Across Europe, the far right is gaining a foothold in people’s minds, and in government. Tom Vasseur unpacks what makes these movements so popular, what their methods are, and how we can create an effective counter strategy.
With the recent near election, and now again possible, election of Norbert Hofer as Austrian president it has become clear that the European radical right is succeeding in staking a new position in the political landscape. Over the recent decades the radical right has made itself an established part of the political scene in almost every European country and has even occasionally participated in government. Now, however, the European radical right is on the verge of becoming the dominant political force in a considerable number of European countries. This new possibility of a radical right coalition which aims to fundamentally change Europe elicits several questions. On which subjects does the radical right find common ground? What are the strategies which are enabling the radical right to gain and keep a hold on power? What would be the basic elements of an effective Green counterstrategy?
The common ground of the radical right
Already four EU Member State governments – those of Hungary, Finland, Poland, and Croatia – consist wholly or partially of radical right politicians. That is to say politicians with a background in nativist, illiberal, and conservative movements who are nonetheless different from traditional extreme right movements with strong symbolically expressed ideological ties with fascism such as Hungary’s ‘Jobbik’ or the Golden Dawn in Greece.
These radical right politicians and governments broadly share the goals of standing in opposition to minorities, migration, European integration, and what they call ‘gender ideology’ – the emancipation of women and the gender diverse. This is not to say that there are no differences within this category. Broadly speaking, the radical right in post-communist Europe lays a greater emphasis on the ‘threat’ of ‘gender ideology’ while in Western Europe the opposition to the European Union receives more priority.
What these three topics all share is a corrosive effect on the traditional self-image and world-views of many European citizens. These citizens are, like most European citizens, to a significant degree politically and economically disempowered. Social identity was one of the few areas in the public sphere over which citizens had a certain degree of control. It is this sense of control which is disappearing, as evidenced by the growing salience of Europe’s own culture wars, and so adding another layer to disempowerment.
The radical right is not, however, limited to the Member States of the European Union. In fact, the countries in Europe where the radical right has managed to advance the furthest are Russia and Turkey. In both these countries the radical right did not seize power by itself, but instead partook in a broader centre right coalition which it subsequently hollowed out from the inside.
These two countries could be an example of what will become the norm if the radical right becomes dominant in other European countries. Russia itself has become an important reference point for the radical right. Inside the European Union their parties can roughly be grouped according to how they relate themselves to the government of Vladimir Putin. In addition, the ideological mix of conspiracism, illiberalism, and a strict sovereignty which Putin’s government has promoted internationally for a number of years reinforces current radical right discourse.
In general it can be said that the radical right of Western Europe has a favourable attitude towards Putin’s government, as demonstrated by France’s Front National, but also notably by the transnational nationalist Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA) movement. In post-communist Europe, by contrast, the sentiment is a mix of approval of the ideological message of Putin’s government with either a pragmatic attitude, as is the case in Hungary, or a suspicious one with regard to Russia’s concrete political interests in the region, like in Poland.
Over the last few years the Western European radical right has formed a coalition which doesn’t keep its cooperation limited to the European Parliament. The leading nationalist parties in Europe have held several international conferences to discuss their common goals and some of the figureheads of the radical right have been sharing their vision abroad. Here too Russia makes occasional appearances such as when it gave a multimillion euro loan to the Front National or when it mobilised several radical right parties to send “observers” to the sham-referendum meant to legitimise Crimea’s annexation.
The possibility which should be taken into account is that of nationalist movements continuing to cooperate after having won office. It is unlikely that they will be able to implement their programme fully after initial electoral victories. Certain legal and political barriers limiting their space to manoeuvre will remain in place, especially within the sphere of the European Union. To dismantle these, a certain political critical mass has to be reached. This makes continued cooperation with and support for other nationalist movements an attractive path for nationalists.
Radical right strategy
Not only does the contemporary European radical right share largely similar views and interests, which enables cooperation, they also have a similar approach towards gaining and maintaining political power. It is possible to specify this common political playbook by taking a look at where the radical right has succeeded. Radical right movements have shown they make use of a specific set of tactics. However, the extent to which they can make use of these tactics stands in proportion to their actual political power at a given point in time.
Initially a radical right movement will slander public broadcasting agencies, the free press, and academia. Smearing these institutions and communities is not meant just to delegitimise political opponents, it additionally has the function of neutralising the effect of criticisms of the radical right. Equally importantly, it puts the entire communication effort of moderate politicians under the suspicion of ringing hollow.
When the radical right succeeds in gaining successively larger degrees of concrete political power it will proceed to enact reforms to turn their hold on power into a permanent one. These reforms can consist of limiting politically adverse actors in civil society and the state by putting up legal barriers or starving them financially, staffing key positions with politically aligned personnel, or changing the architecture of the state.
What underlies these tactics is a strategy of enduring intimidation of political opponents by means of demagoguery and abuse of power. That is why when the radical right has finally gained complete hegemony in a country it will resort to direct intimidation and physical violence towards all its opponents. Indeed, the rise of the radical right can be said to be accompanied by an increasing shamelessness in resorting to these practices.
There are plethora of examples to choose from to illustrate the practical application of these tactics. A popular accusation of PEGIDA in Germany is to label the free press as Lügenpresse (lying press). The Front National too has used terms such as ‘journalistes institutionnels’ (institutional journalists) as part of a more consistent and organised campaign to delegitimise France’s media.
This attack on the press continues after the radical right has taken power, as evidenced by the Polish government which suppressed the public broadcasting agencies of Poland soon after being elected. In Croatia, the radical right Minister of Culture and right-wing First Deputy Prime Minister have engaged in a less fundamental, but equally characteristic effort to inhibit unwanted scrutiny through a combination of slashing funds for independent news organizations and disposing of journalists and editors at the public broadcaster. The most blatant attack on the free press has come from Erdoğan’s post-coup purge of Turkish society – a situation which is becoming a case in point for what the radical right is capable of if it can act freely.
These acts are also part of the radical right’s effort to reform the state and society to make permanent their grip on power. It doesn’t stop there though. The 2012 change of Hungary’s electoral system granting a systematic advantage to the ruling Fidesz party is another case in point. Likewise for the recently elected Croatian government’s open toleration of the intimidation of political opponents. Norbert Hofer, the defeated Austrian presidential candidate, in turn threatened to disband the government if it did not follow the radical right line on the refugee crisis during the first election campaign.
As suggested before, it is undeniable that both the preferred issues and methods of these various radical right governments in the heart of the EU bear a great resemblance to those of Putin and Erdoğan. It is likely their long-term strategic vision are equally similar to those of the strong men of Russia and Turkey. There should be no naivety about this. Like them, they will, given the chance, attempt to radically change our democratic European societies.
Gaining an understanding of the common agenda and strategy of the European radical right is not enough in itself to stop its advance. What is needed is a conscious and coordinated European Green counterstrategy. This will be accomplished by sabotaging the key elements of their discourse and strengthening the Green movement as a European actor. In the broader political arena it should put forth proposals which have the stated intent of addressing the root causes of the radical right’s rise.
First, the sham-patriotism of the radical right should be exposed and emphasised consistently. Most of the radical right parties in Europe have demonstrable foreign connections. This can take the form of financial support, such as the several multimillion-euro loans given to the Front National by Russian banks, but also direct political action. With regard to the latter it is important to keep an eye on the voting record of the radical right and to highlight noteworthy instances of voting in line with foreign interests.
Likewise Greens should remind the public of the praise given or received by the local radical right whenever foreign radical right forces show their true face. Dutch radical right politician Geert Wilders has, for example, a long-standing admiration of the Hungarian right, but this has been referred to surprisingly little. Conscious of the support they could lose, the radical right keeps quiet about these connections. Greens should not.
Another way to expose the radical right’s lack of true concern for their country is by separating their rhetorical nationalism from actual patriotism. Here Greens can fight on terrain where they have the upper hand. A great example is the case of the Białowieża Forest, a primeval forest which is one of Poland’s greatest treasures. The radical right Polish government has decided to permit logging in this unique area. The destruction of this national treasure is a clear example of the hypocrisy of the radical right and the emptiness of its self-professed patriotism.
At this moment the radical right is already selectively pointing to the success of allies in other countries to add to their own momentum. The task ahead is to turn this logic of association against itself. By consistently emphasizing how the parties and movements on the European radical right are interconnected organisationally and ideologically it will become common sense that they essentially share the same goals and methods. In that way it won’t just be cherry-picked successes of “acceptable” associates which help shape the public image of a radical right party, but also those actions which evoke disgust. It will make claims of being the protectors of freedom of expression or of democratic governance ring hollow. An example of turning the logic of association around would be when the party leader of GroenLinks, Jesse Klaver, recently branded Geert Wilders “the Erdoğan of the Low Countries” and pointed out all the commonalities between the two demagogues.
Second, there is a necessity to Europeanise the Green movement. Politics has already Europeanised sufficiently for an election victory of the radical right in one country to affect the political balance in other countries. This is not because it leads to any objective changes, but because national public spheres have become interwoven. This means that the dramatic structure of a national public sphere is affected by a wider range of events than just those occurring within the national borders. It is this which enables the radical right to gain momentum after a victory of an associated party in another country. Greens should similarly try to increase their momentum.
The different national Green parties should more explicitly take notice of the most important new developments of their European counterparts. Victories and losses over the whole of Europe should be incorporated more consciously in their national political narratives.
The initial election victory of Alexander Van der Bellen, running as an independent, but supported by the Austrian Die Grünen, was followed in most European countries by the regular formal congratulations from Green parties. Nowhere, however, did Green parties try to build on this any further in the public sphere. If he wins again next October it should be the starting point for Greens in Europe to put forth a new claim: that the Greens movement is the political force which is putting a stop to the radical right.
More ambitiously, options should be explored to expand the role of the European Green Party (EGP) in coordinating the different national Green parties. Moreover, instruments should be created within its framework to offer direct support to a specific national party at crucial moments such as during the Austrian presidential election.
Third, Greens should continue to put forward proposals which attempt to tackle the root causes of the radical right’s rise. This means first of all combating the corrosion of traditional identities on the one hand and addressing the political-economic developments which have enabled this corrosion.
Greens should push for a more conscious European identity-shaping policy. At this point the EU is likely the only thing stopping a full turn towards authoritarianism in some of its Member States. Civic engagement with the EU as a polity is the only long-term sustainable option to secure its continued existence. However, the Green movement should also champion national and regional cultural politics. There is a gentle and folkloric view of local identity which is both meaningful and potentially progressive. This is where the Greens should look towards. It is surprising in a sense that the Greens, on the frontline of most identity political struggles, have failed to pick up the struggle for cultural identity. Van der Bellen was exceptional in this sense by, among others, explicitly contesting the political ownership of the concept of Heimat (the relationship of a human being toward a certain spatial social unit.) However, outside of the Green movement organisations such as the Scottish National Party have shown that local identities and progressive politics can go together.
Nevertheless there are limits to political flexibility. Whereas a realignment is possible in the case of the question of national identity, gender emancipation can’t be compromised on. The struggle for gay and women’s rights is likely to be a point of contention which might limit the appeal of the Greens, but it is part of the core of Green politics.
However, shifting the focus of politics away from identity to economic issues can help mitigate the threat towards the struggle for gay and women’s rights. The development towards a profound automation of the economy contains the potential for the sort of economic narrative which the progressive movement has been searching for in the past eight years.
On the other hand, Greens should popularise the causal relation between the precarity inherent to neoliberal economics and the emergence of the radical right. Greens also point to how the neoliberal global economy – predicated not only on the mobility of capital, but also on the mobility of labour – has contributed to current migratory patterns. In this way it becomes clear that the best way to reduce migration is the path of global justice.
However, it is also important to be frank about the structural factors which strengthen the radical right. Many political commentators argue, for example, against a left-right division of the political sphere and instead depict the political arena as divided between populists and ‘moderates’. In general this division obscures more than it reveals. However, if we keep to this frame it is telling that supposed populist movements tend to have a more left-wing character in countries which are a transit for migratory pressures rather than an end-destination. Without a fundamental change in the nature of these flows or an actual stop to them the xenophobic tendencies of anti-establishment politics in Western-Europe are likely to remain.
Likewise, the greater importance accorded to the ‘threat’ of ‘gender ideology’ in Eastern-Europe is in part an expression of the tendency to reject all matters associated with communism in post-communist countries. This too is a feature of the European political landscape which is likely to endure for some time.
Still, there is a lot of support to be won for Greens everywhere and a lot to be lost if we fail. The radical right needs to be exposed for what it is or many Europeans will suffer and our democracies will be damaged, perhaps irreversibly. It is for the Greens to develop a conscious European counterstrategy taking into account the circumstances which enabled this threat to Europe to arise in the first place.