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Europe’s far right: a threat to the EU or a collection of incoherent voices?




Photo: Haraatz.com

A printable version of this commentary is available here.

The announcement last month that two of Europe’s most prominent far right parties, the National Front (FN) of France and the Freedom Party (PVV) of the Netherlands, will form an alliance for next year’s European Parliament elections confirmed speculation that had been ongoing over the past year. Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, the respective party leaders of FN and PVV, vowed to “slay the monster that is Brussels” and put an end to uncontrolled immigration.

It is fair to say that the European far right has seen its latest growth in electoral support due in part to the economic climate in Europe. Mass unemployment, a fall in living standards and the obsession with austerity and the perceived fear of immigrants and asylum seekers, has left many voters migrating to the non-traditional and often anti-system parties in many European democracies.

One notable beneficiary, for example, of reactionary politics and economic austerity is Greece’s Golden Dawn, a party now infamous for its campaign of violence against immigrants. It barely received 0.2% of the national vote in 2008, but surged into the Greek Parliament with 7% of the vote and 21 seats in the May 2012 general election.

A less extremist political party would be the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which became the second placed party behind the Conservatives in the 2009 European Parliament elections in the UK, and the Swedish Democrats, which surged into the Swedish Parliament after a controversial anti-immigration campaign in 2009.

Far right parties: still an inchoate, incoherent lot

But the parties of Le Pen and Wilders still do not see eye to eye on many issues. Neither do they see eye to eye with other far right parties in Europe; otherwise, far right alliances would have been more common, or worse still, a pan-Europe far right movement. Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, had once been charged with Holocaust denial, while Wilders is stridently pro-Zionist. It does not seem that Europe’s far right will agglomerate into a coherent EU-wide force any time soon.

The far right, therefore, may just be a convenient category for reactionary politics to unpopular policies in hard times. In the case of the Le Pen-Wilders alliance, it is euroscepticism and their anti-immigrant views – in particular against Muslim and African migrants – that have brought them together in the lead up to the May 2014 European Parliament elections.

The more radical – and violent – far right parties still tend to be fringe movements, whose behaviour seldom mirrors the kind of party discipline exercised in traditional political parties.

Far right parties have sometimes witnessed incidents that border on comedy. Last year for instance, Csanád Szegedi, a Hungarian Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and a high ranking leader in the anti-Semitic Jobbik party, found out that he had Jewish roots, and that he even had a grandmother who was a Holocaust survivor.[1] Worse still, allegations arose that he had been paying bribes to journalists to conceal his Jewish identity for the previous few years. He subsequently resigned from all his Jobbik positions, and has since converted to Judaism.

The far right in Europe over the years

It would appear that all of Europe is turning right at one of the more traumatic junctures of its history, and it appears possible that the ambitious EU project of creating a Europe of liberty and rights would fall apart. Even in non-EU Europe, the right has formed the government in Norway and the Swiss People’s Party has been the leading party in the past four Swiss federal elections.  However, the true picture may not be that bleak.

The story of the far right “threat” in Europe is not new. Prior to the euro crisis, Europe has witnessed many waves of the rise of the far right, where parties had succeeded in attacking the EU and making immigrants scapegoats for society’s ills in order to gain a substantial vote share in national elections. Indeed, many of them had won a handsome share of seats in national parliaments, and had also flirted around with the development of an EU wide far right alliance.

When Freedom Party of Austria won 27% of the votes in the 1999 general election and entered the Austrian government for the first time under the leadership of Jörg Haider, the other 14 EU countries then stated that “the admission of the Freedom Party of Austria into a coalition government legitimises the extreme right in Europe.” They threatened a diplomatic boycott of Austria, making the unprecedented move of introducing sanctions and reducing contact with the new Austrian government.

Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, built up the National Front after inheriting a large fortune from the late industrialist Hubert Lambert in 1976. He achieved meteoric rise when he entered the second round of the 2002 French presidential election. However, in the run-off with Jacques Chirac, Jean-Marie lost badly, with over 80% of French voters handing a landslide victory to Jacques Chirac.

Also of note in the European far right is the British National Party; although it achieved some success by winning two seats in the European Parliament in 2009, the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system has managed to keep the BNP from being anything more than a non-influential extra-parliamentary party back home.

Not being in government does not mean that parties cannot be influential. One example is the Danish People’s Party. Although it never formed part of the government, the anti-immigration party successfully influenced the Danish government to tighten immigration and ended Denmark’s tradition of being one of the most hospitable countries in Europe.

There have also been spectacular falls, most noticeably Belgium’s openly anti-Semitic Vlaams Blok, which had established itself as a strong electoral force by the end of the millennium but was shut down by a court order due to its discriminatory policies. Its successor, the Vlaams Belang, claims to be a moderate conservative party, yet it is blocked from entering executive office through the continuation of a cordon sanitaire by most other Belgian parties.

European Parliament: an arena for European fringe politics?

For the EU, the problem is that European Parliament (EP) elections seem to have become an arena for fringe politics at the Europe-wide level. This sits oddly contrary to the desire of expanding the EP’s powers to plug the democratic deficit in the EU. Before 1979, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) were nominated from national parliaments. Over the years, the powers and purview of the EP were gradually increased. In the latest overhaul in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, MEPs will also have to give their consent to international agreements negotiated by the EU, such as the free trade agreement (FTA) which the EU has concluded with Singapore. While this is a good move to give the EU’s international agreements more legitimacy, it could  spell unnecessary difficulty for EU policy making if a bigger crowd of far right nationalist or eurosceptic MEPs get elected next year.

There is no easy way to fix this conundrum surrounding the EP between the desire to plug the democratic deficit and to halt the advance of the far right in EP elections. The issue is intrinsic to how European citizens regard the EU’s project of integration.

While the alliance between Le Pen and Wilders may appear to be a major development in European far right politics, most observers see it as a hasty marriage of convenience among two parties with a broadly common policy of eurosceptism and anti-immigration. Put otherwise, far right parties in Europe, while happy to share eurosceptic sentiments with each other, tend not to have a coherent programme across national boundaries in the way other political ideologies – be it social democracy in the post-war period or Third Way centrism of the 1990s – had in Europe.

Furthermore, the record of these parties in elections is mixed. It is also likely that the more successful and less extreme far right parties would not want to damage their own electoral chances by entering into an alliance with their less than successful, more extreme cousins.

The way forward

While it seems less likely that Europe’s far right parties will form a successful Europe wide alliance, they still remain a serious threat to mainstream politics – indeed, Europe is still recovering from the euro zone crisis, and it is also predicted that the number of immigrants and asylum seekers fleeing conflict ridden countries would increase. These two issues alone can continue to be useful ammunition for far right parties to use against the established mainstream political parties in Europe, and this could then pose even more problems for democracy in these member states.

In order to combat the rise of the far right, it is contingent on the European social democratic, conservative and green political elements to exercise their political will and come up with more compelling alternative policies in this time of the euro zone crisis. These mainstream parties will have to stand together and steer clear from legitimising far right parties by refusing to work with them, such as in the example of Belgium. Only then can the fatal electoral attraction of the far right be overridden.