Europe’s Far-Right Revival: Unpacking the Surge

The far-right is gaining increasing power across Europe, with several countries now having right-politico parties in government or as major political forces including France and the Netherland are the latest. This trend is driven by a few key factors such as worsening economic conditions and decreasing living standards of the working and middle classes, worsened by neoliberal policies and the Eurozone crisis, which have led to frustration with mainstream parties. Far-right populists have effectively capitalized on this discontent, positioning themselves as advocates for the “common people” against the political establishment.

Concerns regarding immigration, particularly from Muslim-majority nations, have provided a fertile environment for far-right parties to advance nativist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic agendas. They blame immigrants and minorities as a threat to national identity and security, proposing simplistic solutions and fueling anxieties.

However, the failure of centre-left and left-wing parties to adequately address the economic and social worries of their traditional working-class support base has created a void that far-right populists have filled. The left’s perceived alignment with pro-EU, pro-immigration policies has alienated numerous voters, prompting them to search for alternatives.

Moreover, as mainstream centre-right parties increasingly embrace far-right language and policies, particularly on topics like immigration, it has contributed to the normalization of extremist perspectives. This blending of the lines between the far-right and centre-right makes populist parties seem more acceptable to a wider electorate.

Furthermore, growing dissatisfaction with the perceived absence of accountability and responsiveness of EU institutions to the needs of all member states has fueled Euroscepticism. Far-right parties exploit this sentiment, positioning themselves as protectors of national sovereignty against an overbearing, undemocratic EU bureaucracy.

Historical Context of Far-Right Movements in Europe

The rise of nationalism during the 19th and early 20th centuries, influenced by events such as the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, set the stage for the emergence of extreme right-wing ideologies. The pursuit of national self-determination and the establishment of nation-states often coincided with exclusionary, xenophobic, and authoritarian tendencies.

However, the success of fascist regimes in the interwar period, such as in Italy, Germany, and Spain, provided a historical precedent and inspiration for contemporary far-right movements. The appeal of these fascist governments, which promised to rescue their nations from “political and economic chaos,” has echoes in the current far-right rhetoric.

Throughout the Cold War period, nationalism continued to be a divisive influence, both within the Soviet sphere and in the resistance against communist governance. Nationalist uprisings in nations such as Poland, Hungary, and Yugoslavia presented obstacles to Soviet supremacy and the ideological predominance of communism.

Following the conclusion of the Cold War, the spread of European nationalist principles has been observed on a global scale and is evident in the form of anti-globalization sentiments and the ascent of radical right-wing populist factions across Europe. This trend has been intensified by economic disruptions and societal transformations linked to globalization.

Factors Contributing to the Rise of Far-Right Regimes

The decline in economic conditions, worsening living standards, and increasing inequality have played a significant role in fueling voter frustration with mainstream political parties. The failure of centre-left and centre-right parties to effectively address these economic challenges has paved the way for far-right populists to position themselves as advocates for the “common people” in opposition to the political establishment.

The perceived association of left-wing parties with pro-EU and pro-immigration policies has alienated many of their traditional working-class supporters, prompting them to explore alternatives in far-right populist movements. The failure of the left to reconnect with these dissatisfied voters has contributed to the ascent of the far right.

Far-right parties have demonstrated a skilful ability to capitalize on contentious topics such as the conflict in Ukraine, the economic challenges related to the cost of living, and environmental issues to rally support against the established political system and mainstream parties. This strategy has allowed far-right populists to garner growing support throughout Europe, presenting a significant threat to the fundamental principles of liberal democracy in the area.

Implications of Far-Right Regimes in Europe

The rise of far-right populist parties in Europe presents a significant challenge to liberal democratic values and institutions, Far-right governments have shown a willingness to weaken democratic checks and balances, erode minority rights, and consolidate authoritarian control. There are fears that far-right parties, once in power, may attempt to politicize and undermine the independence of the judiciary. The mainstreaming of far-right rhetoric and policies has deepened social polarization and fueled a “culture war” dynamic in various European societies.

The emergence of Eurosceptic, nationalist far-right parties pose notable obstacles to European integration and unity. The increasing influence of anti-EU populists in the European Parliament could disrupt the functioning of EU institutions and hinder consensus-building on crucial policy matters. 

The decline in support for traditional centre-right and centre-left parties, which have traditionally been pillars of European politics, further unsettles the political landscape. While a complete dismantling of the EU’s policy framework is improbable, there is a possibility, as indicated by the search results, that far-right parties could still undermine Europe’s ecological transition and other progressive initiatives.

The rise of far-right populism also has broader economic and geopolitical ramifications, the far-right parties’ protectionist and anti-globalization policies could lead to economic disruption and undermine Europe’s competitiveness.

Concerns have been raised about the ties between some far-right parties and authoritarian regimes like Russia, which could undermine Europe’s geopolitical cohesion and security. The internal divisions and instability caused by the far-right’s ascent could diminish Europe’s ability to play a leading role on the global stage.

Comparative Analysis of Far-Right Regimes in Different European Countries

The influence of far-right parties on liberal democracy has exhibited varying degrees of impact in different European countries. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party has strengthened its power by controlling the media and state institutions, posing a significant threat to the country’s liberal democratic principles. Similarly, in Poland, the Law and Justice (PiS) party’s assaults on the judiciary and manipulation of the media have undermined Polish liberal democracy, although there are signs of democratic resilience. 

On the other hand, Italy has seen Giorgia Meloni’s emergence as the first female far-right prime minister, marking a notable shift. However, internal ideological conflicts within the coalition and historical judicial resistance may limit the far-right’s capacity to undermine liberal democracy compared to other European nations. 

In Sweden, the increasing influence of the Sweden Democrats has prompted mainstream parties to address right-wing concerns, but the ultimate authority still lies with liberal democratic institutions, suggesting a less immediate threat. Meanwhile, in France, the National Rally’s transformation under Marine Le Pen has normalized far-right ideologies in French politics, affecting the interpretation of democratic values, despite the party’s exclusion from governance.

Regarding the European Union, the rise of far-right populism presents challenges to European integration and unity. The growing presence of Eurosceptic and nationalist parties in the European Parliament could disrupt EU institutions and policymaking processes. Furthermore, the decline in support for traditional centre-right and centre-left parties adds to the political instability, potentially resulting in a reversal of EU policies. The internal divisions and instability stemming from the ascent of far-right movements may also weaken Europe’s ability to assert a leading role on the global stage.

In conclusion, the rise of far-right populist movements in Europe is fueled by economic dissatisfaction, anti-immigrant sentiment, decline of traditional left-wing politics, normalization of extremist rhetoric, and disillusionment with the EU. Far-right parties position themselves as champions of the “common people” against the political establishment, impacting democratic norms and threatening EU cohesion. To counter this trend, mainstream parties, civil society, and EU institutions must reconnect with disaffected voters, promote social inclusion, strengthen democratic safeguards, and offer alternatives to the far-right’s divisive agenda to safeguard the future of liberal democracy and European integration.

[Image credit: Blandine Le Cain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Zubair Mumtaz is a Conflict / Security Analyst and an M.Phil. Scholar in Peace & Conflict Studies at National Defence University. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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