so that's nine minutes, and an additional three minutes to get the rest of the ones in that I want to.

Let's start with France. I think David is quite right that we need to think about the diversity in Europe when you're looking at the far right. It's quite easy to look at the story of the European far right and think it's on the rise everywhere and equally throughout Europe. And it's really not.

If you look first at France, the country we have talked most about thus far, there are going to be elections. There were elections in March, municipal elections. Marine Le Pen did extremely well—her party, the French National Front. It was probably described as "shocking" or as "an earthquake" in the press, as it usually is. This party is going to do very well again in May.

The question, though, is, how well are they doing compared to their historical average? We tend to forget that the French National Front has been around now for 20-odd years. It seems to get somewhere 15 and 20 percent of the electorate. It has proven able to mobilize 15 to 20 percent of French voters.

So, in some ways, the story of France is the story of the stability of the far right. There's nothing particularly new about its rise over the last two or three years.

It's debatable whether the French National Front is more powerful now than it was in the 1990s, 20 years ago. Cas has been studying this stuff a little bit longer than I have. But I think one can make the case that the 1990s were a real high point for the French National Front.

Even if you think that the French National Front is going to be—or Marine Le Pen is going to be the next president of France, I can assure you that she's not going to be. There is a way in which France has responded to this populist challenge, by finding ways, through electoral institutions and behavior of coordination among mainstream parties, to kind of leave the French National Front out of politics.

A lot has been said about the UK, so I don't really want to take too much time here. But what is the story of the far right in the UK? It's very much one of a very marginal presence, but one that gets a fair amount of attention every now and then. The British National Party, the BNP, which is the same name as the French National Front, but is much less successful, used to be the most recognized far-right party in Britain, but now it really has become UKIP.

It could matter quite a bit. Cas has already fleshed out this point. One of the ways to look at the impact of the far right is not on what the far right does itself, but the way in which it will influence mainstream parties and will influence the types of policies, the type of political discourse that major parties of the left and right participate in.

So the UK I would put forward as a case in which the far right is quite weak electorally, but certainly has perhaps an outsized impact.

Turning to Germany, Germany is the country in Europe where the far right has the least reasonable chance to be politically successful. That's kind of a dramatic statement. If you think about Germany as the country in which the far right is expected to be the least successful, turn back the clock a while and that statement seems quite out of place.

There has been a dramatic reorientation in German politics post-1945, which I could talk about longer. But one of the reasons that it really matters for us today is that the far right has been marginalized in German politics to a very, very large degree. Yes, one can certainly see episodes at the local level of neo-Nazi parties doing well. One can see a lot of horrible episodes of hate crimes and social mobilization. But as a political force in Germany, the radical right—I cannot see it really gaining any sort of power in the foreseeable future. And even if it were to enter the Bundestag by some miracle, every other political party in Germany would credibly not cooperate with it.

Germany really matters. Germany really matters for the future of Europe. In some ways, I think Europe has been spared by the fact that in a core country, the country that was, in the end, responsible for trying to put the European Union back together, there was not a far right party that could have been an incredible irritant or an incredible point of pressure on the German mainstream parties. The fact that there wasn't this large populist force in a key country in Europe during the meltdown was particularly important.

I can say some more things about the far right in Italy. It had been historically strong there. It had been strong there since the early 1990s. It has been weakened by its own corruption scandals.

There are smaller countries—Austria, Finland—where I expect the far right to do quite well. But these are smaller countries in Europe, and it's politically incorrect to say so, but the large core countries matter more than the smaller ones for the future of European integration.

On that point, if I could just have another second or so, in some ways, the debate about the far right—the way that it's usually presented is that we have had this enormous meltdown, unplanned meltdown, in Europe's political economy. The Great Recession, economic downturn, leads Europeans away from mainstream politics into the arms of the far right and the far left. There was a plausible scenario for a lot that Europe would, in fact, unravel along these lines, that the far right would push mainstream parties to make even more demands in the politics of bailouts between North and South, that Finland would say no or that the Greeks, in the end of the day, would not take the money.

But that hasn't happened yet. In fact, somewhat miraculously, the European Union has survived this enormous crisis. In some ways, it has been a crisis in which Germany has, I think, played an outsized role in rescuing the European project, in some ways, from enormously populist impulses.

So I tend to see in the far right both historical continuity over time in particular countries and to see it in a slightly different way, and not as this danger—there certainly are elements to be concerned about—but also, in some ways, as an achievement of Europeans in constructing institutions above some of that fray.


DAVID SPEEDIE: Thanks, David. That's a relatively optimistic assessment, and I think it is one that has not been ignored. We shouldn't overstate the rise of the far right and the fact that this is some tidal wave that will engulf Europe.

Let me press you on one particular thing. That is France. You mentioned the 1990s, and the Front National was strong then. Of course, that's when Marine Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was the head. Let me just ask two points about that.

First of all, Marine is regarded as altogether a more astute individual than Jean-Marie. That's certainly the impression one gathers, that she has modified and mollified the image. There are no silly salutes or uniform. They are in three-piece suits and ties.

The second thing is that the demographic of the Front national has really penetrated more into the middle class now, I think because of economic reasons.

Doesn't that make this a somewhat more potentially significant impact than, say, in the 1990s, when it really was more of a fringe—

DAVID ART: I guess the way I would answer that is to maybe step backward to qualify the first point a little bit. Jean-Marie Le Pen actually tried quite hard to gain legitimacy in the French political scene and, early in the 1980s, to do a lot of things that Marine is trying to do now to get moderate elites from other political parties to lend his party legitimacy, to get well-respected members of society to join the Front National.

Marine maybe is doing it better, but this is a strategy that her father had done in the 1980s, so there's nothing particularly new about this.

I do think that it could matter, though, on the gender component. How much it will I don't know. But there's one thing we do know about radical right voting, at least in Western Europe: It's 65-35 [male to female ratio]. That's about the breakdown. And it's not that females are overrepresented among radical right voters; it's very much a male story.

So it could matter. It may or may not.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Virág Molnár.

VIRÁG MOLNÁR: I think I will balance out David, because I'm going to be much less optimistic.

My task is to talk about what the far right as a political force looks like in Eastern Europe and how it is different from and similar to its counterparts in the West. I will mainly use the case of Hungary and the example of the radical nationalist party Jobbik, also known as the Movement for a Better Hungary, because this is by far the most successful far-right party in the region. It has just received 21 percent of the votes in the Hungarian general elections, in early April this year—actually, exactly a month ago. It is the third-largest party in the Hungarian parliament. But I will also try to highlight some of the general trends in the region.

I think Cas's broad overview of the far-right political landscape in Europe is very informative. But at the same time, as he also mentioned, I think we have to be a bit careful with these taxonomies and with suggesting simple equivalencies among parties across different countries that are sorted into the same category, because the far right comes in different sizes and shapes in every country.

They are also part of the local, national political ecology, and that has to be understood in relation to the other parties and their agendas in their respective countries.

Moreover, the farther east we go in Europe, the more the traditional left-right division of the political spectrum becomes problematic. For instance, if you think about the parties on the left in Eastern Europe, they would include some successor party of the pre-1989 ruling communist party, the Hungarian Socialist Party in Hungary, the Democratic Left Alliance in Poland. These successor parties usually played an important role in the post-socialist transition. In Hungary, the Socialist Party was the ruling party in the government for 12 years out of the past 25 years since the collapse of communism.

These successor parties have become strongly associated with implementing economic liberalization—large-scale privatization, trade liberalization, opening the country to foreign direct investment and multinational corporations—parallel with dismantling the socialist welfare state. In other words, they have been credited with bringing the neoliberal project to Eastern Europe. Therefore, they are actually often viewed as a neoliberal party, despite the "socialist" label in their name. At the same time, right-wing, and especially far-right, parties often embrace a strong anti-capitalist critique. So the traditional left/right distinctions don't quite hold in the case of Eastern Europe.

But let me zoom in on the Hungarian case and the example of Jobbik, trying to outline some of the reasons for the spectacular rise of the far right in Hungary—in the country which was probably the most staunchly liberal of all the post-socialist countries throughout the 1990s.

The rise of Jobbik actually goes back to 2009, the European parliamentary elections, where Jobbik captured 15 percent of the votes. At this time Jobbik had no seats in the Hungarian parliament, though it was registered as a political party since 2003. The result also shows that the European parliamentary elections are often taken as a barometer for what to expect in the upcoming national elections, for good reason. Accordingly, a year later, in 2010, Jobbik received 17 percent of the votes in the Hungarian general election and, as I mentioned earlier, in the 2014 Hungarian general elections, the party's share of the vote rose to 21 percent.

So what we are seeing here is that in a matter of five years Jobbik went from a party that had no representation in the Hungarian parliament to becoming the third-largest party, indicating a seismic shift in the Hungarian political landscape.

I think one of the key reasons behind this shift can be traced back to a growing crisis of political legitimacy in Hungary and the rest of Eastern Europe that began to crystallize around the turn of the millennium. This crisis feeds on a popular reevaluation of the post-socialist transition as inherently flawed, reflecting merely a political compromise between the pre-1989 democratic opposition and the ex-communist elite. According to this view, the former, the democratic opposition, was allowed to implement the political project of democratic liberalization, while the latter, the ex-communists, were allowed to benefit from radical economic liberalization, convert their political privileges into economic capital, and be spared from lustration.

This growing distrust in the political elite and democratic politics has been coupled with disappointment in the economic transition and European integration, which have failed to bring about the economic security and prosperity that people had hoped for after 1989. European integration has failed to significantly increase the living standards of broad strata of the population, and 10 years after Hungary's accession to the EU, the hope of catching up with the West remains elusive.

During the 10 years Hungary has spent in the EU, Hungarian GDP per capita on purchasing parity pretty much stagnated. It went from 64 percent to 67 percent of the EU average. The annual net income of Hungarians is the second-lowest among East European members of the EU. It is a mere 25 percent of the EU average. It was 24 percent in 2004. Meanwhile, income inequality, unemployment, and poverty levels have risen since 2004, the year in which Hungary joined the EU. Poverty now affects around 32 percent of the population.

The combination of growing distrust in political institutions and the political elite and widespread discontent with the country's economic performance provided fertile ground for the emergence of political populism in Hungary. Populist politics follows the same very appealing script that pits the people against a corrupt elite.

So Jobbik's political program represents a radicalized version of this populist rhetoric. It revolves around three leitmotifs: anti-communism, anti-corruption, and anti-capitalism. Out of the three thematic axes, the anti-capitalist motif is the most multilayered, because it includes several subthemes—strong anti-globalization sentiment, hostility against multinationals, especially against foreign-owned banks, vocal protests against permitting the sale of agricultural land to foreigners, anti-austerity, strong anti-EU attitude.

However, I think it's important to note here that the East European version of Eurosceptism is different from its Western counterpart in that it associates the EU with a kind of neocolonialism. It sees the EU as a new colonizing force expanding its reach over Eastern Europe that is not terribly different from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. So EU expansion is seen as a new form of financial imperialism, spearheaded by Germany and Western Europe.

Another area where Jobbik's and the far right's political repertoire in Eastern Europe differs from the far right in Western Europe is in the target of its xenophobia and racism. The Western European far right generally targets immigrants with its racist exclusionary rhetoric, while the far right in Eastern Europe scapegoats Jews, homosexuals, and, especially, the Roma. Most importantly, Jobbik has managed to invent and diffuse the idea of gypsy crime and gypsy criminality, which blames the Roma minority for the deterioration of public safety.

Framing the increasing social and economic marginalization of the Roma minority as a public safety issue has helped to create a vilified stereotype of the undeserving poor that has not really existed in Hungary before. It has thereby also identified a social group onto which the diffuse social and economic grievances of large segments of the population can be projected.

Another essential trait of the far right's political toolkit is the simultaneous criminalization of poverty and the racialization of crime. At the same time, the far right also increasingly promotes a narrow ethnic understanding of what it means to be Hungarian, reviving and reinventing themes of mythic nationalism, while devaluing a vivid definition of social membership.

Let me underscore that I think the far right would have never been able to achieve the success that it has without a deep and prolonged crisis of the left. Here I mean the kind of genuine left. Socialist and liberal parties in Hungary have become thoroughly discredited in the past decade and have been unable to reconstitute and reinvent themselves since their massive defeat in 2010 in the parliamentary elections, thereby creating a huge vacuum on the political left. Jobbik has been the main beneficiary of this vacuum, and its rise cannot be understood without understanding the wholesale collapse of leftist politics in Hungary.

I think, of all the post-socialist countries, Hungary has the most globally open economy. It is also the country where liberalization—or I should probably say neo-liberalization—was implemented the most swiftly, aggressively, and consequently after 1989. I think, given this trajectory, it is no wonder that, especially in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, it is precisely in this post-socialist country that we are seeing the most vigorous populist backlash.

Finally, the far right may not be as strong, as an organized political force, in other East European countries as it is in Hungary, but I would argue that many of the sentiments—the anti-Roma feelings, growing distrust of political elites and institutions, disappointment with EU integration—that feed Jobbik popularity are actually also prevalent in other countries across the region.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Thanks, Virág. That's fascinating.

Some of us have spent most of our lives thinking about Ukraine recently. The phrase "the people against the corrupt elite" is a very topical notion at this point in time, extending into Ukraine, but…

Before I head to the audience, I really think you have all done a great job in getting across, as the Heinz company used to say, the 57 varieties—in this case, more—of what's going on here. The connecting thread seems to be the "anti." They are essentially "anti" movements—the mythic nationalism leading to the anti-neocolonialism or anti-foreigner, anti-gay, anti-Semitic, anti-Roma, anti-Muslim, whatever have you. Anti-elite might be the connecting tissue here.

But I wonder if each or all of you could speak a little bit about the tension this creates. Again, this prevents this from being sort of a tsunami of nationalism waving across Europe. When you take, for example, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, they have become soul mates in some ways. They have dinner together. But certainly Wilders is, as far as I know, rabidly pro-Israel. Le Pen—and I think, again, she has tried to soften this—has been—the Front National has been anti-Semitic. Wilders, on the other hand, as, of course, part of his support for Israel, is the anti-Muslim impetus in the Netherlands.

Doesn't this speak to the fact that these parties will really never cohere; they will be a set of sort of disparate protest elements? Or is that an overly optimistic or simplistic—Cas?

CAS MUDDE: Recently, both Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders were interviewed about the European Alliance for Freedom, which is the new group that they are going to make in the European Parliament. Quite interestingly, what they both said is that they have a minimum program on which they work, which by and large is to stop the EU from pretty much doing anything more. But they, by and large, have no agreement on foreign policy, which is undoubtedly what Geert Wilders has wanted, because Geert Wilders is the most pro-Israel politician in the Netherlands, which has a long history of being very pro-Israel. So that's quite impressive.

Not every far-right party is anti-Israel. Vlaams Belang in Belgium has always been pretty pro-Israel as well. Both Strache of the Austrian Freedom Party and Marine Le Pen have tried to win over Israeli politicians and actually have been visiting Israel and have been welcomed by the Israeli far right.

But then, particularly in Eastern Europe, you have vehemently anti-Semitic politicians, like Jobbik. And, of course, Golden Dawn in Greece is very anti-Israel, anti-Semitic.

I don't actually agree with the argument that they are only "anti." I think most of the "anti" statements are linked to a "pro." You can also say that they are pro-people and that they are pro-their own nation. Nationalism does have a positive message, in the sense that it stands for something, not just against something. It is the argument that a state should be mono-cultural.

As a consequence of that statement, everything that is considered to be non-cultural, alien, is opposed. It's not just for the sake of opposing something.

The problem is, nationalisms can bite each other. This is particularly the case in eastern Europe, where there are shared borders that are still not settled, at least in the eyes of the nationalists, as well as the intra-EU immigration, which has led to a lot of tension. UKIP, for example, is more focused on the immigration of Bulgarians and Romanians than Muslims.

But so far, what they try to do in this new group—it's almost exclusively West European. The only East European party so far that has joined is the Slovak National Party. Within Western Europe, nationalist parties do not really have many problems with borders. They have a minimal program, which is, by and large, stopping the EU from doing anything else. But they're not necessarily opposing each other on everything.

DAVID ART: I agree with Cas, in some ways, that there is a program there in a lot of these parties. It isn't just "anti-this, anti-that."

Having said that, there is something about the coherence of these parties that does break down relatively simply to nativism, at the end of the day. We call these parties "right." We don't really mean "right" in an economic sense. These are not parties that want a 10 percent flat tax or want to have no sort of leftist redistribution. That's not really what they're about—in fact, quite the opposite. They're for having quite a strong welfare state in order to give benefits to their own citizens.

So it's not on the economic dimension; it's on the cultural dimension. Cultural politics have a different set of issues in Europe than they do in the United States. Gun control—virtually nonexistent as an issue. Abortion, a lot of religious issues—really no place.

Culture in European politics is really a lot about immigration and how you feel on that basic question. Parties and individuals can have well-thought-out and coherent positions on this: "I'm an ethnocultural because I really do believe at the end of the day that all of these different cultures cannot live productively together." But you also have a lot of people who just say, "I don't like black people," and that will be the basis of support for a lot.

So trying to find the core there has really been a difficult thing. And one would really predict that, right? These types of parties don't write down their core ideological principles and then follow from them in a very scientific way. One wouldn't expect that.

VIRÁG MOLNÁR: Just very quickly, before we open it up to the floor, I think there is a difference—we mentioned this before—at the level of European politics and at the national level. There are kind of different dynamics going on. At the level of the European Parliament, I can see Front National and Geert Wilders making coalitions, even if they don't agree on everything. They can build coalitions around issues on which they do agree. So there is also this kind of pragmatism, I think, to right-wing politics.

At the same time—the other point I wanted to make—I think the story is slightly different, again, for Eastern Europe, because I think, in that region, economics is much more important. For them, the very, very strong austerity measures that are being pushed by the EU, with the strict measures on level of public debt and measures for the public deficit—they cut really, really deep into the population in terms of raising levels of income inequality and poverty and so on. So I think there is a lot more at stake in terms of economics and economic policies for Eastern Europe.


QUESTION: Justin Kosslyn, from Google.

I'm curious about what you're seeing on the far left in terms of "soak the rich" movements or any of the traditional kind of counterweights that we have seen in American history in these moments of economic and strategic uncertainty.

VIRÁG MOLNÁR: What I can say is that these themes of the radical left, at least in the case of a lot of eastern European countries, have been hijacked by the radical right. Jobbik is extremely anti-capitalist. It has even incorporated a lot of green issues into its agenda for the latest elections. It's anti-globalization.

I think this is exactly the issue. A lot of these themes that we often associate with the radical left or with the left have been hijacked and have been given populist answers to.

DAVID ART: I will set up Cas here, because I know he has something to say on this.

It's a really good question. Maybe even put more broadly, why is it, when you look at populism in general, by and large it's a story of the populist right? Theoretically, you could have a populist left and you could have a populist right. But when it comes down to looking at the number of cases, we can find populist leftist parties, but few and far between. Why is this populist right—what is it about that particular combination that makes it empirically much more widespread?

To answer your particular question, there have been some—certainly Greece is where I would put, with Syriza, the most serious challenge to austerity measures. They ultimately didn't win. Greece ultimately has gone through with the bailouts.

Cas will say maybe more about the Netherlands, where I think a more populist leftist party was coming close to rising in the polls. But then again, it didn't.

It's a question, why not? I think it's a good one.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Have you been set up?

CAS MUDDE: Yes, enough to take off at least.

We actually had some, let's say, Occupy-like movements throughout Europe, and particularly in Southern Europe. But for some reason, a bit like here, they never really translated in party power. One of the most striking things, actually, about the effect of the crisis is that it has led to virtually no new parties. That, in itself, already makes you wonder about how fundamental the whole effect has been.

The radical left is said to be going to do well. But overall the increase is actually not that big, given, again, the economic situation. I think one of the explanations is that they are still the old parties, and it means that the parties that are now radical left are the not-so-reformed former communist parties. The non-reform is not necessarily so much in the program. The program and the slogans are relatively new. The problem is that the politicians and particularly the party cultures are the same. And they are very rigid. They are the old communist structures. These parties tend to be incredibly paranoid about pretty much anything new.

I think that hinders them in profiting. It still makes them suspicious. There are a lot of people who are very disappointed with the center-left, which, as in Hungary—and the center-left in the Netherlands or in Germany or in Britain—they have all moved very much towards the center, if not center-right. But these former social democrats will not vote for the parties that used to be communist and that used to always call the social democrats social fascists.

So I think there's a lot of space there. The problem is that the old far left is still occupying part of it institutionally.

DAVID SPEEDIE: It's an interesting point that many of the—especially, I think, the Front National is one that comes to mind—the annexation of social welfare policies that traditionally are associated with leftist parties as part of their platform, and therefore spreading the appeal.

QUESTION: Travis Gidado, Goldman Sachs.

This is in particular to Professor Art. I know you were making the point that there isn't anything demonstrably different between what Marine Le Pen is doing currently and what her father tried to do. But I was wanting to get your sense of what it is about the perception now that we think that she's doing something better or that she's improving upon the design. Is there something in the macro environment of France that is contributing to this belief or is it another factor entirely?

DAVID ART: If I had to guess, it would really be a story that Marine Le Pen has incredible individual skill and is not burdened by the history of her father. I think that would be the narrative that one would want to say about why the Front National is going to do better.

Just to go back a little bit, Jean-Marie Le Pen was a parachutist, a para, who fought in the Algerian War. He's deeply rooted in the Pied-Noir [French living in Algeria when Algeria was a French colony], this part of French political culture that had allegiance to Algeria for a long time. He was completely caught up, in some ways, in the old right in France.

Marine Le Pen has this opportunity now—she's maybe more telegenic; maybe she's a better debater. But in the 1980s and 1990s, Jean-Marie Le Pen was seen as as the leading populist, the best face of the radical right. He was the top.

In some ways, it's not clear to me that she's doing anything better or different. It may very well be that the people around her are able to make her come off better.

There hasn't been any sort of coordinated change, as far as I'm concerned, in mainstream French politics. And that would be the place to look, I think. That would be really, really disturbing, and that would maybe change my views about what would go on in France if the mainstream right is going to send out overtures. Maybe Marine Le Pen now has become—there's a German term for this called salonfähig, socially acceptable or something. Maybe she'll become respectable.

I just cannot see the French political elite ever doing that. But I could be wrong.

CAS MUDDE: I think it's very important to have a historical perspective. David is completely right. One of the things that Marine actually profits from is the last couple of years of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Jean-Marie Le Pen was old, well past his prime—a bitter and increasingly extremist man. He made explicitly racist and anti-Semitic statements that he had never made before.

Given that most journalists have pretty much a historical perspective of five days, that is, at best, what they know. But in the mid-1980s and in the early 1990s, people paid five bucks to listen to Jean-Marie speak. Two thousand people would pay money to hear a politician speak.

I saw him in 1986 in the parliament in France. He was masterful. I saw him, I think, six years ago somewhere in Belgium, and he was incredibly boring. He changed massively.

The other thing is, I think Marine Le Pen is profiting, to put it bluntly, from sexism, sexism in the media and sexism in the perception—the idea that, because she is a woman, she is more moderate, which is nonsensical if you hear what she says. She is more extreme on the EU. She has been more extreme on Islam. She has not fundamentally changed anything ideologically in the party. Yet The New York Times goes on and on describing her as more moderate.

DAVID SPEEDIE: That's the five-day attention span. And you're an optimist. Five days? [Laughter]

CAS MUDDE: I thought maybe there were journalists here.

QUESTION: I'm Helena Finn, from the American Council on Germany.

I'm a bit curious to learn more about the demographics. You mentioned the gender difference. The Alternative for Germany party in Germany is mostly older people who are worried about a lot of things. I'm wondering, how does it break down in the other countries, in Hungary in particular, but also in the countries of Western Europe?

I could make a guess on urban/rural, but still it would be interesting to hear about that too.

VIRÁG MOLNÁR: Let me start with Jobbik in Hungary. Actually, the demographics is pretty diverse, and what I have to say is that there are a lot of young people. Jobbik did start out as a student organization in the Faculty of New Humanities. So actually there are a lot of young people who are very engaged with this far right.

In terms of the voting patterns, yes, you would find a very big rural/urban difference. The stronghold for Jobbik is really in the northeastern part of the country, and there is a strong correlation with poverty and the presence of large settlements of Roma minorities. That combination of poverty and the presence of Roma is a combination that really gets the vote for Jobbik.

DAVID ART: When you look at the median radical right voter—this theoretical construct that doesn't really exist—the properties are it's male, there's a huge gender bias. I used to think—and, Cas, correct me if I'm wrong—in terms of age, they are slightly older than the rest of the population, but now in particular countries,in Austria for example, there has been a real attention to grab young voters, much like in Hungary.

Urban/rural I can't speak to as much, although my baseline assumption would be more urban areas. But it's really not the case that in rural areas, where you don't have immigrants, you have no anti-immigrant voting. You actually have quite a bit of it, whether immigrants are there or not.

So in some ways, it's kind of a wash, the urban/rural definition. There's public sector/private sector. There are differences there. There are differences in level of educational attainment. That would be a major predictor—not that radical right voters have no education, but, on average, they are less well educated.

This is a difference, I think, with Tea Party voters in the United States. One major difference—when you're comparing voters across the Atlantic, this would be one important difference that's worthwhile.

CAS MUDDE: I think the only thing is that the more successful far-right parties in Western Europe—and now with Jobbik as well—are also doing very well with blue collar voters. It's not the stereotypical unemployed. Generally, they are employed, but in sectors that are particularly hard-hit by globalization.

DAVID SPEEDIE: The working poor.

CAS MUDDE: It's still Western Europe, so you're not really poor. But you're definitely not profiting from the situation.

DAVID ART: In some ways, if I could, it's the social demographic of socialist parties. In a very strong sense, that's where it used to be. That is, because of all sorts of changes in international environments and domestic political changes, no longer capturing that pool of voters. They have gone elsewhere.

VIRÁG MOLNÁR: I just want to add that in the case of Jobbik as well, most of the constituencies that now vote Jobbik used to be socialist constituencies.

QUESTION: Kim Gantz Wexler.

When Hitler rose to power, some prominent people, like Winston Churchill, were very concerned. Other prominent people were not. Two questions, please.

One, is it fair to compare the rise of the new far right to the Nazis?

Two, how concerned should the United States be with the rise of the new far right?

DAVID ART: The first and really most important thing to say is that I think the 1930s are always going to be with Europe in some way, shape, or form, and it's absolutely right to try to think through contemporary political events with that lens.

The Hitler comparison is, in some ways, always going to be at least admissible as evidence into intellectual debate. Here's the Great Depression. Here's the breakdown of democracy in a country that was at the height of civilization, and it came through electoral means. And see what happened. So it's the underestimation.

To some extent, there has been underestimation, at least in my view—and this was a long time ago, in the 1980s and 1990s—of far-right political parties. A lot thought that if we just take a few of their issues and maybe we give them cabinet positions in our government, that will tame them, that they will go away, that people will see, in fact, how incompetent they are as parties. That wasn't an unreasonable strategy to take, for a lot of reasons, because these parties really were poorly organized and had a lot of incompetent leaders.

But there was this underestimation, I think, in the 1980s and 1990s. You're not getting a Hitler. That's the good news, I suppose. What you are getting, though, I think, is a set of parties that are asking big and important questions about Europe.

The issues that the radical right cares about are:

  • Immigration. What is Europe going to look like? How many immigrants and at what rates?
  • What is the European Union going to look like?
  • What is our relationship going to be with the international economic environment?
  • Is there something called a European culture, and is it compatible with Islam and other cultures?

These are big, important questions. The radical right matters because it addresses them. It gives fundamentally, in my view, wrong answers, but in a way that's—I wouldn't say dangerous, but worth thinking through that analogy more.

CAS MUDDE: On the one hand, they are not new Hitlers, leaving aside Golden Dawn and perhaps some people in some smaller parties. Overall, there's a fundamental difference between the contemporary far right and the Nazis of the 1930s, and that's in the acceptance of the democratic system. That's in the acceptance that you don't kill the people you don't like to have in your country. A small gain perhaps, but pretty profound, I would think, as well.

But more important is that democracy was incredibly weak in the 1930s, and particularly in Weimar Germany. The biggest groups voted for Nazis, who didn't believe in democracy, communists, who didn't believe in democracy, and Catholics, who didn't believe in democracy. By and large, no one believed in democracy at that point in time.

Despite an incredible shake to the trust, for example, in the European Union, trust in democracy as the best system is unshaken. The vast majority of Europeans still believe very strongly that democracy is the best system.

Hungary is doing pretty badly and Greece is doing pretty badly and Russia is doing pretty badly. But the vast majority of the 28 EU countries have 80 percent or higher that think that democracy is the best system. And that is a fundamental difference with the 1930s, when it was a minority of the population in many countries.

VIRÁG MOLNÁR: I would probably add that I think there is both a danger in underestimating but also there is a danger in overestimating the threat here.

I would agree here both with David and Cas. I think still we have most of these parties respecting the democratic system. They are promoting illiberal politics, but through the democratic political system.

At the same time, I think where it can be misleading to throw around the "neo-fascist" label too easily is that it leads to dismissing the phenomenon. Whereas I think a lot of these parties actually raise very important issues about social tensions, ethnic tensions, economic tensions, the problem is in the answers that they provide. But I think if we just dismiss them as neo-fascist, we kind of explain away the problems that I think need to be addressed.


QUESTION: Sam Hornblower, at CBS.

Is there any potential for this variety of parties to coordinate? What could they accomplish if they did?

DAVID ART: There have been a lot of attempts to coordinate. The one that has gotten the most attention is the Wilders-Le Pen overtures. There is, though, an issue here. Fundamentally, nativism or nationalism is core to these parties. You're asking them to work across national lines with one another.

Back to the 1920s and 1930s, transnational fascism didn't work because the ultranationalism kind of ruled it out.

So there's something here that would be difficult, a problem of fundamentally nationalist parties trying to work in any sort of international alliance.

The second important point on these alliances is that historically they haven't worked very well. Secondarily, it's not clear if members of these party families agree that they should have these types of alliances. So you have—it comes up every couple of weeks—a radical right party in one country saying, "We have nothing in common with this radical right party in another country. You compare us to the Danish People's Party, the Sweden Democrats. This is the wrong comparison. We look more like the Norwegian"—they don't want to be compared sometimes with one another.

So it's difficult to try to think through how much this alliance—I'm being skeptical about the possibility of alliances here. But maybe someone would like to make the positive case.

VIRÁG MOLNÁR: I think there is more cause for concern if one of these parties really becomes part of the government. Again in the Hungarian case, even if people don't like Fidesz, they're kind of happy that they have a super-majority, because that means that—at some point there were debates about if they would enter into a coalition with Jobbik.

I think the tipping point here is if that any of these parties make it into the government, although there has been a precedent for it, in Austria. I think there is also this ebb-and-tide pattern to the far right in Europe. In Austria they were in the government and not much happened, really.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I think that's a very important point, back to this question that it's not even so much what happens in Brussels at the end of May, but what happens back home. If I'm a Hungarian Jew or Roma, I'm not very happy that Jobbik has 20-odd percent in the Hungarian parliament, with the prospects of more. That's the serious point, I think.

QUESTION: My name is Marcel Gretzschel. I'm a politics and human rights student at Hunter College.

In light of the rise of the new right across EU Member States, what do you believe are the prospects for a uniform EU asylum system that protects human rights that, according to Article 80 of the Treaty on the functioning of the EU, shall be governed by "the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility"?

CAS MUDDE: There are actually two incentives here. On the one hand, an immigration policy at the EU level is the most threatening to any right-wing party, far right or mainstream right, because your immigration policy determines who gets into your country or not, who is part of your nation or not. If you give that away, you by and large give the EU the power to define your nation.

On the other hand, particularly the mainstream right is really struggling with pressure from its voters to tighten immigration. At the same time, they have pressure from big business to open immigration.

So immigration tends to be an issue that divides most parties. It's the same for Christian democrats, who have, on the one hand, a more conservative Christian background, who don't like immigration too much because it's Muslim, and on the other hand, you have a social Christian tradition, which is pro-immigration.

Then the social democrats still have a couple of blue collar voters left, who are very worried about immigration. Then they have what is always referred to as the schoolteacher social democrat, who is very pro-immigration.

So all the main parties are divided on the immigration issue, and so they are afraid to deal with it, because it's a lose-lose almost.

What you do then is depoliticize. The best way to depoliticize within the EU structure is push it up. You push it to the EU level, where, first of all, the major debate is always within the Council. The Council debates things in secret. So the EU can in the end come out with a decision, and it turns out that everyone has voted against it, but, for some reason, it went through. No one can check what your government really did. So depoliticizing hot potatoes through Europe is something that has been done over and over again.

This is what the right wing actually is trying to do increasingly with immigration. I actually think that there will be an EU immigration policy. I do not believe that it will sound so lofty as what you just quoted, because the other thing that we know is that generally, when the EU does something, it's the lowest common denominator, because that's what everyone can agree on. And that is not going to look like a very pleasant immigration policy.

VIRÁG MOLNÁR: I would just like to say one point here. Here again, we have different types of immigration. I think often the assumption is—we talk about immigration outside the EU into the EU, but you do have an awful lot of conflict and tension around immigration among EU member countries. They actually do have a right to move around due to the free movement of labor.

In the UK right now, as Cas mentioned, the biggest tension is around Bulgarians and Romanians, and they are EU citizens.

So there are different levels to this immigration issue, is my only comment.

DAVID SPEEDIE: We have to draw to a close, unfortunately.

Let me just say in closing that this is not a random meeting. This is a project monitoring the rise of the far right in Europe that the Council has undertaken and will continue to pursue.

The obvious question is—and it came from one of our questioners—why should the United States be concerned or interested in this? I just offer three quick points.

It has been said in passing, but culturally, historically, some of our closest allies on the planet are in Europe. I would go further and say that we helped in many ways shape the new Europe by encouraging NATO expansion to, first of all, the Visegrad countries, in the Baltics and so on. So we really have had a role in shaping the new post-Cold War Europe.

The second is, I agree with the panelists in their assessment that we shouldn't overstate the importance and impact of these far-right movements. Nevertheless, we've had an experience of viewing what a distinguished colleague of mine once called rotten outcomes in Europe. Later this year, our president, Joel Rosenthal, will lead a group of us to Sarajevo, the 100th anniversary of the Council, also the 100th anniversary of a much less happy event. Without in any way wishing to overstate that case, it's something that we are concerned enough to keep an eye on.

The third is linkage. There are at least a half dozen Golden Dawn chapters in the United States. According to a wonderful organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center, we have 1,000 hate groups across this country with some degree of organization, and linkages do occur. We have seen that in the early explorations of the program.

With that, I want to thank you for some terrific questions and I want to thank three great panelists.

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