Less marginal, closer to power: the new cycle of the extreme right in Western Europe

Today it is believed that the turning point in Geert Wilders’ path to victory in the Netherlands elections was the decision of the leader of the conservative VVD party to open the door to the formation of the far-right as a coalition partner. It was at that moment when many voters thought that it made no difference to vote for Wilders or for the VVD.

More and more right-wing leaders across Western Europe are making the same decision: to accept the far right into a coalition so they can keep their own parties in power. The resounding failure of this tactic for VVD’s Dilan Yeşilgöz, who finished in third place, brings with it an important lesson that extends beyond the Netherlands.

We have entered a new phase of far-right politics in Western Europe. These ultra parties no longer languish on the margins of the political sphere, where they could be ignored or used by the establishment politician (right-wing). Today the extreme right is not only part of the dominant political current, but is increasingly dominant within it.

Given that the ideas originating from the extreme right, especially on immigration, have already spread throughout Europe, it is almost impossible for conservative leaders to continue excluding ultra parties from the government. Not without reason, many conservative voters do not understand why parties that are quite similar to their own, although with a more populist imprint, are excluded from the formation of coalitions. They want their parties to govern in strong right-wing coalitions, and not in weak centrist coalitions. They want governments made up of parties that share their views on the issues that matter most to them (tougher immigration controls, more law and order, less Europe).

We saw it last year in Sweden, where the majority of supporters of two of the coalition parties preferred the far-right Sweden Democrats over the center-left Social Democrats, and now we are seeing it again in the Netherlands, where A revolt has broken out within Yeşilgöz’s party because she has once again rejected the idea of ​​joining a right-wing government in which she would be under Wilders.

The path here

How did we get here? Far-right parties such as the Austrian Liberal Party (FPÖ) and the French National Front (FN) began to make their way electorally at the end of the 20th century. But although several of these parties managed to enter national parliaments, most remained relatively small, attracting electoral support in the low single digits.

At the beginning of the 21st century, many far-right parties reached their first milestones on the political scene. From then on, another phase began, in which other parties, including some center-left parties such as the Danish Social Democrats, introduced far-right ideas into the public sphere. As this happened, the extreme right itself became part of politics. mainstream.

In the 1990s, only one national government in Western Europe included a far-right party: the Northern League, in Berlusconi’s first government in Italy. In this century, far-right participation in government has become increasingly common. In Austria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland, far-right parties have formed part of or propped up national governments. In several countries, these parties are so normalized that forming coalitions with them no longer requires any special justification.

In previous decades, far-right parties in Western Europe always participated in national governments from a position of weakness, either as junior partners or as external support parties. They were often electorally small and politically inexperienced, and the primary goal of their participation in government was to achieve full normalization rather than push their own political program. That is why, for example, the Sweden Democrats are willing to support a right-wing minority government, even though in terms of seats in Parliament they are larger than any of the government parties. Thus, these Western European coalitions have rarely attacked the liberal democratic system as far-right governments in central and eastern Europe, especially in Hungary and Poland, have done.

What has changed

But two important things have changed in recent years. Firstly, especially since the so-called “refugee crisis” of the mid-2010s, most right-wing parties have not only adopted the nativist discourse of the far right, but also its policies. The best example of this is the European People’s Party (EPP), the largest group in the European Parliament, which brings together most of the main right-wing parties in Europe. The EPP’s 2019 manifesto addressed the issue of immigration under the title “a Europe that preserves our way of life”. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, even tried to give a similar name to the commissioner (and vice-president) in charge of migration issues. As right-wing parties have shifted further to the right, for many of them the far right has become a “natural” coalition partner.

Secondly, far-right parties have continued to grow electorally thanks to the fact that traditional parties have incorporated and imitated their themes and political approaches, and not despite this. In fact, today, far-right parties are first in polls in Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland; In Sweden, the main right-wing party is ultra. Currently, the far right leads only one national government in Western Europe: Giorgia Meloni’s Italian coalition, formed by his party, Fratelli d’Italia; the League, from the extreme right; Forza Italia, right-wing populist, leaderless after the death of Silvio Berlusconi; and Civici d’Italia, centre-right and largely irrelevant. The next Dutch government could follow the same path, and the Austrians would not be far behind.

Of course, three swallows do not make a far-right summer. Italy remains an exception, and Wilders could fail to build his coalition. Furthermore, in several Western European countries, far-right parties remain quite marginal (as in Iceland and Ireland) or are far from dominating the right-wing bloc (as in Portugal and Spain). However, in an increasing number of countries, traditional right-wing politicians can no longer take for granted that they will lead, much less dominate, coalitions shared with the far right.

Therefore, it is crucial that they begin to rethink their priorities and strategies for building alliances. Under what conditions would they join the government of a far-right party? What are your red lines? And, more importantly: how are you going to enforce these red lines as a junior partner?

Although liberal democracy remains the legal framework in both the EU and its Member States, and continues to enjoy broad popular support in their societies, we can no longer take its ideological hegemony and political control for granted. In today’s Europe, liberal democratic values ​​such as pluralism and minority rights must be defended and not taken for granted. And they must be defended and reinforced, not only against the increasingly dominant far-right, but also against the traditional radicalized politics that, to a large extent, has normalized it.

Cas Mudde is the Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia.

Translation by Julián Cnochaert.

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