Europe: The Rise of the Extreme Right

A supporter of far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders holds a poster supporting him outside the Amsterdam court where he's being tried on charges of inciting racial hatred Marcel Antonisse / AFP-Getty Images

Sweden has revealed the future direction of Europe, and not for the first time. For decades, Sweden led the way in defining the mixed model of free trade and social solidarity that became the European ideal. Not anymore. In the election this month Swedish voters joined their less successful EU neighbors in turning their backs on traditional politics, in which the pendulum swung between parties advocating more free trade and parties on the center left advocating more solidarity—but no further. Now even the solid Swedes have ushered in to Parliament a block of single-issue politicians obsessed with the perceived loss of national identity and angry about immigrants and other outsiders who supposedly threaten their Swedishness.

Thus the arrival of a new politics in Europe. A decade ago extremist politics was confined to fringes and street protests. It has now arrived as a parliamentary force and is beginning to change how other parties behave and speak. The binary politics between a Christian democratic right and social democratic left, with a small space for classic liberal parties, is now over. The world’s biggest democratic region, the 46 nation-states grouped in the Council of Europe, is now giving birth to a centrifugal politics with identity replacing class alignment. No single party or political formation can win control of the state and govern on the basis of a manifesto with majority support from voters. Even Britain requires a coalition to have a majority in the House of Commons. Belgium and the Netherlands still have not formed governments months after elections produced inconclusive results.

Postwar Europe had one great foe and one great friend to produce unity of political purpose, even if big parties battled over priorities. Social and Christian democrats were united against sovietism and Moscow’s proxy parties on the communist left. The United States allied itself to the moderate right and left to create NATO, support the suppression of nationalisms with the creation of the European Union, and wean Europeans away from protectionist economics in favor of open trade and competitive markets.

Now Europe no longer faces an agreed common threat, despite the best efforts of an Islamaphobe right to present Muslims as an alien invading force that must be confronted and contained. Nor is the United States an inspiration any longer. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been quagmired in their respective wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, from which most Europeans recoil with dismay. The recession and banking crisis are blamed on unregulated American free markets. Even the business minister for David Cameron’s new Conservative government, Vince Cable, was heard lashing out at the evils of capitalism and the “murky world” of corporate behavior at his party conference this month in Liverpool.

Without a common foe and without agreement that the Atlantic alliance is an overwhelming priority, politics in Europe has lost its moorings. The politics of Gemeinschaft (community) is replacing the politics of Gesellschaft (society). New communities of true believers are forming all over Europe. Those who trace their national woes to immigrants—or nuclear power, or the EU, or Muslims, or Jews, or market economics, or the United States—are uniting in new political communities, all of them harmful to society. To govern a society requires compromise and a choice of priorities. The guiding impulse of the new identity politics in Europe is to reject, to cry “No!”

Sweden now has to live with an ugly nationalist identity party, the Sweden Democrats, with 20 members of the Riksdag, the Swedish Parliament. Despite the pretty name, the Sweden Democrats are anti-immigration and anti-Muslim, and call for authoritarian solutions to Sweden’s growing social crisis. Swedish unemployment stands at 9 percent after four years of a center-right coalition led by Fredrik Reinfeldt. But high unemployment does not automatically mean a turn to the left. Swedish Social Democrats saw their vote slumped to 30 percent—the lowest in a century—and had never before lost two elections in a row.

The conversation among Social Democrats was typical of the disarray on the European left. The Swedish party leaders had begun talking to themselves, believing their own rhetoric when it was obvious fewer and fewer voters did. Traditionally the party was staunchly anticommunist and pro-industry, but it had drifted toward the fuzzy left, led by Mona Sahlin, a product of 1970s feminist-leftist politics. The party allied itself with a hard-left party and with the Greens, producing an election manifesto calling for more taxation and higher public spending. That platform was roundly rejected by voters. The middle classes liked the tax cuts offered by the center right. Many in the dwindling Swedish working class turned to the new Democrats of the hard right.

The decay of the centrist ruling parties is being hastened by European electoral systems based on the 19th-century philosophy of proportional representation, which allows even small parties to gain a share of the seats in Parliament. This is now preventing any coherent leadership from emerging in Europe. Each movement or group can create its own party to maintain its electoral purity. Recent elections fought under variations of proportional representation have seen the rise of nationalist and anti-immigrant parties into national parliaments. Some parties, like Jobbik, which also calls itself “The Movement for a Better Hungary,” are anti-Semitic. The nationalist right in East Europe seeks to downplay the Holocaust by comparing the crimes of European communism with the industrialized extermination of Jews in Nazi death camps.

Voters’ support for the extreme right in Europe can no longer be downplayed as a marginal, country-specific phenomenon. The world’s biggest democratic region is now the breeding ground for extreme-right politics. The most recent election totals are 11.9 percent in France (National Front); 8.3 percent in Italy (Northern League); 15.5 percent in the Netherlands (Geert Wilders’s Dutch Freedom Party); 28.9 percent in Switzerland (Swiss People’s Party); 16.7 percent in Hungary (Jobbik); and 22.9 percent in Norway (Progress Party). There are also significant parties of the extreme right in Belgium, Latvia, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Most of these parties have either seen significant gains since 2000, or did not even exist a decade ago. The fall of parliamentary seats into extremist hands represents the biggest shake-up in European politics since the disappearance of communism. In all these cases, the latest vote totals represent an increase between 5 and 15 percent since the beginning of the century. Most of these parties have seen significant gains since 2000, or did not even exist a decade ago. This support from voters has reduced considerably the mandate to govern of traditional parties and eroded the self-confidence of the once dominant formations of post-war politics.

Nor can this new politics be quarantined. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy, searching for a populist boost to his fading political fortunes, launched a campaign of angry criticism and forcible expulsions against the Roma minority. Even many backers of Sarkozy were shocked by the crudeness of rounding up an ethnic minority for deportation. One European commissioner, Viviane Reding from Luxembourg, compared Sarkozy’s expulsion of the Roma to the expulsion of the Jews in World War II, and came close to calling Sarkozy a Nazi, provoking a suitably angry rebuttal from the French president. But there is no question that the spectacle of a centrist like Sarkozy playing to the fringe is a harbinger of more to come. Germany’s Social Democrats, a traditional party of the center left, are playing on the same fears by accusing Chancellor Angela Merkel of failing to speed up compulsory integration for immigrants. Even Britain’s new coalition government, which is not racist or extreme, has pushed through a savage limit on foreigners being allowed to work in Britain. Despite squeals from employers worried about such crude protectionism, David Cameron has to throw some anti-foreigner, anti-immigrant red meat to voters who last year sent two far-right British National Party politicians to the European Parliament.

The decline of the ruling parties undermines the entire European project. Having spent a decade fretting and fussing over its constitution, the EU elites in Brussels have no answer to the slow disintegration of national political parties. The project of building a united Europe requires national parties that can command majority support, including support for granting greater powers to the EU elite, which has yet to command much respect on its own. The inward-looking, infighting Brussels governing class regulates a weak regional economy that now has 23 million unemployed, and no plan of attack. No commissioners ever lose their job, no matter how crude or incompetent they are. Europe now has three presidents—for its Commission, Council, and Parliament—but no leadership.

The EU leadership gap creates another easy target of opportunity for the extreme right, which is adept at exploiting the resentments stirred by economic decline. In the years of strong European growth in the 1960s, foreign workers were seen as adding value to national economies, but now they are blamed for stealing jobs. And the EU’s newly opened borders are blamed for letting in the outsiders. Nationwide rightist parties go on the attack. And regional communities like Catalan, Flemish, or Scottish nationalists reject staying within Spain, Belgium, or the United Kingdom. The dreams that a common European economic and social liberalism would replace the old atavisms of nation-first politics are on hold.

Voters looking to community and identity are shaping a new politics in Europe. Those who think the new populist right is taking politics back to prewar fascism are too alarmist. Europe’s democracy remains strong, perhaps just too strong, as political parties fragment and the din of competing voices grows louder. The myth of “Eurabia,” or the takeover of Europe by Muslims, is a myth for the same reasons. The majority of Europe’s 20 million Muslims aspire to integrate into a middle-class European lifestyle, and while their numbers are growing, in no nation are they on track to become anything more than just another small minority community. What Europe needs is a confident leadership that can unite its splintering communities behind a vision that can say more than no.

Join the Discussion