Far-Right Populism in Europe

Written by: Hrishik Roy

In 2017, the far-right German party Alternative for Germany entered the Bundestag- federal parliament for the first time with 12.6% of the votes and became Germany’s biggest opposition party. In the same year, the Freedom Party of Austria, founded by the Nazi SS officer Anton Reinthaller, won 26% of the votes to join the governing coalition. Similar trends of support for far-right political outfits have aroused all across Europe from Poland in the East to France in the West. 

As a matter of fact, the upcoming French elections next year will be an interesting sight to see as current President Emmanuel Macron is challenged by right-wing populists not  limited to Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour. Zemmour is considered even further off to the right compared to Le Pen, as the latter seems to have toned down her party’s political rhetoric to appease more people on the centre-right. For reference: Le Pen’s party, named National Rally (previously the National Front), has in the past brushed itself with xenophobia and anti-semitism as Le Pen’s father and founder of the party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, engaged in Holocaust denial.

At the moment, as polls show, it seems that Macron and Le Pen will move on to the second round of elections with 24% and 16% votes in the first round respectively with Zemmour closing in but still falling short at 15%. However, with Europe already having experienced the horrors of fascism and other far-right political ideologies, we need to rethink why such parties are still able to garner so much support and an intimidating ease of access to power. 

These far-right parties have certain common traits and policies including Euroscepticism and anti-immigrant rhetoric, which has affected actual refugees. As immigrants have increased in numbers, with many coming from the Syrian Civil War, right-wing populist parties have strengthened their rhetoric on national identity, demerits of globalization and political instability. Immigrants bring diverse cultures and people, which is why they are often perceived by locals as threats in fear of them taking over jobs or eroding national values. By framing immigrants as threats to national security, welfare and identity and demonizing them for it, these right-wing parties are able to appeal to the people. This has resulted in increased hostility towards immigrants.

Another cause for the rise of the far-right can be attributed to the fact that traditional political parties in Europe have embraced neoliberalism and have concluded that globalization is an irreversible process. Due to EU integration and globalization (which is largely the result of neoliberalism), the states have lost much of their sovereignty as they can no longer control the movement of people, goods and capital in and out of their borders. Crucially, people think that current political parties are unable to address their fears and concerns and as a result often embrace far-right groups. 

Last July, 16 right-wing populist parties in Europe united over to issue a joint statement calling for an EU based on sovereign member states instead of a federal bloc. The primary forces who worked behind the declaration were the Polish ruling party, Law and Justice, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, with Matteo Salvini’s Lega and Georgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy also present. This highlights the growing discontentment with the EU from influential right-wing leaders. The EU’s scope to exert control has been challenged further as the Polish Constitutional Court ruled that Polish law had greater primacy than EU law – which can be and has been perceived as a direct challenge to the EU. 

This move opens the door for parties to create a new far-right political faction in the European Parliament which can pave the road for challenging what is perceived as the “liberal elites”. If that happens, the parties’ combined faction would become the third largest in the European Parliament with their primary aim being to use their combined nationalist and anti-integration platform to drag Europe to the right. According to Matthias Diermeier, a researcher at the German Economic Institute who closely follows the growth of far-right, radical parties in Europe, “It is a threat that comes up like a warning light.”

Even though there has been a slight decrease in the far-right political support after the pandemic, especially in Germany where respect for the government, science and bureaucracy has been reinstated after its handling of the pandemic with the far-right AfD getting 10.3% of the vote share (compared to 12.6% in 2017), the difference between Macron and Le Pen in France is thought to be very slight. This is partially because Macron lost popular support, which ironically is the result of Covid-19 induced economic struggles. 

With elections in Hungary and France next year and an increased growth of right-wing populists over the past decade, one ought to watch out for the curse of authoritarianism and ideologically driven far-right groups befalling elegant Europe once again.


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