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OPINION

Chameleon complex: Europe's far right is mimicking the fight for stability and justice — and it's working

Last week in France, the far-right National Rally won the first round of parliamentary elections, taking 33% of the vote. On the European continent as a whole, fears of a rightward drift were confirmed by the results of June’s elections to the European Parliament. Many European voters, unaccustomed to crisis, increasingly experience fear in the face of ever new challenges that, in recent years, have included economic concerns, a pandemic, and war. According to Catherine Fieschi of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, they are unprepared to face such shocks and therefore easily succumb to primitive promises of ​​control and order — held together by calls for a return to “traditional values.” The far right has managed to significantly expand its share of the electorate by mixing the usual theses of xenophobia and the fight against migrants with the leftist agenda of social justice. But there is good news: European society on the whole was scandalized by these election results, a fact that ought to encourage mainstream parties to respond by offering voters a more relevant vision of the future.

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The results of the European Parliament (EP) elections shocked many, and this is a good sign: European society is not prepared to quietly accept a sharp political right turn. Moreover, in some countries, it is the right-wing populists who have given up ground. For example, Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party, which lost power in Warsaw last October, also performed uncharacteristically poorly in June’s EP vote, losing to Donald Tusk’s ruling coalition by an admittedly narrow 0.9% (at the same time, the far-right “Confederation” party finished third). In Hungary, the centrist Respect and Freedom (Tisza) party, led by Peter Magyar, managed to challenge Viktor Orban's ruling Fidesz party, taking 29.6%. And the Finnish anti-migrant party “Finns” retained only one mandate. These examples show that liberals and progressives are still able to resist populists and right-wing radicals.

Does political culture matter?

One should not draw sweeping conclusions about the reasons behind European far-right parties’ appeal. Each country offers its own context, and candidates know which pressure points to target depending on the political geography.

In the “consensus democracies” of the Nordic countries, where the division between right and left is largely arbitrary and the main line of demarcation in society lies between the ruling minority and the people, anti-elite populists thrived. The Sweden Democrats, the Danish People's Party, and the aforementioned Finns argue that members of a small elite — who have more in common with each other than with ordinary citizens — run the state according to their own interests and views, without asking the opinions of voters (especially when it comes to matters of migration).

Showing disrespect for the existing system of power is an important part of the appeal of the right. Over the past hundred years, in progressive Scandinavian countries with pro-feminist governments, groups of “laggards” have formed, resenting women as much as they resent immigrants.

Showing disrespect for the existing system of power is an important part of the appeal of right-wing parties

Violating taboos is also attractive to voters in countries that experienced authoritarian rule during World War II: Germany, Italy, and France. For an appreciable number of voters, giving voice to the forbidden is perceived as a sign of political courage and a rejection of liberal norms.

Thus, Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy take care to retain hints of the fascist past. For example, the party logo is made in the form of a tricolor flame, a symbol carried by past Italian parties that took their inspiration from Mussolini’s movement. Such subtle clues instill confidence in far-right voters that the party is committed to making ​​a break with “traditional politics.”

The emblem of the right-wing Brothers of Italy party in the form of a symbolic tricolor flame
The emblem of the right-wing Brothers of Italy party in the form of a symbolic tricolor flame

Many voters in Italy and Germany see the far right's actions as indications that the parties are prepared to shake up the system. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) deploys this weapon particularly actively. Although the statements of some of its figures ultimately led to their expulsion from the party group in the European Parliament and caused condemnation from the wider German public, for the AfD’s voters — 15.89% in the EP elections in June — such rhetoric serves as proof of difference from the “other parties” and a rejection of generally accepted liberal democratic traditions.

In the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, which have experienced large-scale socio-economic transformations since the early 1990s, parties that promise a return to “traditional values” — in essence, a return to the past — are in high demand. But for all the differences in the political culture and developmental paths across the continent, there is a common matrix that explains the growing support for the far right in Europe.

General frustration and growing fear

Although surveys show that in many countries citizens have become more liberally minded minded regarding abortion, divorce, premarital sex, and attitudes to foreigners, events of the last five years have made them more intolerant of crises. European voters, who are not accustomed to dealing with extreme situations, experience growing fear and, as a result, have become increasingly devoted to the ideas of control and order.

The famous Brexit slogan “Take Back Control” has become a harbinger of change. As crises multiply, voters — like swimmers clinging to buoys in a stormy sea — increasingly put their faith in aspiring leaders who promise to “take back control.”

As crises multiply, voters increasingly put their faith in those who promise to “take back control.”

The EU and national governments can argue to their hearts’ content that they have protected their citizens from the worst effects of Covid by distributing vaccines and developing a massive economic recovery package, that they are trying to shield people as much as possible from the consequences of the energy crisis caused by Russian aggression in Ukraine, and that the European Green Deal program is a key tool in the fight against climate change. But none of the above seems to carry much weight in the eyes of voters. On the contrary, it is taken as talk of helping those less fortunate than they are — but not of helping them.

For most voters, life has become more difficult and increasingly uncertain. Porous borders, interdependence among states, talk of broken supply chains, and reforms imposed on traditional industries such as agriculture and fisheries are seen by citizens as signs of inevitable decline against the backdrop of rising powers like China, which dictate their will through economic power. In such situations, political rhetoric about exerting fantastic levels of control — closing borders to foreigners, taking measures to cut costs, and providing guaranteed protection — becomes much more attractive than calls for change and adaptation aimed at maintaining a status quo that is far from ideal.

The debate over whether the rise of populist parties is driven by economic concerns or a sense of “cultural exclusion” has raged for many years. It is easy to feel lost and abandoned by changing norms and increasing diversity in one's environment, and such resentment fuels cross-cultural conflicts. In Europe, accusations of “wokeism” are less common than in the United States, but in some countries — Poland, Hungary — the rejection of liberal norms in favor of traditional values ​​has become the main driver of the popularity of right-wing radicals.

What is the extreme right pushing for?

In most Western European countries, rejection of liberal norms has crystallized around the denial of the rights of “others” — especially migrants. The ideological struggle is waged mainly against the elites, who are said to support mass migration both because they do not suffer from the resulting increased burden on public services and because they benefit from the influx of cheap labor.

In most Western European countries, rejection of liberal norms has crystallized around the denial of the rights of “others” — especially migrants

At the same time, voting for right-wing populists also has an economic dimension. Even in countries with strong mechanisms for wealth redistribution, growing income inequality, stagnating wages, and difficulties accessing housing — a key factor in countries such as the Netherlands and Portugal — fuel discontent with authorities who are perceived to have abandoned the middle class to their fate.

If we add to this the irritation resulting from the decreased quality of government services, marked by limited access to health care and disruptions in the provision of public works, a feeling of economic desolation sets in. The exact details vary from country to country, but the idea that they are being treated as second-class citizens is widespread among Europeans and is driven in part by growing inequality in both income and access to benefits. Because of this, it turns out to be rather easy to fabricate a discourse in which migrants are seen as receiving too much from a state that has ceased to care about its own people.

It is easy to fabricate a discourse in which migrants are seen as receiving too much from a state that has stopped caring about its own people

The current proposals of the mainstream parties — aimed not so much at improving the situation, but at preventing things from getting worse — are not remotely attractive to those whose daily lives have become a struggle. As a result, people have become less tolerant of complex political maneuvers and decisions that they perceive as failures. They distrust technocratic governments, which they believe give too little and demand too much. Both at the national and EU level, the rejection of an elite that is out of touch with the real concerns of voters is an important element of public sentiment.

The media tirelessly portrays the ideal citizen — one whose identity fits seamlessly with the country's traditional values — and the ideal leader who can direct the collective will of the people. Traditional tabloid-type media, along with social networks, have created the opportunity for the expression of only polarized opinions, which gradually isolates people from the diversity of the rest of the spectrum, sealing them into ever tighter boundaries. They promote a collective intolerance for the slow, procedural, technocratic world of politics, as distinct from the accessible, malleable, and responsive world of social media.

It is not surprising that parties that promise to listen, simplify, and understand all the intricacies of everyday problems while offering quick solutions attract the support of so many voters. But perhaps most important is the populists’ promise to enact policies that will make diagnoses and take action quickly, with little regard for the consequences.

The focus of such rhetoric is on the daily lives of ordinary people, rather than on strategic policy planning. The emotional hooks of right-wing populism are more compelling than the technocratic solutions of well-meaning liberals. Populists' proposals appear to be common sense, and their proponents give voters hope. The promise to take control of everything is a balm for the soul of a supporter of traditional values.

Right-wing parties focus their rhetoric on the daily lives of ordinary people, rather than on strategic policy planning.

One of the main questions is why it is right-wing populists, and not socialists or social democrats, who are capitalizing on people's need for emotional politics. If we look at where populist parties have succeeded, it becomes clear that the key to their rise lies in the disappearance of a left-wing alternative that recognizes both economic imperatives and fears related to status and identity.

In France and Italy, the collapse of once-powerful communist parties left a vacuum that was never filled by social democratic or socialist parties, whose support base was more white-collar than blue-collar. It is not surprising that the heyday of these parties came in the late 1980s and early 1990s, after which the left turned towards a third way, leaving behind many of its traditional commitments. Marine Le Pen's National Rally, for example, has effectively taken over the former strongholds of leftist parties in the north and east of deindustrialized France.

The proposal of the “National Rally” on the eve of France’s early parliamentary elections boiled down to economic redistribution, reducing the cost of living, and increasing the minimum wage. In this sense, Le Pen's program coincides with the position of the alliance of left forces, but has the added value of xenophobia and “identity politics.”

Switching to the problem of redistribution of wealth while abandoning its past use of racist and extremist roots have allowed right-wing movements to expand their electoral base and replace socialist or social democratic parties to the point that many have essentially become mainstream.

Mainstream: movement to the right

Most of the far-right parties, with the possible exception of the AfD, have worked hard to create a more “decent” image for themselves. Marine Le Pen herself did everything possible to exorcize the racist and anti-Semitic ghost of her father, softening both her image and rhetoric.

Marine Le Pen has done everything she can to exorcize the racist and anti-Semitic ghost of her father from the party.

By bringing in a new young leader, Jordan Bardella, she symbolically severed ties with the old National Rally. Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, in turn, combined the post-fascist tradition with a modern view of a party led by a woman — this in a country and party dominated by “strong men.”

Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella
Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella

By supporting an agenda centered on the cost of living and redistribution of wealth, right-wing populist parties appeal primarily to what can be called electoral orphans. By attacking immigration on economic grounds, and by focusing on supposedly “illegal” immigration, they have transformed migration from a racial issue into one of social justice, rendering it a palatable topic of debate.

While one glance at the programs of these parties is enough to dispel any doubts about their deep xenophobia, their public rhetoric has not only attracted the support of many who can comfortably claim that they are “not racist,” it has also forced center-right parties to adopt the same tactics, turning immigration into a major issue for voters across the entire political spectrum. The policies on offer by the far right may not have become mainstream, but populists have succeeded in normalizing their stated problems, and the traditional mainstream parties have colluded with them in the process.

The motives of the right are the same as before: in an era when diversity is only growing, they offer a rejection of diversity and the “other,” and in an interconnected world with porous borders, they espouse insurmountable superiority of the national over the cosmopolitan and global. It is their rhetoric that has changed: moderating their xenophobic statements by directing criticism at technocratic power elites (as well as against migrants and others who do not fit the narrow definition of “fellow citizens”).

The right’s motives are the same as before: the rejection of diversity and “others.”

But there is also good news. While these parties did make gains in the European Parliament elections, winning around 25% of the seats, they are still far from a majority almost everywhere. Their highest support comes in at around 32% in France and 34% in Italy.

They succeed not because voters give them their votes, but because true democrats lose their presence of mind: making concessions to right-wing rhetoric for the sake of electoral maneuvers or refusing to publicly defend the values ​​of tolerance and openness that are the cornerstones of a free society.

Right-wing populists, who sustain themselves on feelings of frustration and vulnerability, win when we give ground and stop defending the ideas of equal opportunity and shared prosperity. Their victories are therefore not examples of the triumph of the “will of the people,” but of primitive, spur-of-the-moment electoral calculations.

The best way to combat the rise of such parties — and the spread of their ideas — is to engage in direct conversation with voters, who must be offered a vision of the future that involves improving living conditions, not just preventing disaster.

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