Putting the radical-right ‘back in their box’: How do we defeat Europe’s growing populist movement?

Caitlin Logan

With radical right wing politics gaining record levels of support in Europe and the US, CommonSpace asks: how did we get here, what role has the political establishment played, and what can the left do to turn the tide?

“CRIME IN Germany is way up. Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!”

This was the ‘analysis’ of United States President Donald Trump on migration in Europe last month.

While factually inaccurate (crime in Germany is at its lowest in decades), with over 19,000 retweets and 80,000 likes, Trump’s remarks hint at the threads connecting radical right-wing politics around the world. The rise of the radical right is a global trend with global causes and global consequences, and while Trump has ridden the tide and reaped the benefits, so too have populist parties across Europe.

Last year, an extensive study by Bloomberg found that radical-right parties won an average of 16 per cent of the vote in the most recent parliamentary elections across Europe – compared to 11 per cent in 2007, and just five per cent in 1997.

In 2017, the far-right Dutch Freedom Party became the second largest party in The Netherlands’ House of Representatives, Alternative for Germany (AfD) became the first far right party to enter the Bundestag in 50 years, and France saw Front National leader Marine LePen enter the second round of voting in the presidential election and win 33 per cent of the vote. 

And in 2018, Hungary saw the re-election of Viktor Orban, leader of the increasingly far-right and anti-democratic Fidesz – and public supporter of Trump’s presidency in 2016 – as prime minister, a position which he has already used to criminalise the aiding of undocumented migrants.

Western Europe’s first populist government formed in Italy in June, with a coalition between the far-right League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), who are now seeking to  produce a list of Roma people and where they are in the country.

Now, polling suggests Sweden, typically characterised as a progressive utopia, might see the far-right Sweden Democrats become the second-largest, if not the largest, part in the Riksdag.

The statistical writing is now well and truly on the wall that there has been a rise in support for anti-immigration and populist views across Europe. The question, then, is why? And can the course be altered?

Journalist and author Paul Mason suggests that two key factors have converged to allow for the rise of “authoritarian nationalism and fascism in Europe”.

One the one hand, there is the economic inequality exemplified by Christoph Lakner and Branko Milanovic’s “elephant graph”, which illustrated that between 1988 and 2008, the wages of the working class in Western countries dipped, despite global economic growth. The chart, Mason argues, shows that “working class people have got very little out of globalism”.

This, he says, has been a major driver in the growing antipathy to political and international institutions. “Working class people are saying ‘hang on a minute, we’re not benefitting from this system’. Look at what happened in the Brexit vote,” Mason says.

“You can say some of it was xenophobia, some of it was racism, but people could ask the question: ‘our fathers and grandfathers built this welfare state, why are you [migrants] suddenly entitled to it?’. The answer is not that they shouldn’t be, but the liberal centre seems incapable of having those conversations.”

This leads on to the second major global phenomena which Mason believes has fuelled support for the far right: a failure by the EU to adequately handle the influx of migrants to Europe, which peaked at over 1 million in 2015, before falling to 41,000 this year.

Under EU law, migrants reaching Europe must apply for asylum in the first EU country they enter – meaning that areas such as Italy and Greece tend to be hit hardest, whilst also suffering most from economic austerity.

“The EU as an institution hasn’t had a real policy on migration. Its response to the refugee crisis was first of all to block people’s passage in the early years, around 2011 – then Merkel said those rules no longer apply and disturbed the whole situation,” Mason says.

The perception that these two issues have fed into the radical-right’s success in recent years is supported by Bloomberg’s research, which found that most far-right parties in Europe favoured restricting immigration, opposed multiculturalism, and shared a right-wing ideological stance, while many were actually on the left on economic issues, and anti-elite rhetoric was central to almost all of the parties’ agendas.

All of the parties fell on the Eurosceptic side of the spectrum, with most strongly opposed to the EU.

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Chris Bambery, co-author of a recent book on Catalan and Spanish politics who has close connections with Italy, echoes Mason’s view, pointing to economic hardship the country as the basis for the far-right’s success there.

“The situation in Italy has to be understood in the context of over two decades of zero growth and economic stagnation which has hammered living standards, created high levels of youth unemployment in particular, while those jobs available are increasingly precarious (part time, zero hour contracts and so on),” Bambery explains.

“Traditionally Italian governments devalued the currency in order to reduce the cost of exports on which the economy depended but since joining the Eurozone that option is ruled out. Instead, as with elsewhere in Europe’s South, the Euro has helped reduce the cost of German imports and increased the cost of goods sold by Italy inside the EU and beyond.”

Bambery says that, as well as ruling out a bailout for Italian banks which are “tottering on the edge of bankruptcy”, the EU is thought by many Italians to have failed to support the country by ensuring more even distribution of migrants reaching Europe.

“The League, formerly Northern League, switched from attacking southern Italians (supposedly spongers) to attacking migrants, Muslims and the EU,” he explains. This position gained traction, Bambery says, and “Italy, once enthusiastic about the EU, is now one of the most Eurosceptic countries in Europe”.

Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, agrees that Italy has been placed in a difficult position, opening the door to exploitation of these issues by the right.

“I have no sympathy for turning ships of people away, but I do have sympathy that countries suffering the most from austerity and the migrant crisis have been left alone to deal with this,” he says.

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Dearden believes that the dominance of neoliberal thinking has been central to the democratic crisis. “This, and rapidly rising inequality has laid fertile ground for the far right as it led to a real anger that people have been marginalised and left out,” he says.

In reality, Dearden argues that economic inequality and migration are interlinked – but not in the way commonly suggested by the right. “The neoliberal, free market model has created the conditions that has forced so many migrants to flee their countries.”

Penny Cole, activist with the Real Democracy Movement, says that anti-immigration sentiment is a tool employed by the radical-right for its own benefit. “Migration is used to scapegoat an identifiable group in society in place of those who are actually responsible for both people’s economic problems and fears, and for the conditions of the countries migrants are fleeing from or leaving for economic reasons,” she says.

In fact, she says that this ideology is an extension of the view of the neoliberal establishment which works to “convince people that their national border is crucial to their identity and well-being”.

Speaking to these activists and thinkers on the left, it’s clear that disaffection with the establishment, with the old world order of politics and the economic system is far from confined to the radical right, and yet the right have thus far had more success in articulating this view.

However, Nick Dearden feels the tide may be turning. “You’ve seen that in the rise of support for Corbyn and for radical independence, for example,” he says. These movements, he says, are increasingly re-engaging those who have been alienated from politics in recent years, often those worst off in society – a move he says will be essential to the left’s success.

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“You’ve got to start taking people seriously again – in parts of Britain people are suffering real problems. You’ve got to give them a solution, some hope and a future,” he says.

Dearden argues that this must be achieved through a concerted effort to counter the anti-migrant line of the far-right. “Reduce inequality, improve public services, provide decent jobs and say that migrants are not the enemy: the reason this has happened is that nobody has cared about your interests – they’ve cared about big business,” he adds.

Mason agrees that it is necessary for the left and centre to make the right’s “scapegoating story fall apart”, something he says will only be achieved by “creating prosperity” in each country, whilst starting to tell a “progressive story” everywhere which allows migrants to fit in. Part of this, he says, will also mean creating a coherent strategy for immigration at the EU level.

Bambery points to a need for greater organisation on the left, with the example of Italy, where the Communist Party collapsed with the fall of the Berlin Wall, while its radical left successor Rifondazione Comunista joined a coalition government which implemented neo-liberal measures and fell apart.

“Yet, there are tens of thousands of people who identify themselves as being Communist or on the radical left. If they can get organised, and combine opposition to racism with fighting austerity, the conditions are there for resistance,” he says.

In Bambery’s view, this necessitates dropping the left’s traditional support for the EU. “Instead they need to attack its total lack of democracy and its full blooded neo-liberalism,” he says.

Dearden, on the other hand, believes there is as much chance of reforming the EU as any other “space”, while the institution’s biggest problem comes from the concentration of power among the small power bloc of countries – something he says needs to change.

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These issues notwithstanding, Dearden says he simply thinks the EU, or something like it, is “necessary”, given the “massive global problems” which cannot be solved at a nation state level.

Cole suggests that the left must be more prepared to “ attack the system, the status quo, the elites”, and to move away from expecting traditional parties, like Corbyn’s Labour, to provide the answer.

“The left as a whole has ignored the central question of the nature of the state, power and democracy in capitalist society,” she says. “The left swings between the crudely anarchic (all states are bad) and the idea that we can return to some mythical golden age that predates neoliberal capitalism.

“It isn’t possible to go back in history, so the only option open is to develop an alternative concept of ‘the state’.

“We need a vision of real democracy, moving to more direct forms that put people in charge in their communities, towns, regions and, above all, their workplaces. That could put the right wing back in their box.”

Political reforms; bottom up changes; inside the EU; outside the EU – there appears to be no one strategy on the left for how to turn back the tide on the radical right’s advance across Europe. This confusion has played itself out in divisions within parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain over whether to work inside the institutions or outside, and how far to compromise with the existing European order.

But if there’s one lesson to learn from the rise of the radical right it is perhaps that the importance of one strategy is less than that of having one clear message.

Picture courtesy of Fabio Visconti