Making the distinction between mainstream conservatism and far-right extremism was once obvious, but these days the lines between the two have become increasingly blurred. Foreign Editor David Pratt examines the potential threat this poses in Europe
Last month, in the Hungarian capital Budapest, three political leaders joined forces to form a new right-wing pan-European alliance.
The new alliance would “make Europe great again, returning to its original values”, insisted one of the leaders, Matteo Salvini of Italy’s populist radical-right Northern League Party (Lega).
Salvini is fond of new slogans given that it was only back in 2018 that Lega came to power, under the own new slogan, “Italians first!”
April’s meeting in Budapest brought together, both Salvini – himself a former Italian deputy prime minister – along with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban and his Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki.
All are right-wing kindred spirits who decided the time had come to join forces after major disputes between their three countries and the European Union (EU) over cultural and political issues, such as LGBT rights and migration.
For Salvini, Orban and Morawiecki, they saw now as the moment to set in motion what they described as a “European renaissance based on Christian values”.
Their “Make Europe Great Again”, mimicking Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again”, marked yet another attempt to replicate his brand of conservatism in Europe.
It was a reminder that whether they are rising or merely holding steady in support, right-leaning populists are not going away any time soon.
In fact, if recent electoral wins, political gains and shifts across mainstream parties are anything to go by then it could be argued that far-right mainstream parties show a relentless rise in the polls in some big European countries.
This, too, before even beginning to consider the malign growth of other far-right extremist and neo-Nazi groups in Europe that often inhabit the same political landscape in tandem.
It’s all a far cry from two decades ago on February 4, 2000, when Europe reeled in shock after the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, founded in 1956 by National Socialist activists and led by Jorg Haider whose rallying call against the “Uberfremdung” (“over-foreignisation”) of his country brought his party into a government coalition.
To many people, of course, Haider represented a spectre from the dark past of European history, notorious as he was for praising the Waffen SS and some of Hitler’s policies.
It was a moment of sober reflection for both the EU and many European citizens at the time, but tricky to handle given that Haider’s Freedom Party in the October 1999 election campaign took 27 per cent of the vote, in what was then the best result for any far-right party in a European democracy since the Second World War.
“This is the first time an anti-European, xenophobic party with a very dubious relationship towards the Nazi past has come into the government of a member state,” Germany’s foreign minister Joschka Fischer proclaimed at the time.
IN response to what it saw as a neo-fascist sentiment stirring in Austria, the EU felt compelled to prove its opposition and resolve but was caught in something of a bind in what became one of the most serious crises in the 40 years that Europe had taken steps towards political and economic unity.
So much for the political climate of 20 or so years ago, but what of Europe and the far-right now? Even the most cursory glance across the continent reveals the extent to which right-wing parties and leaders are making their presence felt. Last month’s get-together in Budapest was only one example.
Only last week in Spain, Isabel Diaz Ayuso, the conservative contender in the election for the Madrid regional government, triumphed at the polls under her own vacuous People’s Party (PP) slogan “Communism or liberty”.
Ayuso, who defied lockdown requests from Spain’s central government in favour of keeping the economy open, more than doubled her party’s showing in the 2019 ballot, winning 65 of the regional parliament’s 136 seats.
However, the 42-year-old conservative fell short of the 69 seats required for an absolute majority. This means that to form a viable coalition, Ayuso will most likely have to rely on support from the extremist far-right Vox party, who gained 13 seats.
At national level, Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sanchez’s Socialist Party leads a minority government with the left Unidas Podemos. The parties’ poor showing in the Madrid vote prompted Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias to resign from politics.
Both Ayuso and Iglesias received death threats in the run-up to the vote, with each warning of the dangers of “communism” and “fascism” respectively, in what was eerily reminiscent of those dark days when Spain fought its civil war along just such a political faultline.
Ayuso’s victory could have lasting ramifications for the way Spain is run in the years ahead. It could also have reverberations across Europe, providing a foretaste of the possible backlash from voters fed up with pandemic lockdown measures which along with migration and religion are some of the issues the far right has harnessed to extend its influence and power.
As Hugh McDonnell, writing in the American socialist quarterly magazine Jacobin, recently observed, the extremist Vox party began its Madrid election campaign with a rally in the multiracial suburb of Vallecas, prompting clashes with locals, a tactic replicated by other far-right parties across Europe.
“The calculation is that their presence will cause incidents, relayed as a media spectacle that gives them visibility and permits them to play the victim,” noted McDonnell.
“Precedents include Marine Le Pen’s numerous rallies in the working-class northern suburbs of Paris, or Matteo Salvini’s foray into the Bologna suburb of Pilastro, followed by a throng of cameras, to ask immigrants if they were drug dealers,” McDonnell added, highlighting the widespread presence of such far-right parties in Europe.
The recent gains made by Spain’s far-right Vox party is but one example of how extremist groups in turn can force their way onto the political agenda off the back of conservative centrist or right-of-centre mainstream parties.
“The taboo on the far right in government has been comprehensively broken. Mainstream parties appear happy to co-operate with those once considered ‘toxic’,” explained K Biswas, the respected political writer and columnist in The New York Times last year in an op-ed entitled “How the Far Right became Europe’s New Normal”.
“Nativist representatives have been invited into ruling coalitions in Denmark, Finland, Italy and the Netherlands to act as support partners for traditional conservatives unable to win parliamentary majorities. No longer derided or dismissed by their mainstream rivals, far-right parties now show themselves capable of winning nationwide elections,” Biswas warned.
Perhaps nowhere has the potential of such an overlap been more obvious in Europe lately than in France which is looking at presidential elections next year.
Ever since the Holocaust-denying Jean-Marie Le Pen founded the National Front, today renamed as the National Rally, mainstream politicians in France have been borrowing the far right’s rhetoric on its key issues – immigration and law and order.
“We are seeing National Rally ideas have become normalised and a structural part of mainstream debate … that is a reality,” said Gilles Ivaldi, a researcher in politics at Sciences Po speaking recently to the Christian Science Monitor newspaper.
In the same article, entitled “How the far right has shifted France’s political centre of gravity”, correspondent Collette Davidson described the two frontrunners in next year’s election, Marine Le Pen (daughter of Jean Marie Le Pen) and current president Emmanuel Macron, as being like politicians “trying on each other’s clothes”.
“Marine Le Pen, traditionally a candidate of the extreme right, is seeking more moderate voters by steering her party, the National Rally, toward the middle ground of French politics,” observed Davidson.
“More surprisingly, perhaps, President Emmanuel Macron is veering sharply rightward, shocking many of his supporters and raising questions about the boundaries of acceptable political discourse,” added Davidson, in an assessment widely accepted by French political pundits.
Only on Friday, a pact between Macron’s centrist party and France’s biggest conservative party to form an alliance against the far right in a southern battleground in June’s regional elections unravelled. The collapse of the agreement, which fell apart after an internal fight within the Les Republicains (LR) party, means a crowded field on the political right in Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur, an outcome likely to suit far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
As Reuters news agency highlighted, the pact had shown a recognition within Macron’s La Republique en Marche (LaRem) that it was too weak to win some regions on its own.
Analysts saw the manoeuvre as an effort by Macron’s camp, initially seen as centrist, to claim more political territory on the right, leaving the far right led by Marine Le Pen as his only significant opposition on that side of the spectrum.
Ever since being elected. Macron has tilted to the right, abandoning his “neither right nor left” approach to politics and pursuing right-wing policies on security, Islamism, and immigration.
The volatility within French politics and the significance of conservative and right-wing players was also thrown into sharp focus lately with the fallout from an open letter drafted by a former captain in the gendarmerie and signed by more than 2,000 former servicemen and women, among them several retired generals, who warned that France was in “peril” from “Islamism and the hordes from the suburbs”. The signatories said: “Those who run our country must imperatively find the needed courage to eradicate these dangers.”
Needless to say, Le Pen was quick to capitalise on the views expressed in the letter which was published on the 60th anniversary of the 1961 coup bid against Charles de Gaulle. It revealed, too, the potentially incendiary climate in French politics right now in which leaders appear willing to move to the right as far as is required for election or, in Macron’s case, re-election.
In such a climate even the most extremist right-wing groups feel emboldened in making their presence felt. Far removed from any election or ballot box, they prefer as they have done historically to take their politics to the streets. In that other European powerhouse, Germany, for example, last year saw a big jump in politically motivated crimes, with offences committed by far-right supporters hitting a record high.
Like France, Germany faces an even earlier national election – scheduled for September this year – in which security is emerging as a key political issue. German intelligence fears that far-right activists – as elsewhere – are trying to exploit public frustration over lockdowns imposed to halt the spread of Covid-19 to incite violence against state institutions. This, too, in a country where the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party already has a substantial presence in the political mainstream.
German police records show that far-right offences were up nearly 6% from the previous year at 23,064 and accounted for more than half of all politically motivated crimes, the highest level since police started collecting such data in 2001.
“These numbers are very alarming mainly because a trend has been established over the last few years,” said Germany’s interior minister Horst Seehofer last week. “During the pandemic we observed a further polarisation of the political discussion.”
Across Europe, these trigger-point issues of lockdown restrictions, immigration and religion all continue to fuel the prevalence of right-wing politics in Europe. Referring to the recent gains by the right in Spain, the UK-based political website, openDemocracy pointed out that the country is “no exception to the general rise of the extreme right across the world”.
“We may be less aware of the tremendous deterioration in democracy that has afflicted countries such as India, Brazil and the Philippines, but we can’t ignore the way the extreme right has grown stronger and stronger in Europe and the West,” openDemocracy warned.
While political analysts continue to rightly point out the importance of making distinctions between mainstream conservatism and far-right extremism, many admit this distinction is becoming increasingly blurred in Europe as it is elsewhere.
If, as the political writer K Biswas observed last year in The New York Times, the taboo on the far right in government has been comprehensively broken and mainstream parties appear happy to co-operate and accommodate what was once considered toxic, then Europe could prove to be turbulent place in the very near future.
Maybe Biswas is right that what began in Austria 20 years ago with Jorg Haider and his Freedom Party is “far from finished”.
If so, Europe, it would seem, has every reason to be more vigilant than ever.