Can an EU in Crisis Handle the Radical Right?

Can an EU in Crisis Handle the Radical Right?
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As the EU faces internal crises, will Brussels be able to deal with the rise of Europe’s radical right parties that are gaining ground in various states. 

Extremist far-right parties have gained popular support throughout the EU. These groups have slowly penetrated parliaments in Austria, France, Hungary, Italy, and the Netherlands. While the 1920s fascists based their discourse largely on the exploitation of the scapegoat of the Jewish-Masonic and Communist conspiracies, current extremist parties often run and gain popular support through anti-immigration, racist platforms and anti-Muslim ideas.

Immigrants, so long as they are poor, are introduced by the far right as the new enemy of 21st century Europe. Skillful exploitation of the immigration issue has allowed the “post-industrial” far right to reach a broad consensus among heterogeneous social sectors, addressing the population in terms of “values and identity, rather than economic or class interests“.

Competition, rather than cooperation, between both native and foreign workers for increasingly scarce resources (such as work, housing, and social benefits) in a climate of economic recession and dismantling of the so-called welfare state, favored right-wing organizations. This was aided by the generalized crisis of the left, and the right’s penchant for submitting easy answers to complex problems.

Research by the British think tank Demos has analyzed attitudes among supporters of the far right online. 10,000 followers of 14 parties and street organizations in eleven different countries were asked to fill in detailed questionnaires. This study has disclosed that the far right is gaining strength across Europe as a new generation of young, web-based supporters embrace anti-immigration groups. The study depicts the harsh reality of a continent-wide spread of hardline nationalist views among the young, mainly men. Cynical and pessimistic about their own governments and the EU, their overall fear about the future has begun to focus on cultural identity, with immigration – especially a perceived epidemic of Islamic influence – being of particular concern.

So what makes these parties ‘radical’? The answer is that the solutions they propose go far beyond the norm. Contrary to mainstream parties, radical ones endorse a sudden stop to immigration, and even the deportation of immigrants. Similar types of parties are described with a variety of names such as the radical right, extreme right, right-wing populist, far right, neo nationalist, and anti-immigrant.

The adjective “right” is essential. What is “right” about these parties? It is certainly not their economic policies. Whereas the traditional leftist economic position often favors state management of economic issues, the right is laissez-faire. Ironically, these radical parties tend to favor a much more left-leaning economic program.

In April 2012, the far right was thrown into the headlines with the strong performance of France’s anti-euro National Front party in the country’s presidential elections. The same week, the Netherlands saw the collapse of its government after the far-right Freedom Party refused to support austerity measures. While these are two very different scenarios, there appears to be a common denominator: extremist parties’ attempts to gain public support by utilizing popular discontent over the economic crisis, set against the backdrop of a wider social anxiety and anti-immigrant convictions.

Public insecurity is one of the key tenets of the xenophobic discourse against immigration. Ultra-right parties have attempted to show that an increase in immigration leads to a rise in crime, and they thus present themselves as parties of law and order that need to enforce tough policies against immigration to prevent crime. For example, the Belgian far-right political party Vlaams Belang openly opposes immigration, associating it with drug trafficking. Many of these parties also associate the Muslim population with the increase in crime and public insecurity.

Anti-Islamic conviction and anxiety over immigration levels have appeared at the centre of many far-right political campaigns, leading some to believe that the threat of terrorism and a perceived “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West is driving the resurgence of the right. However, matters closer to home are likely to be the real cause of these parties’ increased popularity in recent years, citing fallout from the financial crisis as crucial to their success.

Thomas Klau, a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, notes that “as anti-Semitism was a unifying factor for far-right parties in the 1910s, 20s and 30s, Islamophobia has become the unifying factor in the early decades of the 21st century.” Muslim immigrants have been blamed for economic pressures affecting the country. “The racist parties find any suitable scapegoat,” he said. “In the 1920s or 1930s it was the Jewish population who they attacked. In the last decade, it has been political refugees or asylum seekers, and in recent years it has been Muslims.”

The perception of Islam as the new world enemy, especially after the September 11 attacks, has created an abundant climate for right-wing organizations that encourage an Islamophobic discourse. In this way, the new extreme right justifies its antipathy to Islam, not in racist terms of superiority of one race over another, but rather in terms of conflicting cultural differences and identity. The “national preference” is not solely confined to the areas of work and the economy, but to the cultural realm as well. These groups insist that Muslim religion is radically incompatible with Europe because it subverts its traditions, culture and roots.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Itziar Aguirre

Itziar currently works as a Research Consultant at JLL, a commercial real estate capital intermediary. She holds an MBA in Accounting and Finance from the University of St. Thomas and an MSc in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics.