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How Europe’s Far Right is Marching Steadily Into the Mainstream

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Almost 25 years ago, when Jörg Haider’s far-right populist Freedom party (FPÖ) won just under 27% of the vote and entered government in Austria, the shock waves reverberated around Europe. Diplomatic visits were cancelled and punitive measures imposed.

Not long after, when Jean-Marie Le Pen of France’s National Front (now National Rally or RN) reached the presidential runoff, the eventual winner, Jacques Chirac, refused even to debate with the far-right leader, so abhorrent – and abnormal – were his views.

But now across western Europe, far-right parties are advancing: climbing steadily up the polls, shaping the policies of the mainstream right to reflect nativist and populist platforms, and occupying select ministerial roles in coalition governments.

Giorgia Meloni, whose party has neofascist roots, is prime minister of Italy, and Spain’s far-right Vox, after recently doubling its regional and local vote, could soon be sharing power nationally.

The far right is part of the new coalition government in Finland and, in exchange for key policy concessions, is propping up another in Sweden. Back in Austria, the FPÖ is comfortably ahead in the polls, roughly a year from the next election.

In a “watershed moment” in the Germany’s politics, the country’s far-right AfD has just won its first district council election, after surging in the past year from 10% to 20% and into second place in the polls, ahead of the centre-left SPD.

In Greece, a trio of little-known hard-right and nativist parties won parliamentary seats in Sunday’s elections. They included the three-week-old Spartans, backed, from his prison cell, by a leading light of the now defunct neo-Nazi Golden Dawn.

“They are all different, and the cultures and political systems they operate in are all different,” said Catherine Fieschi, director of policy at Open Society Foundations Europe and an expert on populism, authoritarianism and the far right.

“But after every crisis, we have told ourselves that the populists and far right are waning in Europe, and the fact is they have been rising more or less steadily, with a few interruptions, since the 1980s. They are really now a part of the landscape.”

What’s more, Europe’s increasingly fragmented and polarised politics means “a 48/52 split basically turns these parties into kingmakers. That’s what happened in the Nordics, will probably happen in Spain, [and] could happen in France,” Fieschi said.

“In Italy and Austria there are additional factors – a far right that was never really rejected postwar, disenchantment with a system that feels rigged and inefficient – and in Germany, it’s all about the east and the weakness of the current coalition.”

For long, opposition to immigration, Islam and the EU were what united Europe’s far-right parties. New causes have now also emerged: the culture wars, minority rights, the climate crisis and the unfair sacrifices that governments insist will be needed to combat it.

Their appeal has been further enhanced by the cost of living crisis flowing from pandemic recovery and Russia’s war on Ukraine; by rapid and confusing social and digital change and, everywhere, by mounting mistrust of the mainstream.

But behind the surge, there also lies a two-way process of normalisation: as the centre right increasingly adopts far-right talking points and opens itself up for deals, smart far-right parties moderate some of their more voter-repellent views.

From Italy to Finland, much of Europe’s centre right is as hardline on immigration as the far right, while far-right parties are busy projecting economic discipline, dialling back on Euroscepticism and downplaying past support for Russia.

“The far right’s rise has coincided with the decline of a certain kind of left,” Fieschi said. “Far-right parties now seem like a reasonable vote for many of the people who in previous circumstances would have voted for a popular, protective left.”

What has changed, she said, is that we live “in the era of control. The Brexiters got that. The left may promise protection, but the far right promises order and control. It can’t necessarily deliver it – but it speaks more to people’s individual and cultural fears.”

Italy

Giorgia Meloni became western Europe’s first far-right postwar prime minister after her Brothers of Italy won nearly 26% of the vote in September elections (up from 4% in 2018) and she successfully formed a coalition with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini’s anti-migrant League, both of which scored more than 8%. Her strategy since has been focused on normalisation – economic orthodoxy, support for Ukraine, good relations with Brussels – while quietly prosecuting her culture war at home.

Spain

Founded almost a decade ago, the nationalist Catholic-conservative Vox is now the third-largest party in Spain’s national assembly and last month doubled its vote in regional and municipal elections, striking deals with the centre-right People’s party (PP) to rule the Valencia region and several big Spanish cities in coalitions. Polls suggest the PP will win next month’s snap general election but fall short of an absolute majority and the prospect of it seeking Vox’s support to form a government is looking increasingly likely.

France

Marine Le Pen scored a record 41.46% in last year’s presidential election, and her far-right National Rally (RN) went on to win 89 of the 577 seats in parliament, an 11-fold increase. As the biggest single opposition party, it is striving to show discipline and responsibility in an effort to further sanitise its image and bury longstanding accusations of racism and xenophobia. Sidestepping its traditional France-for-the-French agenda, it says it has only one objective: the “concrete improvement of French people’s lives”. Four years out from the next presidential election, polls have suggested Le Pen would win a runoff held today.

The Netherlands

Three nationalist populist parties – Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam Freedom party (PVV); the libertarian, conspiracist and pro-Russian Forum for Democracy (FvD) of Thierry Baudet; and its supposedly more moderate offshoot, JA21 – hold 28 of the Dutch parliament’s 150 seats. The meteoric rise in provincial elections this year of a new populist party, the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB), which fights government environmental policies, underlined the fragmented and febrile nature of Dutch politics in the run up to national elections, due by March 2025.

Germany

Sunday’s district election win by the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in eastern Germany could herald the end of the longstanding “firewall” thrown up by a united mainstream against the far-right party. Experts say the anti-AfD front is crumbling, at least at a local level in disgruntled eastern Germany, and the party now believes it can win state elections due next year in Thuringia, Brandenburg and Saxony. Opinion polls suggest that at the national level – faced with inflation, recession, rising refugee numbers and a fractious coalition government – voters favour the xenophobic, anti-Islam AfD more than the chancellor, Olaf Scholz’s, Social Democrats.

AfD election billboard.
AfD’s district election win on Sunday was considered a ‘watershed moment’. Photograph: Maximilian Schwarz/Reuters

Austria

One of Europe’s oldest far-right movements, the Freedom party (FPÖ), founded in 1956 and first led by a former Nazi functionary and SS officer, is polling at 28%, five points clear of the centre-right ÖVP with which it first entered government after the 1999 elections, and six ahead of the centre-left SPÖ. Its past record and outspoken pro-Moscow views may, however, make it difficult for the party to form a coalition even if it wins next year’s vote. As with neighbouring Hungary, support for Russia remains – for the time being beyond the western European pale.

Finland

The influence of the far-right Finns party in Finland’s new four-party coalition government – the most rightwing in the country’s history – is clear: cutting refugee quotas, raising the bar for work-based immigration, making citizenship harder to obtain and establishing separate benefit systems for immigrants and permanent residents. Experts have said the prime minister, Petteri Orpo of the centre-right National Coalition party – which has 48 seats in parliament to the Finns’ 46 – took a hard line on immigration in order to gain support for €6bn of spending cuts.

Sweden

After a narrow win by the rightwing bloc in elections last September, the conservative Moderates formed a minority coalition with two other centre-right parties that relies – in exchange for a say in policy – on the parliamentary backing of the far-right Sweden Democrats: the first time the nativist party, which won 20.5% of the vote, has had direct input in a government programme. Long unthinkable, the decision to include the far right in policymaking has produced radical changes in Sweden’s approach to law and order, asylum, immigration and integration.

people waving flags
Supporters of the far-right Sweden Democrats welcome the results of the exit polls at the election last September. Photograph: Tt News Agency/Reuters

Britain

The far right may not be formally represented in Westminster, but analysts argue that populism, nativism and cultural conservatism have long dictated certain centre-right policy positions. They cite nationalist sloganeering by government ministers and Conservative MPs before and since the Brexit referendum; an immigration policy – and related rhetoric – that are arguably tougher than those of any continental European government; and an unabashed “war on woke”.

Source : The Guardian

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