What’s next? Europe and the far-right

Thanos Davelis, Director of Public Affairs, HALC

Over the past 5 years voters have made a habit of rejecting the mainstream center-right and center-left parties that dominated the post-World War II period. Europeans have faced circumstances typically associated with wartime due to the simultaneous financial and migration crises, and European institutions have struggled to respond. The policy failures of European governments and the EU itself has given life not only to fringe parties, but to movements that were once considered anathema in Europe. Indeed, the very concept of Europe is facing an existential threat, with the UK opting for Brexit, and major opposition parties defining themselves as anti-EU.

In the wake of the economic crisis, Greek voters overwhelmingly rejected PASOK, turning it from the political powerhouse of post-dictatorship Greece to a single digit party. While Greek voters rejected mainstream political parties, they never turned to groups that stood in contrast to European values as other European electorates have. Instead, Prime Minister Tsipras has adamantly advocated in support of Europe and Greece’s European orientation. The neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn did gain some support, rising to 7% of the vote, but its rise is largely contained in a country that is historically antagonistic to fascism. Moreover, its ideology and actions have been continually challenged, with the Greek people exposing them for what they are: a hateful, fascist, neo-Nazi group. In contrast, anti-Europe, anti-immigration, far-right populist parties in Europe are gaining traction.

Anti-EU parties are on the rise in the Europe. They are leading governments in Hungary and Poland. Last year, the British voted to the leave the EU. Populist far-right parties carved out significant percentages in elections across the continent. The right-wing populist Marie Le Pen challenged Macron in the final round of the French presidential elections this year, and Geert Wilders’ far-right, anti-immigration Party for Freedom finished second in the Dutch parliamentary elections with 13% of the vote and 20 seats in parliament.

During this time, Germany — under the steady hand of Angela Merkel — seemed immune to these developments. Last weekend’s election, however, painted a different picture. Angela Merkel won a fourth term, but it was the conservatives’ worst election result under her leadership. The election also pointed out that Germany is not immune to populist forces. The anti-Europe, anti-immigration, right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the Bundestag for the first time, coming in third place with over 13% of the vote on Sunday. What is the political norm in many European countries was considered unthinkable in Germany. Not anymore.

With populist parties performing better in elections now than any time since WWII, and Europe hobbling along without a clear vision, parties like the AfD in Germany, the National Front in France, and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands are unlikely to go away anytime soon. The question is: where do we go from here?

The vast majority of people voting for fringe parties like the AfD are not voting because they identify with an extreme right wing ideology, but rather out of protest and frustration. As is the case in the United States, many voters feel neglected by their governments and the mainstream parties, and are looking to parties of protest. Therefore, how current governments, administrations, and institutions react will determine if these extremist parties maintain high levels of support.

Dutch political scientist and expert on populism Cas Mudde writes:

You fight populists not by ignoring them, demonizing them or adopting their agendas, but by clearly addressing all the issues — including the ones they care about — on the basis of your own ideology. By making a positive, clear and convincing ideological case.

This is the truest way to not only combat far-right extremists, but also to reinforce the West’s shared democratic principles. European politicians, diplomats, and thought leaders recognize this. Merkel is a staunch advocate of European values, and now France’s President Emmanuel Macron — who was elected on a pro-European platform — is also taking up the cause for a reinvigorated Europe. Just this week, Macron warned European leaders they “no longer have the choice of being complacent,” and called for a “profound transformation” of the EU in order to win back the support of disgruntled citizens.

Europe’s capitals — particularly Athens — will therefore keep a close eye on developments in Berlin. The government that emerges in Germany will affect everything from the conclusion of the Greek bailout review and debt relief to European migration policy and EU relations with neighboring Turkey, and could raise questions about Germany’s commitment to Europe.

Katerina Sokou, the Washington DC correspondent for the Greek daily Kathimerini and a visiting fellow at GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs, said that given the current climate in Europe and the results of the election, “It will be more challenging for European leaders to push integration forward.” She added, however, that “on the other hand, I count on the chancellor’s abilities,” emphasizing that while Merkel may have less space to maneuver following the election, her support for Europe remains unwavering. Given Merkel’s past leadership on European issues, the fact that her legacy is on the line as she enters her last term, and Macron’s push for more Europe, it is very unlikely that a Merkel-led Germany will shirk from its commitments to Europe.

The recent rise of anti-European far-right populist parties is alarming, and their gains are challenging the core values and foundations of Europe as we know it. It appeared that populist forces were pushed back earlier this year in France and the Netherlands, but the AfD’s electoral gains in the recent German election mean questions about Europe’s future are resurfacing. There is an upside, however. The 13% the AfD gained in Germany still means 87% supported the established democratic parties. European leaders must now find a way to speak to these voters in a manner that reinvigorates the shared ideals that brought Europe together, and combats far-right populist rhetoric with a clear vision for Europe.

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