Denis MacShane / Jul 2023
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
How seriously should we take the election breakthrough for the hard-right Alternative für Deutschland Party in winning a 52% per vote to take control of a very small town in East Germany? Clearly winning control of a municipal council is significant but the AfD politician who won did so on a campaign against wind power locally.
This is a local divisive issue in many European countries where local people do not want giant windmills built near their homes. In other countries these issues are taken up by Christian and Social Democrats.
Undoubtedly the mid 20th century political formations of giant dominant Christian and Social Democratic, Conservatives and Labour in UK, Gaullists and Socialists in France have faded as have liberals. There are new identity parties - nationalist, green, single issue, anti-immigrant but it is not clear they are coalescing into a 1930s type fascist party like under Mussolini, Franco, or Hitler. In 1999 the Austrian Christian Democratic Party went into coalition with the extreme right Freedom Party.
Britain has seen the rise of a ultra-nationalist politics in Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) which for the last 15 years has dominated Scottish politics and controlled the Scottish government. But now the SNP is fading in support.
The most high profile extreme right political leaders in Europe are two women - Marine Le Pen in France and Georgia Meloni in Italy. They started their political ascension by being very hostile to the European Union, rejecting the Euro, wanting to shut down frontiers. But if they want to win support from more than a narrow base of voters they have to move to the centre.
The example of Brexit in the UK which has been very negative for the British economy, growth, and public finances has been a big warning to the populist right in Europe which no longer advocates anti-European themes.
The ruling British Conservatives moved harder and harder to the illiberal, sometime openly racist right. But it look as if at the next UK election will put a Labour prime minister into Downing Street.
Similarly Marine Le Pen or Boris Johnson or Swiss nationalist populists often defended Vladimir Putin or took money from the Kremlin. After the invasion of Ukraine, there is no political advantage to any party to be seen supporting Putin.
Britain seemed to be endorsing nationalist populist identity politics under the influence of Boris Johnson’s 20 year crusade against Europe. This resulted in a vote to leave Europe in a populist plebiscite helped by daily lies and propaganda in foreign owned newspapers as well as the BBC openly promoting the populist Europhobe Nigel Farage who was unable ever to win a seat in the UK House of Commons.
The Brexit era however has been very bad for the Conservative party. Brexit has swallowed up four prime ministers - David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and Liz Truss while the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has the lowest rating of any Tory Prime minister in history and he is quietly trying to restart a less hostile relationship with Europe.
The Labour Party has a 20+ lead in opinion polls and few Conservative MPs think their party’s embrace of nationalist anti-EU politics has been successful.
In general when anti-European, anti-immigrant nation-first populists become ministers like Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Northern League they perform very badly. Translating a populist speech that wins applause at a meeting of nationalist militants. Into effective government is not that easy.
European politics is a mosaic not a monolith. Some parties in the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) like Spain’s Partido Popular are tempted to form a coalition with Spain’s hard right Franco heritage party VOX.
On the other hand Greece’s EPP affiliate New Democracy under the leadership of the recently re-elected Kyriakos Mitsotakis has refused all arrangements, alliances and coalitions with the hard right in Greek politics and this clear support for democratic politics has won the backing of Greek voters.
Next year there will be elections to the European Parliament which will show how wide or deep support for hard right politics is. Turn-out in the European Parliament election is usually much lower than in national parliament elections and are used by voters to register a protest vote often not repeated in subsequent national elections.
The win for the AfD in two local elections in East Germany where there is a sullen hostility to Berlin and the historic West German created parties is important but does not signal Europe heading for a return to a darker history of extreme right politics.