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How to confront the Far Right in Europe

Patrick Costello / Mar 2024

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A lot of ink has been spilled in recent months bewailing the rise of the far right in Europe. Simon Hix’s analysis for ECFR (https://ecfr.eu/publication/a-sharp-right-turn-a-forecast-for-the-2024-european-parliament-elections/) in January showed clearly what the impact is likely to be in the European Parliament elections in June. Big gains are expected in the numbers of MEPs from Le Pen’s Rassemblement National in France and Germany’s AfD, leaving Identity and Democracy as the third biggest group in the Parliament (behind the centre-right EPP and the Socialists). Together with the European Conservative and Reformist Group, the far right is expected to be bigger than either the EPP or the Socialists. The temptation for the EPP to form majorities with the far right will therefore be high. This in turn could have a devastating impact on flagship EU policies, especially on the green transition and on migration.

There is a possible doomsday scenario in which Trump wins back the US Presidency, the far right holds the balance of power in the European Parliament and Marine Le Pen wins the French Presidential elections expected in 2027. However, there are a number of reasons for at least some guarded hope that the worst will not materialise, provided that those opposed take a few lessons from the recent and more distant past:

  1. Cordon Sanitaire: Even in those countries where the far right is doing well, the polling is generally between 25 and 35%. For example, Geert Wilders “won” the Dutch election with a mere 23.5% of the popular vote. What makes the far right such a threat is the willingness of the centre-right to go into coalition with them. It is this that gives rise to disturbing echoes of the 1930s: the Nazi Party came to power in Germany on the back of only 33% support in the elections of November 1932. Brussels insiders have been heard to mutter darkly that there are too many Hindenburgs in today’s Europe. In this context, the viability of alternative paths to power for the centre-right are important. Last year’s Polish election in which Donald Tusk’s centre-right defeated Kaczynski’s PiS through building a coalition of anti-PiS forces shows that there are different options available to the centre-right.
  1. Popular Front Strategies: Although in the 20th century the defeat of fascism in Europe was largely a military one, it is important to remember that the only successful political anti-fascist strategy was the popular front led by Leon Blum in France. In today’s Europe, we are starting to see echoes of this strategy, most notably in Spain last year: an expected centre-right/far right coalition government did not materialise because of the cooperation of social democrats, socialists and regional parties. If the bitter divisions between the French socialists and greens and the forces of the far left could be overcome, Le Pen’s prospects might not look so bright.
  1. Resistance from civil society: In January, across Germany, hundreds of thousands participated in mass demonstrations protesting against the AfD. They appeared following the exposure of AfD presence at a meeting discussing proposals for the mass deportation of foreign-born Germans. The demonstrations had a negative impact on the poll ratings of the AfD and show that where the threat of the far right can be effectively exposed, people are willing and able to organise to counter it.
  1. The Law. Other more judicial or legal approaches to tackling the far right can also play a role. Using existing legislation or developing stronger rules on transparency of campaign funds could help publicise the role of Russia and the US far right in supporting far right parties. The exposure of the 6 million Euro Russian loan in 2014 to Le Pen’s RN forced an announcement last September that they had paid it back in full, showing how politically sensitive certain financial sources can become.

The law could also be used to exclude political parties whose platforms violate the basic norms of the democratic game. The current German debate on whether to take a case against the AfD to the constitutional court is an example. This approach has advocates and opponents. On the one hand efforts to legally exclude of parties risks playing into a Trump-style narrative of victimhood. On the other hand, a clearer legal analysis of the anti-democratic elements of these parties could politically strengthen those pushing to maintain the “cordon sanitaire”.

  1. Tackling Root Causes. Little is written about the causes of the far right surge other than to refer to unpopular green and migration policies combined with a rise in xenophobia. This begs the question of what the causes are. It is not an accident that the growth in support for these parties started following the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent cross-party consensus about the austerity policies that followed it. If people are suffering economically, and none of the parties offer anything to address it beyond “jam tomorrow” it is perhaps not surprising that the far right siren song of blaming immigrants gains traction or that the green transition looks to them like an expensive luxury. It is on this basis that, across the Atlantic, President Biden launched a domestic policy programme that was aimed at proving to some of the 75 million voters who supported Trump in 2020 that government can deliver, economically, for them. In Portugal, the refusal of the Costa government to accept the austerity prescriptions of the IFIs not only worked economically, but resulted in the far right not gaining traction in the 2010s, unlike in neighbouring Spain. In other words, countering the far right’s support also means delivering on an alternative optimistic vision of the future for their voters.

It is probably too late to avoid the expected growth of the far right in the European elections in June, although with some serious efforts, it should be possible to limit their gains and minimise the impact of them. Fundamentally, this will depend on the willingness of the EPP to refuse to do deals with one or other of the far right groups. For the Socialists, therefore, it is also vital to maximise the political price paid by the EPP for doing this. If, in the end, the cordon sanitaire breaks down, then Socialist, Greens, Renew and GUE should make it clear that they will avoid going into any political deal and develop the capacities to act as a concerted “popular front” opposition to the political mandate of the next Commission.

 

Patrick Costello

Patrick Costello

March 2024

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