Far-right trends in Europe
An overview of the recent wave of far-right discourses changing Europe’s political landscape
Table of Contents
1. Introduction and status of research...............................................................................................1
2. Definition and history of the far-right ............................................................................................3
3. Recent far-right trends and their possible explanations in Europe and in the EU.. ......................5
3.3 Austria.................................................................................................................................. 11
3.4 Italy...................................................................................................................................... 13
3.5 Other trend-setting countries in Europe................................................................................15
4. Opportunities for counter-strategies........................................................................................17
5. Conclusions and outlook.........................................................................................................20
List of references.............................................................................................................................23
This paper accounts for the most recent trends in European politics towards right-wing populism. It provides an overall picture of the development and dynamics of far-right parties and discourses in Germany, France, Austria and Italy, as well as in countries of Central-Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and the Balkans. Country-specific drivers of such parties and movements will be discussed, together with their effects on the political landscape of Europe. Various strategies and opportunities for combating the new wave of the far-right will also be offered.
1. Introduction and status of research
In recent electoral cycles, a new wave of support for populist radical-right policies, particularly in the immigration arena, has reshaped the political landscape in Europe. These policies vary from country to country, but generally share several common ideological attributes: a sense of nationalism, authoritarian attitudes, populism, exclusionism, xenophobia, a strong leadership and a quest for a strong state, welfare chauvinism, revisionism, traditional ethics and the distrust of elites (Mudde, 2007, p. 21). Since 2013, several countries in Europe, including Germany, France, Austria, Italy, Hungary, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Greece (among others) have witnessed right-wing populist parties sweeping both national and local elections (Doroshenko, 2018, p. 3186). And although candidates who espouse far-right positions have achieved only limited electoral success – with notable exceptions that include Austria in 2017 and Italy and Hungary in 2018 –, this ideology has had an unduly large influence on the formation of the European Union, as well as on political agendas and priorities of mainstream parties. While it is too soon to tell when, or if, this current wave will lose steam, it is a crucial moment to examine the broader societal and historical drivers underpinning radical right trends’ success. For this reason, recent far-right trends in Europe will be presented and discussed together with their historical aspects, including the cases of Germany, France, Austria and Italy; as well as trend-setting countries in Central-Eastern Europe, in Scandinavia and the Balkans (see 3.).
Mudde (2016) states that the populist radical- or far-right is by far the best-studied party family within political science (p. 2) with a still increasing academic interest in the field (as figure 1 shows), which has accompanied its recent success all around Europe.
Mudde (2016) differentiates between three academically distinct waves of scholarship of far-right parties since 1945. The first wave lasted roughly from 1945 until 1980, was mostly historical and descriptive, and focused on the historical continuity between the pre-war and post-war periods (p. 3). The second wave of studies (roughly 1980-2000) saw an infusion of social science literature, in particular various forms of modernization theories (ebd., p. 3f.); with scholars trying to understand why populist radical right parties could be successful in modern democracies (e.g. Betz, 1994; Kitschelt & McGann, 1995). While the second wave focused exclusively on the demand-side, the third wave – taking off in 2000 – started to study the supply-side of far-right politics (ebd., p. 4) and to bring the party back into the equation (e.g. Art, 2011). Moreover, scholars no longer only tried to explain their electoral success, but started to investigate their effects as well (e.g. Williams, 2006).
Mudde (2016) underlines at this point that for most of the postwar period, the study of populist radical right parties has been held back by the limited relevance of the phenomenon: Despite huge academic and non-academic interest, until the beginning of the 21st century only few European countries had political parties that were relatively successful (p. 14). However, in line with the emergence of a fourth wave of far-right politics (see 2.), a new wave of scholarship appeared as well, making the field become part of mainstream political science and dominate the broader research on party families (ebd., p. 4).
Not unlike other topics in comparative politics, the study of far-right parties is primarily focused on the big states of Western Europe (ebd.). Several new books on populist radical right parties in Central and Eastern Europe, however, have been published in the previous years within the framework of the fourth wave of scholarship.
2. Definition and history of the far-right
There is a lack of a shared definition among scholars. Terms such as extreme right (Caiani & Parenti, 2013), radical right (Caiani, Della Porta, & Wagemann, 2012), right-wing populism (Mudde, 2007), right-wing extremism (Wolf, 2016), anti-immigration movements and far-right (Ellinas, 2010) are employed on the basis of a range of different interpretations of the phenomenon and depending on geographical area. Some scholars (e.g. Carter, 2005) define right-wing extremism (and ‘extreme right’) using two criteria: anti-constitutionalism and anti-democratic values (it is for this reason it is called ‘extremist’), and a rejection of the principle of fundamental human equality (hence the label ‘right-wing’). Others (e.g. Norris, 2005) prefer the label ‘radical right’ in denoting those political parties and non-party organizations located towards one pole on the standard ideological left–right spectrum.
This paper employs the term ‘far-right’ as an umbrella term referring to the same family of organizations. This political family is, as explained by Mudde (2007), identified in the literature by some common ideological attributes, such as nationalism, authoritarian attitudes, populism, strong leadership, xenophobia and revisionism, among others (p. 21). Caiani (2017) points out that these ideological views are usually associated, empirically, with various political movements and groups in Europe (p. 2); such as the German Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the French Front National (FN), the Austrian Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ), the Italian Lega and Five-Star Movement, the Hungarian Jobbik and newly the Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Alliance), the Sweden Democrats (SD), the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), the Polish Law and Justice (PiS), the British National Party (BNP), the Greek Golden Dawn, the Danish People’s Party (DF), the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) and the Belgian Vlaams Belang (VB) (for a classification and some lists see Mudde, 2007, p. 44).
Mudde (2007) identifies a minimum and a maximum definition of this party family’s ideology. The minimum definition suggests nationalism as the central idea of far-right parties (p. 16f.): Far-right parties’ ideology is rooted in the defense of national interest, thus their core mission is to protect national sovereignty from globalizing forces, which they see as a threat to each nation-state’s independence and right to self-determination (Vasilopoulou, 2018, p. 6). According to Mudde’s (2007) maximum definition, far-right parties may also be defined by their authoritarianism (p. 22). According to Altemeyer (1981), “the right-wing authoritarian believes authorities should be trusted to a relatively great extent, and that they are owed obedience and respect. [...] Criticism of authority is viewed as divisive and destructive” (p. 151). Altemeyer also points out that right-wing authoritarians are predisposed to control the behavior of others through punishment (ebd., p. 153). The third and final core feature of far-right parties is populism (Mudde, 2007, p. 23). Populist actors differentiate the ‘common people’ from the ‘corrupt elite’, claiming to speak on behalf of the people by arguing that politics should be an expression of the ‘volonté générale’ (general will) of the society (ebd.).
The current iteration of anti-immigrant, radical-right populism in Europe has existed and endured for decades, with varying degrees of success (Schain, 2018, p. 1.). Ever since the end of the Second World War, revisionist ideologies have circulated and been taken on board by neo-Nazi or far-right parties (Wodak, KhosraviNik, & Mral, 2013, p. xvii).
The German political scientist Klaus von Beyme (1988) distinguished between three chronologically and ideologically different waves of right-wing extremism in Western Europe after World War II. From 1945 to the mid-1950s, within the nostalgic wave, far-right parties in Germany and Italy were marginalized and their ideologies were discredited due to the recent existence and defeat of Nazism (p. 8f.). Thus, in the years immediately following World War II, the main objective of far-right parties was survival, without the expectation of achieving a real political impact. From the mid-1950s to the 1970s, within the framework of the anti-tax and anti-welfare state wave (Poujadist wave; found mostly in France), far-right parties drew charismatic leaders to them, whose profound mistrust of the political establishment led to an "us-versus-them" mindset (ebd., p. 10f.): "us" being the nation's citizenry (the ‘common people’; see populism above), "them" being the politicians and bureaucrats who were then in office (the ‘corrupt elite’; see populism above). The pan-European trend, beginning in the 1980s, is the most significant of the three waves. Within this wave, the electoral successes of far-right political candidates made it possible for far-right parties to revitalize anti-immigration as a mainstream issue (ebd., p. 11f.). Widfeldt (2010) finds it appropriate to add a fourth phase to the classification of von Beyme, which is characterized by increased legitimacy and political influence for extreme right parties since the beginning of the 21st century (p. 7). He states that the fourth phase has far-reaching potential political and societal consequences (ebd.). The way how recent far-right trends of the fourth wave are shaping the political landscape of Europe, as well as the EU, is reviewed below.
3. Recent far-right trends and their possible explanations in Europe and in the EU
Much research in the social sciences provides evidence for the current, fourth wave of right-wing populist movements and related political parties in the most EU member states. On the one hand, neo-Nazi movements are to be observed in the form of extreme far-right parties; on the other, a salient shift is occurring in the forms and styles of political rhetoric of right-wing populist and even mainstream right-wing parties which could be labelled the Haiderization of politics (Wodak et al., 2013, p. xvii).
Already the results of the elections to the European Parliament in June 2009 manifest a significant growth in right-wing extremist (and populist) parties, and thus related MEPs. For example, the British BNP, the Austrian FPÖ, the Dutch PVV, the Hungarian Jobbik and the Danish DF have won over 10% of national votes. These election campaigns were accompanied by – sometimes indirect, usually quite explicit – xenophobic, racist and antisemitic propaganda in the respective nation-states (Wodak et al., 2013, p. xviii). The results of the last European Elections of 2014 further confirmed the rise of right and far-right populist parties across the EU. The success of a range of parties, such as the Danish DF, Slovenia’s SDS, France’s FN, Greece’s Golden Dawn, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), The Five-Star Movement in Italy and the Austrian FPÖ, has been perceived as a political wave which is transforming the face of the European Parliament, and challenging at some level the hegemony of the “big four”; well-established European political forces that lead the Strasbourg’s assembly: the EPP, the S&D, the ALDE and the Greens/ALE (Lazaridis, Campani, & Benveniste, 2016, p. 2).
At this point it is important to mention that establishing boundaries between far-right parties and mainstream right-wing parties has become significantly complicated by the rise of populist radical right politics in Europe, i.e. nationalist, authoritarian, and populist discourses and policies from mostly mainstream parties (Mudde, 2016, p. 15). For example, as a consequence of the political debates around the Eurozone crisis and refugee crisis in 2015, it is almost impossible to use Euroscepticism and opposition to immigration as ideological features that set populist radical right parties apart from mainstream right-wing ones. Mudde posed the question in 2016 that if scholars insist on including West European borderline parties such as the Progress Party (FrP) in Norway and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in their research on the far-right, than how can they exclude much more radical East Central European parties like Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Alliance) in Hungary and Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland (ebd.)?
 The so-called Haiderization of Europe, a label drawing on the name of the former leader of the FPÖ, Jörg Haider, indicates the rise of right-wing populist parties in several EU member states (such as Austria, Belgium, Hungary, etc.) since the end of the twentieth century. These parties, which claim to speak for ‘the people’ and to oppose those in power, frequently endorse chauvinist and nativist ideologies which may lead to an overall ‘politics of fear’ (Wodak et al., 2013, p. xviii).
In terms of the key drivers for mobilizing on the far-right, several factors can be taken into consideration. While the current popularity of populist radical-right policies in Europe can be traced to major shifts in immigration patterns, this relationship is intertwined with other socioeconomic, geopolitical, and historical factors (Schain, 2018, p. 4). Schain (2018) mentions four key drivers of support for far-right parties, including economic instability; migration crises; anxiety about immigrant integration and the diversity dilemma; as well as politics and voter realignment. Economic instability, as Schain writes, is a key factor, since far-right parties often build on the dissatisfaction of citizens with EU regulations, or on national governments’ loss of control (p. 6). Migration crises, as well as anxiety about immigrant integration are significant elements of the support for far-right, underpinned by the fear of terrorism. These feelings of insecurity are a result of a series of terrorist attacks in Europe and in the United States, which – even despite very few of them having been perpetrated by asylum seekers or jihadists – heighten locals’ concerns about immigrant integration (ebd., p. 9). Finally, politics and voter realignment, in other words voters’ dissatisfaction with the functioning of mainstream parties and democratic institutions, can foster support for right-wing populism. Schain mentions that this distrust and frustration might be spurred by the recent economic crisis (ebd., p. 10).
Doroshenko (2018) states that the increasing popularity of the far-right in Europe since the 2000s has occurred alongside the commercialization of media markets, the proliferation of online news sources, media populism, and the mediatization of politics (p. 3186). Ellinas (2010) suggests that media should be treated as a political resource for disseminating information to national publics (p. 31), including roles of setting the political agenda, framing issues, priming audiences and, under some circumstances, persuading (ebd., p. 30). The author therefore argues that the disproportionate success of some of the mentioned far-right parties could be explained by the excessive exposure that these groups receive in the media (ebd., p. 21). Hence, it can be stated that far-right extremism is overly reliant on media-savvy populism, as well as charismatic personalities (Wodak et al., 2013, p. xviii). Wodak et al. (2013) also underline that a ‘media-democracy’ is being currently developed throughout Europe, in which the individual, media-savvy performance of politics seems to be more important than the political process (p. xvii). Accordingly, the authors point out that politics becomes simplified and dumped down to a few slogans apparently comprehensible to the broad public at large (ebd.), which can offer an explanation for the success of far-right parties who employ charismatic personalities for spreading such simplified populist messages.
While general trends in European politics towards the right-wing are visible across the continent, the specific characteristics of various European countries, that is, their history, along with political and social aspects, also play a significant role in each case (Wodak et al., 2013, p. xix). In the following, current far-right trends within the fourth wave of right-wing extremism will be examined in Germany, France, Austria and Italy, taking the countries’ historical and political features into account. Trend-setting countries elsewhere in Europe will also be looked at.
After reunification and throughout the 1990s, Germany saw a new wave of right-wing extremism: not in electoral successes on the federal level – although the right-wing extremist NPD (National Democratic Party of Germany) in particular was successfully elected in some regions – but in violence against minorities and the different minded. The certainty that many others in Germany feel the same about asylum seekers and foreigners in general is a central motive of (violent) extremists (Kiess, Decker, & Brähler, 2016, p. 1f.). Although the German far-right has not managed to gain national legislative representation until 2017, right-wing attitudes were and are quite widespread throughout the general population, as the University Leipzig’s “Middle-studies” commissioned by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation have regularly attested (Schellenberg, 2013, p. 7). Also the fact that a right-wing terrorist organization like the so-called „National Socialist Underground“ (NSU), uncovered in 2011, could take root in Germany signals that there is growing potential for social, religious, and ethnic conflict in the country. Certain specific dimensions of misanthropic thinking, such as antisemitism, xenophobia, chauvinism, and Islamophobia, have indeed grown among some segments of the population recently (especially as a consequence of the migrant crisis in 2015): Germany reported that the number of violent antisemitic attacks had surged by more than 60% in 2018 (Henley, 2019, para. 1). The far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party has been widely accused of fomenting hate against refugees, Muslims and Jews.
Perhaps the most prominent success story for far-right populism in Germany is that of the mentioned AfD’s electoral victory in the 2017 Bundestag elections. Even though Merkel retained her grip on power for the foreseeable future, this grip is now weakening. Her popularity had already been waning since her decision to open up Germany’s borders to migrants in 2015, but now even her party is losing popularity as the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union in Bavaria, also known together as Union, lost a total of 65 seats in the 2017 elections. Two parties, the liberal Free Democratic Party and far-right AfD respectively won 80 and 94 seats after never having previous Bundestag representation.
In a book titled “How Democracies Die,” published by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, it is detailed that liberal systems haven’t been overthrown by force and coups alone, but by non-violent elections of anti-democratic politicians and parties (“How the Alternative for Germany Has Transformed the Country”, 2018, para. 11). AfD’s sudden success is a result of a slow takeover from within, starting at state legislatures to gain more widespread support (they only won 1 state [Saxony] outright, but the majority of their seats were won by the second vote, that being the party list vote). This takeover is a result of the changing political landscape of Germany, a microcosm of the bigger European picture. It used to be a balance of power between the left and right (Social Democrats and Christian Democrats), but those days are now behind Germany, making way for an identity-based political system. This has scrambled up the party system, something that AfD has taken advantage of (ebd., para. 15): They took advantage of the frustration with the German establishment’s complacency, a frustration shared by many Germans regardless of political affiliations. After the elections in 2017, one of the top Google searches was “Who voted for AfD?”. The answer was, actually a lot of former CDU supporters. Over 1 million Germans who voted for CDU in 2013 voted for AfD in 2017 (Souris, 2017, para. 2). This was a rejection of Merkel, her policies, and her definition of conservatism. Those on the right in Germany felt left behind as CDU moved more to the left to strengthen the “Grand Coalition” between CDU/CSU and SPD, creating a power vacuum on the right; AfD was poised to fill this void because of their anti-political correctness and breaking down of rhetorical taboos, something many Germans have been looking for in their elected leaders. Many call AfD’s success a protest vote by those Germans who feel excluded from the economic success of the country (ebd., para. 12). The areas of the former East Germany voted overwhelmingly for AfD. However, these areas traditionally supported the Left Party because the popularity of the Left Party’s social and economic assistance policies that support the lagging east German development. While AfD doesn’t offer such a platform, many in the former East feel that German policies favor refugees rather than Germans, so AfD’s populist racism offers someone to blame (ebd.). This relates back to the death of the old way of German politics – the left-right balance of power – because AfD is using identity-based politics, highlighting the German identity.
The breaking down of political taboos is what kept the far-right party in the national conversation because whenever an AfD politician breaks a taboo, many media outlets will report on it. This comes in the form of political incorrectness, generally in relation to socially conservative and xenophobic rhetoric (Peters, n.d., para. 3). Therefore, some blame the German media for the current right-wing wave (Knight, 2018, para. 12). AfD’s quick but steady rise is thanks to its calculated provocation of the media in order to continue being nationally relevant. Political scientist Florian Hartleb said of AfD’s media-baiting strategy that “there is this taboo-breaking logic: you say something baldly provocative, then you say it was just a misunderstanding, then you go one step further.” “It doesn’t help any more to just blame the voters of the AfD. It doesn’t help to say that these are neo-Nazis,” he says (ebd.).
Recent elections in German states show that the winners are those that are undivided over migration (Greens and AfD); leaving only the choices of being for or against the issue. Hartleb believes that this is the direction that German political debate is going in. Greens and AfD will represent the poles, with a few other parties getting perhaps 10-15% in the middle (ebd., para. 13). Germany’s political scene is being redrawn, and the establishment needs to adjust whether it be CDU/CSU or SPD. They cannot hope to have continued success if they spread themselves too broadly on the issues. AfD markets themselves as the alternative to the establishment (they literally are Alternative for Germany), which works in their favor when the establishment doesn’t seem committed to the people.
Antisemitism is rising sharply across France as well: In 2018, the country reported a 74% increase in the number of offences against Jews (Henley, 2019, para. 1). The issue of antisemitism has taken center stage in the country in the beginning of 2019, following a number of violent attacks. President Emmanuel Macron even said that it was at its worst level since the second world war. The recent ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests) movement has also been infiltrated by this fanaticism: While the movement as a whole is not antisemitic, extremist groups, both far-right and far-left, have effectively co-opted it, turning it into a platform for a range of hateful narratives (Guerin, 2019, para. 1).
Some scholars find that the roots of French antisemitism go back to Front National, a party founded in 1972 by former militant neo-fascists. The FN began to rise when Jean-Marie Le Pen became its leader in 1984. The party’s electoral breakthrough in the mid-1980s has been explained with reference to issues relating to the growing number of migrants and ethnic minorities in France (Carvalho, 2017, p. 91). The political group’s first climax was the presidential election in 2002 when Le Pen competed against and finished a distant second to Chirac in the second ballot. The FN’s party program is, in short, ethnocentric, anti-system and xenophobic. Le Pen’s scandalous racist and antisemitic statements created media exposure but also added to the trivialization of such comments at the same time (Wolf, 2016, p. 152).
Le Pen’s daughter Marine, even despite being characterized as a charismatic leader just as her father, tried to present the party more moderately after taking over the party chair in 2011 (ebd.). Contrary to her father achieving media coverage through scandals, Marine Le Pen lives in a symbiosis with the media (ebd., p. 153): She behaves appropriately and moderately and therefore is stylized as a “media darling”. She tries to focus the party on herself as the brand essence, whereas her father had the party focused on him by building hierarchic and authoritarian structures within the party. The FN is therefore still in a strong structural position, and, due to several suborganizations, the degree of organization is high (ebd.).
Jean-Marie Le Pen has always supported the French collaborators and has represented their traditions. His daughter, on the other hand, puts herself in the tradition of the French Résistance, criticizing the German occupying force and the collaborating militia. In contrast to her father who once called the Holocaust “just a detail in the history of the Second World War” (DER SPIEGEL, 1987; translation by Wolf, 2016, p. 153), Marine Le Pen does not belittle the Holocaust in public and does not openly state her belief in racial inequality. Even though Marine Le Pen denounces Muslims just as her father did, she mainly focuses the party program much more on subjects like national identity, migration, EU criticism, security and more social-political economy (Wolf, 2016, p. 153).
During Jean-Marie Le Pen’s leadership, the Front National was anti-system – because of him believing in racial inequality and being ready to openly state this against the principles of the République. However, since Marine’s leadership, the party changed to an anti-establishment stance. Yet an extensive ideology never existed. Contrary to her father, Marine Le Pen is not revisionist, nor does she see the party in a fascist or Nazi tradition. Jean-Marie Le Pen always tried to change the people’s attitude in order to get more support; his daughter, on the other hand, is ready to change the program in case of declining votes (ebd.).
This shows that during Jean-Marie’s leadership, the Front National was more right-wing extremist than today, with Marine presenting the party more moderately (ebd.). This lead to the popularity of the FN continuing to grow as the party won several municipalities at the 2014 municipal elections; it became the topped the poll in France at the 2014 European elections with 25% of the vote; and again won more votes than any other party in the 2015 departmental elections (Scarpetta, 2015, para. 1). The party once again came in first place in the 2015 regional elections with a historic result of just under 28% of the vote (Bonnefoy, 2015, para. 1). By 2015, the FN had established itself as one of the largest political forces in France (Lichfield, 2015, para. 1).
However, despite the efforts of Marine Le Pen to make the far-right FN palatable to France's mainstream, she was comprehensively defeated by Emmanuel Macron for the presidency in May 2017. Since their loss in the presidential election, the FN suffered an underwhelming result in parliamentary elections, winning a small handful of seats while Macron's party dominated (“Europe and nationalism: A country-by-country guide”, 2018, para. 30). In June 2018, the party has renamed itself as the National Rally, with Marine Le Pen saying she would seek to gain power through forming coalitions with allies (ebd., para. 34).
The fact that a recent Al Jazeera investigation has revealed that at least two members of Generation Identity (GI), a French anti-Muslim youth movement, held political posts at Marine Le Pen's National Rally (“How the violent far right infiltrated France's National Rally”, 2018, para. 2), questions if Marine’s intention of softening the xenophobic and racist image, to broaden its appeal with voters, are authentic.
According to Eurobarometer data from November 2017, 28% of Austrians regard immigration as one of the two most important issues facing the country – this is higher than at any time between 2005 and May 2015, before the intensification of the ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe. No other issue was picked more often (Weisskircher, 2018, para. 12). The currently ruling right-wing populist party in a coalition with the Austrian People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP), the Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreich, FPÖ), has been accused of spreading xenophobic and nationalist messages.
The FPÖ was founded in the 1950s and goes back to the German NSDAP and its Austrian predecessor organizations. With a rather liberal economic focus, the party gained 5-7% of the votes on average (Wolf, 2016, p. 155). After Jörg Haider took over the chair in 1986, the FPÖ became a more popular party. Haider repositioned the party politically by stopping the liberal and the German Nationalist (Deutschdational) focus that used to be ideologically quite consistent and replacing it with a populist agenda (ebd.). Under Haider’s authoritarian leadership, the party constantly gained votes and finally formed a coalition with the conservative Austrian People’s Party in 2000. The legislative period was rather difficult for the latter (since Haider was still acting like a member of the opposition), which resulted in the failing of the coalition and the weakening of the FPÖ (ebd.). The whole leadership left the party in 2005 and founded a new party called Alliance Future Austria (Bündnis Zukunft Österreich, BZÖ). Heinz-Christian Strache became the new leader of the FPÖ and soon restored the party to its former strength by rethinking the party’s marketing and communication strategies, focusing on an increased mediatization (Krzyzanowski, 2013, p. 140). The party’s increase of votes was followed by a further boost in popularity which coincided with a significant weakening of the BZÖ’s popularity after Jörg Haider’s death in 2008 (ebd.).
Under Strache’s leadership, the FPÖ has presented itself as anti-European, nationalist-patriotic and xenophobic, with Muslims being the main target of the party’s extensive rhetoric. Furthermore, some of the FPÖ’s functionaries attracted major (media) attention with revisionist statements. As an example, Wolfgang Frölich, an important party functionary, published a book explaining why the Jews could not have died in gas chambers for simple physical reasons (Wolf, 2016, p. 155). In terms of media exposure, the party’s infamous ‘isolated cases’ (‘Einzelfälle’) also attract attention. These cases are regular instances of racist, discriminatory, or otherwise highly controversial actions and statements by FPÖ politicians, or close relationships to individuals or groups engaging in such behavior (Weisskircher, 2018, para. 8). For example, Udo Landbauer, a leading FPÖ candidate at the 2018 regional election in Lower Austria, had been a key member of a fraternity whose song books included antisemitic lyrics (ebd.).
Recently, the FPÖ has been experiencing a relatively steady increase in support, winning 20.5% of the vote in the 2013 legislative election (McLaughlin, 2013, para. 3). In the 2016 presidential election, FPÖ member Norbert Hofer won the first round, receiving 35.1%, but was defeated by The Greens' candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, 53.8% against 46.2%, in the final run-off (Oltermann, 2016, para. 7). In 2017, new chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP, gaining 32% of the voite), had ended the coalition with the Social Democrats in order to form a right-wing coalition with the FPÖ (winning 26% of the vote) after fresh elections. In order to gain voters from the FPÖ electorate, Sebastian Kurz embarked on an aggressive anti-immigrant and anti-refugee election campaign that stigmatized Muslims. He borrowed rhetorical figures both from the Austrian FPÖ and from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (Becker, 2017, para. 4).
The new government of the ÖVP and FPÖ in Austria opens the way towards radicalized neo-liberal economic and social policies (ebd.). Both parties continued to keep the issues of immigration and integration salient, with this focus being directly linked to welfare state measures (Weisskircher, 2018, para. 5). For example, the coalition agreed to lower minimal social security for individuals with limited or no German language skills. Moreover, parents who work in Austria will soon receive family allowances that are dependent on the living costs in their children’s places of residence (ebd.). For many Eastern European citizens working in Austria this leads or will lead to a substantial decrease in their disposable income. The government also reduced funding for integration measures. In addition, the ÖVP and FPÖ decided to shut down seven mosques which were accused of being close to ‘radical’ political Islam, besides announcing plans to ban children from wearing head scarves in kindergarten and elementary school (ebd.).
One reason for the persistence of the new government’s popularity is, as seen through the examples, its ownership of the immigration issue (Weisskircher, 2018, para. 12). Another one, though difficult to measure, is the lack of open conflict between the two government parties – Its key members have abstained from publicly criticizing each other. This is in stark contrast to the previous ‘Grand Coalition’ of the SPÖ and the ÖVP in 2000, where both sides frequently attacked their ‘partner’. Now the ÖVP, including chancellor Kurz, mainly keeps silent on some of the controversies surrounding FPÖ politicians mentioned above (ebd.).
Italy represents an interesting case in respect to European neo-fascism: it is the country where fascism was first implemented in 1922 (even if the theoretical background has broad European dimension, namely in France and Germany), serving as a model for other experiences, and it is, at the same time, the country whose national narrative is founded on the Resistenza – the Resistance to fascism and Nazism (Campani & Sauer, 2016, p. 39f.).
The current state of Italian populism has taken the form of the alliance between Lega (previously Lega Nord) and the Five-Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle). After Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was forced out during the 2011 Eurozone crisis and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi resigned following a referendum failure, Italy was brought into a chaotic environment that led to Italians looking towards new and old populists as an alternative to the establishment they have become so disenchanted with. This ‘bipolar populism’ in Italy raises questions about the country’s role in an increasingly Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant European Union (Vinciguerra, 2018, para. 3).
The Five-Star Movement (hereby M5S) is appealing to the desire for a radical change in Italian politics. After the change in leadership from Beppe Grillo to Luigi Di Maio, the party has walked back on earlier statements about some of the most recent European issues including migration and EU membership. This is in the effort to use its moderation in order to appeal to a broader audience of younger, more educated voters (ebd., para. 5).
M5S is quite heterogeneous, being an opportunist party that runs online which takes different positions depending on the city. While it is tied to the anti-immigrant policy of the coalition with Lega, the party itself generally stays quiet on the matter. This brings into question its level of cohesion within the party. M5S relies on its opposition to establishment parties, a factor which has widespread support, especially in the South (Mertz, 2018, para. 8).
Lega, on the other hand, focuses on the populist issues of the far-right. However, it started off as a catch-all party similar to M5S, based on regionalism. They would hit on both center/center-right policies such as deregulation and left-wing policies such as workers’ rights, yet buttressed by distancing the North from the once crime-ridden South, hence the original name of Lega Nord (Vinciguerra, 2018, para. 6). Over the years, it transformed itself into a right-wing populist party focusing on crime and immigration, becoming what many see as Italy’s strongest anti-immigrant party. Other than the sometimes racist and Islamophobic rhetoric, the party is generally center-right. Though, it does take a stand for environmentalism, welfare and austerity at times, which explains its cooperation with the generally more ‘green’ M5S (Terry, 2014, para. 8).
Italian populism is unique. Both parties in the coalition took advantage of the discontent within Italy with the previous failures of the establishment. And although they find themselves in two different sections of Italian Parliament, their policies end up finding some overlap. Italians feel better represented with this ‘catch-all bipolar’ coalition which has broken the outdated left-right political mold.
3.5 Other trend-setting countries in Europe
Trend-setting, emerging far-right parties and discourses in other European countries are also worth to mention. In Hungary, since the second Orbán government was elected in 2010, the political landscape has been characterized by the permanent presence of a populist right-wing party (Fidesz) and an extreme right-wing party (Jobbik). However, Jobbik and Fidesz have practically traded places as a consequence of two parallel tendencies: Fidesz’s shift to the right and Jobbik’s turn towards the center (Kreko, 2017, p. 2). First, Fidesz has been gradually shifting to an increasingly authoritarian, illiberal right-wing position, which accelerated in 2015 at the beginning of the refugee crisis: Hungary was the first country to close its borders when around one million refugees arrived on European territory (“Prejudice and Pride in Hungary: Inside the Far Right”, 2018, para. 1).
Viktor Orbán is the only political leader in Central and Eastern Europe who is not just constructing an illiberal regime, using Russia as a model, but also proudly labels it ‘illiberal’. Consequently, Fidesz became a genuine far-right party as it put xenophobia at the heart of its politics (Kreko, 2017, p. 2). Even though the number of migrants entering Europe has dropped drastically to pre-2015 levels, Orbán continues to hammer on the issue and to allege a globalist conspiracy against his administration (Robins-Early, 2018, para. 12); causing his domestic support to stay strong. In 2018, the Fidesz-KDNP coalition repeatedly won a landslide two-thirds majority in Hungary’s Parliament (see further under 4.). Following Fidesz’ success, the new management close to Orbán took over a prominent Hungarian news television channel, Hír TV; cementing the party’s dominance of the media (Dunai, 2018, para. 1).
Hungary’s Prime Minister now finds himself among a like-minded group of far-right politicians; including Italy’s powerful interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who recently turned away a ship of migrants in need of humanitarian assistance and wants to expel thousands of Roma people from the country (Robins-Early, 2018, para. 6). Other European politicians condemned Orbán’s policies and accused him of violating the EU’s principles. Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt gave a heated speech in the European Parliament in 2015 attacking Orbán, while European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker jokingly greeted him with “Hello, dictator” at an earlier summit (ebd., para. 11). Most recently, the center-right's top candidate to lead the EU after the May election, Manfred Weber, has threatened to eject Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán from the EPP if he did not curb his anti-European behavior (Zalan, 2019, para. 1).
At the same time, Jobbik has gradually been moving towards the center since 2013. The leader of the party elected in 2006, Gábor Vona – who gave the party momentum by expressing hatred against Roma and politicians, and formed the party’s paramilitary wing, the Hungarian Guard – decided to bring his party closer to the political mainstream, hoping to be able to replace Fidesz after the 2018 general election. The party, following the examples of the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen (and Serbian President Alexander Vucic), was successfully and substantially rebranded in a few years (Kreko, 2017, p. 2). Following the 2018 parliamentary election, Gábor Vona resigned, due to his earlier promises that he would do so if he could not lead the party to victory on the elections (“Hongrie: le chef du parti Jobbik démissionne”, 2018, para. 1). In May 2018, the party elected Tamás Sneider as the president and Márton Gyöngyösi as the executive vice-president of Jobbik. The Hungarian press evaluated the new presidency as a victory of the moderate politicians (Rovo & Bohus, 2018, para. 8).
One of the more peculiar far-right populist movements is that of the Sweden Democrats, the far-right populist movement with roots in the neo-Nazi movement (Calamur, 2018, para. 2). Having been the face of social democracy in Europe for so long, it is interesting to see even Sweden facing a far-right surge. Generally, the rise of the right in Europe can be linked to the refugee crisis that turned the cultural and social makeup of Europe upside down, leading to radical voices getting time in the spotlight. However, as the refugee crisis settles down, and with a history of accepting migrants into Sweden, what is responsible for Sweden Democrats now finally making a name for themselves?
It still involves refugee policy but with a different context. Unlike other European countries, Sweden made it out of the 2008 recession with its economy intact and continued robust welfare state (Calamur, 2018, para. 3). However, to sustain the generous welfare state, Sweden needs taxpayers. The Swedish population is aging, so there are more people leaving the workforce than joining it. And while their system and economic growth can be attributed in part to foreign-born workers, the unemployment rate of foreign-born workers sits at 20%. This number generally reflects those who arrived more recently as they have a harder time finding low skilled jobs being that only about half have a basic education; only about 5% of jobs in the Swedish labor market are suitable for unskilled workers. Over the years, this trend has begun to foment the belief among Swedes that migrants come here but they do not work (ebd., para. 7).
Sweden Democrats rides on this growing belief. In Sweden, there has been an unfortunate increase in segregation due to difficulties in assimilating into the new society. Many people perceive this as higher crime rates, so when political parties discuss crime, it is connected to discussions on immigration (ebd.). This is an issue in which Sweden Democrats has gained credibility. Thus, in public debate crime in immigrant neighborhoods is often conflated with failed integration, criminal gangs, while the reality for those living there is socioeconomic disadvantage and the ineffectiveness of police.
The most obvious answer when asked about the reason for the sudden surge of populist and nativist platforms is immigration, but the rise of SD preceded the admittance of 163,000 asylum seekers in 2015 (ebd., para. 10). Early asylum seekers entered in the time right after the Cold War, a time of increased optimism about world and its promises of globalization. Yet now there is endless war, mass displacement of people and the effects of global recession pegged along with declining trust, large-scale failures of governance, rising nationalism, xenophobia and racism. With the world suddenly in disarray and with the previously mentioned situation of the aging Swedish workforce, Sweden Democrats were poised to make far-right populist waves in the longtime socially and economically liberal Nordic pond. The anti-immigration SD made significant gains in the 2018 general election, winning about 18% of the vote, up from 12.9% last time (“Europe and nationalism: A country-by-country guide”, 2018, para. 24).
Although it fell a long way short of a majority, the anti-immigrant Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) was the largest party in this year's general election in Slovenia. The party is led by former Prime Minister Janez Jansa, who, similarly to the Visegrad leaders, opposes migrant quotas. During the campaign he formed an alliance with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, borrowing his tactic of stirring fears about migrants (ebd., para. 41).
Another party that has condemned the EU's handling of the migrant crisis, the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) in Poland secured a strong win in 2015 elections. Some of the party's most high-profile policies, such as taking control of state media and judicial reforms that allow the government to sack and appoint judges, have alarmed the EU (ebd., para. 44). Law and Justice was also behind a controversial law making it illegal to accuse the Polish nation or state of complicity in the Nazi Holocaust, which some saw as an attempt to whitewash the role of some individuals in Nazi atrocities. Poland and Hungary have offered each other political support, such as over migrant quotas and Viktor Orbán expressing "solidarity" with Poland in its battle over court reforms (ebd., para. 46).
Immigration rules in Denmark are among Europe's toughest, reflecting the power of the right-wing Danish People's Party, who are the second largest party in parliament. Denmark allows its police to seize migrants' property to pay for their upkeep and has pledged to boost contraception aid to developing countries to "limit the migration pressure" (ebd., para. 47).
The 2015 elections in Finland saw the right-wing Finns Party come second, although this year its candidate in presidential elections won just 6.9%. Furthermore, in the build-up to last year's election in the Netherlands, the anti-immigration Freedom Party of Geert Wilders had been tipped to win, but in the end came a distant second despite increasing their number of seats (ebd., para. 50).
4. Opportunities for counter-strategies
Former president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz (2013) mentions that even though up to now far-right parties have been unable to create political networks that would enable them to use the instruments of a transnational democracy against transnational democracy itself (see the falling apart of the fascist fraction of the European Parliament in 2007); these parties’ ultranationalist, xenophobic, antisemitic, anti-Islamic, and homophobic value system characteristic poses a threat to the democratic way of life (p. 368f.).
Since the increasing popularity of the far-right in Europe can be explained partly by the excessive exposure these parties receive in the media (Ellinas, 2010, p. 21) through scandals or through taking control of media outlets; an opportunity of the left for fighting against right-wing populism would be to allocate more money on political communication and political marketing, and to fight for more opportunities of on- and offline media exposure and coverage. For achieving success by more frequently connecting with the voters through the media, a necessary step would also be to draw in charismatic personalities having the potential to unify and organize the left-wing and to convince the society about left-wing values – who are, contrary to far-right leaders though, ready for compromises, as well as for listening to the public. Embattled individuals need proof that decision-makers are looking out for their interests: “If the European Union is able to convince frustrated voters that democratic parties [and leaders] are actually striving to assist and protect them, that alone will represent a major victory against racism and xenophobia” (Schulz, 2013, p. 371).
A way of more deeply connecting with the people would also be the more frequent and smarter use of social media, which provides voters a direct opportunity for participating in the democratic discourse; suggesting that their voice can be heard, their opinions count and can make a difference.
An important precondition for the employment of (especially online) media tools in order to win back previously lost left-wing voters is extending the levels of digitalization and connectivity in Europe, particularly its rural areas and smaller cities. A number of approaches with this goal have already been launched, including for example the EU’s ‘Smart Villages’ program, which aims to make inhabitants’ and businesses’ lives easier and more comfortable in European rural areas, with the help of innovative, digital solutions (Bled Declaration, 2018).
As Martin Schulz (2013) argues, the unfair allocation of educational opportunity underlies many of the socio-economic divisions in the contemporary world (p. 372f.) Therefore, parallel to digitalization, another crucial step would be the extension of equal education opportunities to everyone, including those living in the rural areas of Europe. Less educated people tend to also be less open-minded and tend to have less opportunities, which results in many of them experiencing economic instability. An unstable economic situation is one of the key drivers of voters’ dissatisfaction (Schain, 2018, p. 5), which often results in their support for the far-right: A frustrated, dissatisfied and less open-minded group of people is easier to convince by charismatic leaders employing simplified populist rhetoric – which gives people someone to blame for their situation – than complex messages.
The employment of the above-mentioned strategy – building on people’s dissatisfaction, lower level of education, economic issues, as well as lower level of connectivity – is apparent when looking at the results of the 2018 general election in Hungary. Figure 3 shows the breakdown of results in the Hungarian capital city Budapest, where the now far-right (see 3.5) Fidesz and their coalition partner KDNP have merely managed to win in 6 districts out of the 18; and the individual electoral district across the whole country, where the landslide victory of the Fidesz-KDNP becomes clear.
Europe’s, including Hungary’s aging population still prefers the television over the internet when it comes to getting informed about the daily happenings: In 2017, 84% of European citizens watched television every day or almost every day, as opposed to 65% of European citizens using the internet daily or almost daily (Standard Eurobarometer 88, 2017, p. 4). Due to the high level of governmental propaganda being present in the television, and the low level of connectivity in rural areas, rural communities don’t have the chance that people living in bigger cities do: the freedom of choosing what to think.
Therefore, overcoming the digital gap between urban and rural areas (or in Hungary’s case, rather between the capital and nearly all other areas), and fighting for more on- and offline exposure, are crucial steps for the left in order to spread their values and messages. Drawing a charismatic leader to them, who is able to unify and organize left-wing parties (and who, on the other hand, leaves space for discussion); and employing media tools which allow for participation – such as social media platforms – more frequently, can also be helpful instruments in combating far-right movements and parties in Europe.
Additionally, Schulz (2013) underlines the importance of a unified Europe in order to master the challenges of the 21st century. He suggests that isolation and retreating into the idyllic nation-state imagined by the right wing promises no solution, for Europeans depend existentially on one another, both as individuals and as entire nations (p. 371). The former EP-president also mentions that the key features of the European social market economy – extended access to education and healthcare, progressive taxation, co-determination, pensions and unemployment insurance – serve exceedingly well to stabilize democracies and thereby build a bulwark against extremism (ebd., p. 370). He also emphasizes the importance of an active civil society, of citizens who are committed to defending the EU’s and the member states’ democracy and its core values (ebd., p. 374), and who are ready to give a decisive answer to the challenge of the populist far-right.
5. Conclusions and outlook
In recent years, there has been a revival in research into the radical right, following the emergence of a fourth wave of the far-right itself; as movements that are increasingly able to capitalize on the dissatisfaction of citizens with economic and political conditions, as well as the refugee crisis, and the management of these issues by the political elites.
In this paper, after a short introduction and the description of the state of research, as well as a general definition and the brief history of the far-right, recent far-right trends in Europe were introduced. This included, besides discussing right-wing populist trends in Europe as a whole, the description of the current wave of right-wing populism in Germany, France, Austria and Italy, as well as trend-setting countries in the areas of Central-Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and the Balkans; taking the countries’ historical aspects into consideration. The paper attempted to explain the recent success of far-right parties and movements, and found a possible key factor in extensive media exposure; as a consequence of right-wing populist parties’ provocative statements that generate (media) interest, together with their attempts of taking control over state media.
In the foreseeable future, the social and economic preconditions favorable to the rise of right-wing populism are expected to become stronger. And as long as significant segments of the society can be tempted by populist simplifications and xenophobic rhetoric, right-wing populism will play a role in democratic politics (Pelinka, 2013, p. 20f.). The current seat projections for the next European Parliament from early March 2019 (as figure 4 shows) suggest that, for the first time in history of the elected EP, the two largest political groups (EPP and S&D) would not be able to command a majority of seats. However, the totality of the moderate pro-EU forces would still be able to hold a majority of seats, mainly due to the likely gains of centrist ALDE (“EP 2019: increasingly fragmented Parliament (fresh projections)”, 2019, para. 3).
Right-wing nationalists are set to gain, although they are likely to fall short of getting over 25% of seats. A potential joint group of right-wing nationalists (made up of parties from ECR, ENF and what is left of EFDD), would become the second largest group if all their current members decided to join. However, this scenario is highly unlikely due to the big diversity of views among these forces, as well as the charisma-heavy personality of their leaders. More realistically, a reshuffle of the affiliations of right-wing nationalists could lead to the establishment of the third largest group in the next European Parliament (ebd., 2019, para. 4).
The gains of GUE-NGL and Greens/EFA will not fully compensate for the likely losses of S&D, meaning that the left as a whole is expected to reach about 35% of seats in the next EP. Despite the decreasing numbers, the EPP is still way ahead of the other political groups. The group would even manage to consolidate its lead due to the departure of the British delegation, as none of the main British parties belong to the group led by Manfred Weber, meaning that Brexit will increase the gap in size between EPP and its challengers (ebd., para. 6).
Overall, these developments reflect the broader trends across Europe, where increasing political fragmentation and volatility have weakened the established political forces (which mostly belong to the EPP and S&D), while benefiting particularly the Eurosceptics and the far-right from across the political spectrum (ebd., para. 7).
A possibility to deal with the emerging far-right in Europe, both within and outside the electoral arena, might be to reverse the acceptance of extremist parties on the fringes of the political mainstream (Pelinka, 2013, p. 20). This can only be done by a unified Europe, concentrating on proving the citizens themselves (including, or especially, the dissatisfied far-right voters) that their interests will indeed be represented within the framework of a democratic political system. The EU therefore needs to combine the power of the 28 (soon to be only 27) member states, reform itself and improve its democracy in the 2021-2017 period, so that its diversity and its model of society will be able to live on. Significant steps toward combating the far-right would also be extending equal educational opportunities to everyone, extending the levels of digitalization across the rural areas and smaller cities of Europe, creating more media exposure for the left-wing, as well as establishing an active civil society: Institutions can assist citizens’ actions, but the decisive answer to the challenge of the populist far-right has to come from ‘the people’ (Pelinka, 2013, p. 21).
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