Comment

How worried should we be about the Far Right taking over Europe?

Denis MacShane / Dec 2023

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

 

In Brussels last week for three days of meetings in the Commission, with MEPs, European political parties and other EU watchers about Brexit and the relentless march of the hard right there were two conclusions to be drawn. Firstly, Brexit is not on the ordre du jour of the EU. Rishi Sunak has made sensible concessions partly alleviating the problems connected to trade between British controlled Northern Ireland and the EU, on Horizon (though getting scientists to work in Britain still requires jumping through hoops about visas, salary, families and health care insurance) and on aligning British kite marks with the EU CEE designation to facilitate trade.

There is no expectation that the arrival of a Labour government will make an instant difference save that Labour is not infected by the general disparagement of all things European that consumed the Tory Party, the offshore owned press, and reflected by the UK’s equivalent of Geert Wilders or Eric Zemmour like Nigel Farage or Richard Tice.

Sir Keir Starmer repeatedly makes clear that his government will not rejoin the Single Market or Customs Union. His latest utterance in the Sunday Telegraph praising Margaret Thatcher had the curious criticism that ministers “failed to realise the possibilities of Brexit.” Given most businesses and 60 per cent of all voters according to polls over recent months think Brexit is a mistake it is unusual for a party leader to put himself  at such odds with public opinion as Sir John Curtice, the UK’s polling guru regularly points out.

Second, if Brexit is a not much of issue in Brussels, the advance of the far right is causing palpable fear. The European Parliament elections in June will see a rise of far-right, anti-EU, anti-immigrant, nationalist identity parties. European Parliament elections with their low turn-out and sense that MEPs have no power over national legislation in contrast to each member state’s national parliament has seen a procession of non-mainstream politicans seeking to have a platform in the Strasbourg parliament. Jean Marie Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Giorgia Meloni, VOX, the AFD all used the European Parliament as a platform and source of generous funding.

The concern I heard was that this time, the block of hard-right MEPs could be large enough at the expense of the main-stream centre-right, (EPP) social democratic left, (PES/S+D) and liberals (Renew ex ALDE) that they would exercise power in the choice of key office-holders in the EU like the Presidents of the Parliament, the Council, the Commission and foreign policy High Representative.

The issue of immigration was the main cause of the Brexit vote and is a poisonous topic in most EU member states. British Europhobes have given up defending Brexit but have shifted the argument to mass immigration in terms of the powerlessness of government to control the volume and velocity of arrivals which they say is the fault of the EU failing to control borders.

It is more than reasonable to expect that next June voters will register a major protest vote over immigration by repudiating mainstream parties of government and voting hard right.

But does this apply to national elections? Commentators got very excited about the 23.49 per cent of the Dutch vote in the recent Netherlands election for Geert Wilders' PVV (Party of Freedom).  It is far from clear that this will lead to a Wilders government being formed. His PVV party has only one member – Wilders himself. The Swedish Democrats who share the Wilders hate for Islam talk about tearing down mosques in Sweden. They may emerge as the biggest Swedish party in the European Parliament but whether Sweden is really going to start treating Muslim citizens as the German nationalists under Hitler treated German Jewish citizens in the 1930s burning synagogues and the holy books of Judaism remains to be seen.

In a letter published in the Financial Times on 4 December I argued that the alarm following the Wilders result expressed by Britain’s best commentators on European politics like Timothy Garton Ash and Gideon Rachman may indeed be warranted in terms of European Parliament votes next June but the far-right are not making a breakthrough in terms of national politics. If anything the far-right in Italy and France have moderated their language and in Britain where there is silly chatter about Nigel Farage, currently on a celebrity TV show eating animal faeces in the Australian jungle, becoming leader of the Conservative Party the Tories have lost considerable support as they drift to the ultra-nationalist illiberal and anti-immigrant right under Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. My FT letter is below.


“Gideon Rachman is justified, in the wake of the Dutch general election result, to express concern about the hard right politics on display in Europe (“Europe’s far right moves into the mainstream”, Opinion, November 28). English rightwing politics, which has been obsessed with immigration and leaving Europe, is not immune either. 

“Yet it may be worth recalling that three out of four Dutch voters did not vote for Geert Wilders’ Freedom party. Indeed, recently we have had two elections in much bigger countries than the Netherlands - Poland and Spain - where efforts by the hard right to either keep or win power were rejected by voters. Paradoxically, Britain - outside the EU - may be showing a good example in that, in the aftermath of the seizure of party control by the Corbyn left or the Johnson-Braverman right, Labour has re-centred and once in opposition the Tories surely will not follow Nigel Farage into the jungle of far-right slogans and undeliverable promises.

“The Davos ultraliberal enrichissez-vous consensus of the past 30 years has left too many forgotten and sidelined. Current labour market organisation offers little hope or help for men and women unwanted by today’s elites, but they can still protest in the ballot box. The right offer slogans but no workable solutions. The left offer dreams of a lost socialist world but have lost touch with real existing poverty and the fears of those who were once their client voters.”

 

Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane

December 2023

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