The rise of Europe's Right


THESE ARE troubling times for mainstream political parties across Europe as they watch voters turn away from traditional loyalties, often in favour of a new breed of right-wing populists. As our series “Europe’s New Right” illustrated last week, the rising populists are a diverse bunch.

 Finland’s eurosceptic True Finns, which won almost a fifth of the votes in last month’s general election, would like to think they have little in common with the likes of Hungary’s racist Jobbik, some of whose members wear military uniforms as they terrorise the country’s Gypsy community.

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders coats his anti-Muslim rhetoric in the claim that he is defending liberal Dutch values such as respect for gay rights and equal treatment for women. In France, National Front leader Marine Le Pen has rebranded the party her father founded, avoiding anti-Semitic outbursts and presenting herself as a contemporary champion of lower middle-class and working-class voters.

For all that divides them, however, Europe’s new populists are united in their opposition to immigration, their hostility to Muslims and their demand that the powers of the European Union should be rolled back. Most owe their electoral gains to disaffected working-class and lower middle-class voters. For many of these, globalisation and European integration have brought few apparent benefits but have exposed them through immigration to greater competition for jobs and public services at a time of increased economic insecurity.

Despite promises to bring Europe closer to its people, successive EU treaties have made Brussels appear, if anything, more remote and incomprehensible to many citizens. The weakness of pan-European political movements and the technocratic nature of much that happens in Brussels means that many voters feel they have little political purchase on EU decision-making.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks helped to intensify and sometimes legitimise the anti-Muslim prejudice that had been growing long before throughout much of Europe as societies struggled to come to terms with a new, multicultural reality. Successful populists cut through the complexity of issues like Europe, economic interdependence and multiculturalism with simple, apparently common sense prescriptions.

Where Europe’s right-wing populists have tasted power, they have helped to introduce tougher immigration laws and targeted religious and ethnic minorities with restrictive measures. Many of their initiatives have been either fruitless or counter-productive and the rise of far-right groups can have a chilling effect on inward economic investment. The most lasting impact of the new populism may, however, be its role in coarsening the political discourse in many European countries.

Neither pandering nor handwringing is likely to halt the rise of the right unless Europe’s political leaders address the alienation that is driving the new movements. Social Democrats have an especially important role to play in developing more compelling policies and reconnecting with their core constituency.