The stakes for Europe are higher than they seem in elections overshadowed by the far right

The stakes for Europe are higher than they seem in elections overshadowed by the far right

In the 6 to 9 June elections, Europeans are staking much more than it seems: with unprecedented support for the far right, between high levels of discontent and disinformation, they risk condemning themselves to losing social rights and legitimising a divided and ineffective European Parliament.

(José Álvarez Díaz)

Less than 80 years have gone by since the end of World War II, and barely three generations later, the European Union, which was born out of the ideal that no such thing should ever happen again, is facing its 10th European Parliament elections overshadowed by an unprecedented rise in support for far-right parties in the EU.

In six countries, four of them founders of the EU, the far right are already leading in the polls, from Latvia (with 8.1 per cent of voting intentions) to the Netherlands (22.4 per cent), Italy (27.2 per cent), Belgium (27.4 per cent), Austria (28.2 per cent) and France (30.7 per cent). In eight others (Sweden, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Finland, Germany, Spain and Portugal), the radical right are amongst the top three in the polls. Furthermore, until a few months ago they were governing Poland, and are currently part of the governments of Italy, Hungary, Finland and Latvia, and are providing vital parliamentary support to Sweden’s conservative cabinet.

The polls for June predict a centre right victory in the European Parliament, but populist, anti-immigration and philo-fascist parties are garnering levels of voter support that could make it much harder to make decisions on the major challenges of the coming years, be it the war in Ukraine, climate change, disinformation or artificial intelligence.

Wherever the far right has a hold on power, we are beginning to see reversals in social rights, education and historical memory, while its obsession with immigration and the normalisation of its demagogic positions are weakening the continent’s democratic pillars.

Faith in European institutions has been eroded by a decade of social cuts, unemployment, inflation and precarious work linked to the austerity measures adopted across most of the EU after the debt crisis unleashed in 2009. More recently, it has also been undermined by the economic impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the normalisation of the far right in public debate, and rampant disinformation. All in all, the far right’s great achievement has been to sow its own controversy over the identity of Europeans (‘White and Christian’), and to harness discontent with the current situation and channel it against immigration everywhere.

“Concerns about (non-European, non-White) migrants is, indeed, the biggest driver of the far-right vote,” says Kai Arzheimer, professor of politics in the Department of Political Science of the University of Mainz in Germany, who has been studying this phenomenon for three decades and is one of Europe’s leading experts on the subject, in conversation with Equal Times. “Over the last five or six decades, and particularly over the last two decades, almost all European societies have become much more diverse in ethnic and cultural terms, and this rapid change creates a degree of anxiety that is mostly unrelated to the economic consequences of migration, which, according to most estimates, are vastly beneficial.”

Immigration, he explains, is an “asymmetric” issue, because it is a much bigger concern for voters who are against it than for those who defend it, with the complication that “far-right parties essentially ‘own’ the issue in much the same way that green parties ‘own’ environmental issues”. As a result, centre-right or centre-left groups that toughen their stance on immigration in the hope of winning back votes only succeed in “keeping the issue high on the public’s agenda, which tends to benefit the far right”.

“The normalisation of the far right by centre-right (and sometimes centre-left) parties began in the 1990s and early 2000s in Austria, Italy, the Netherlands and Scandinavia,” he recalls. Aside from coalitions formed out of self-interest, “in some cases, former centre-right parties may even borrow a page (or more) from the far right playbook and turn into radicalised mainstream parties (the Tories in the UK or Austria’s ÖVP under Sebastian Kurz are good examples of this)”. The problem is that “once this genie is out of the bottle, it is very difficult to reverse this normalisation. Maintaining a cordon sanitaire around the far right always requires the goodwill of the centre right, or at least, their insight that, in the long run, they will be better off if they help contain it.”

In this respect, the memory of European societies that have lived through decades of dictatorship can influence how the major parties and the far right themselves react. “The behaviour of the elites is crucial for far right mobilisation,” adds Arzheimer, as seen with the FPÖ in Austria in the 1990s or the AfD in Germany today, while the cases of Vox (Spain) and Chega (Portugal) show that the “vaccination effect” does not last forever.

Ultraliberalism and xenophobia in the Nordic paradise

In northern Europe, the far right has long been present in political life in Denmark and Norway, but has more recently spread to Finland and Sweden. “The far right is now prospering in the Nordic countries: countries leading global happiness indices, countries that were among the first full parliamentary democracies (with universal suffrage), countries that are known for high levels of trust among citizens,” Pekka Ristelä, head of international affairs at the Finnish trade union confederation SAK, tells Equal Times.

The radical Finns Party has been governing in coalition with the conservatives since 2023, when it won 20.1 per cent of the vote. It controls the Ministry of Finance, which has “behaved in a very aggressive manner towards trade unions” that have played an “absolutely essential” role in opposing the recent social cuts with “several waves of political strikes”. The far right call the unions a mafia, to delegitimise them, Ristelä explains, and although they still have “more than 50 per cent of public support” for “their stances and strikes”, he acknowledges the need to improve the political and ideological dialogue with the rank-and-file.

Meanwhile, in Stockholm, the populist Sweden Democrats (SD), co-founded by a veteran of the Nazi Waffen-SS, has been the conservative government’s strongest ally since 2022. It already has the support of one in five Swedes, although the strategist for the LO national trade union confederation, Johan Ulvenlöv, tells Equal Times that the unions and social democrats are pushing back against the support for them among working people, tackling the way they address their concerns on issues such as healthcare and crime, as well as the deprivatisation of public services, infrastructure and education.

“This has more impact [when it comes to generating support for social democrats] than a few demonstrations,” he argues. “If trade unions are doing a good job, more people will become members, and this strengthens democracy and builds resilience against the far right.”

This also worked for a while in Germany. “The legacy of the Nazi rule as well as far-right politicians’ ineptness and obsession with the past made it easy to ostracise the far right,” says political scientist Arzheimer, but that all changed with the arrival of the xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD), “which went from soft-Eurosceptic to prototypical radical right in the space of just a few years, and is now moving towards traditional right-wing extremism”.

Anti-fascist demonstrations in Germany – an example for Europe?

In the country that has looked most squarely at its past, whose Nazi dictatorship was responsible for the deaths of at least 18 million European civilians, AfD rose slightly in the voting intention polls in April, reaching 16.3 per cent. This increase came about in spite of the recent scandal surrounding its top candidate, Maximilian Krah, accused of accepting bribes from China and Russia to influence his work as an MEP in Brussels, although his supporters consider it a ploy to discredit him, and, above all, just months after it was revealed that AfD members were involved in an international far-right plot to implement a masterplan on a “remigration” scheme under which foreign-born residents, including those with German citizenship, could be deported, based on racist criteria.

Civil society’s response led to one of the most powerful symbolic moments in recent European politics. Tens of thousands of Germans took to the streets over the following weekends, to signal their rejection of the AfD’s positions, and their defence of German democracy, and the principles of integration and respect for human rights that it is supposed to represent.

In the city of Bonn, some 30,000 people rallied under the slogan “Nie Wieder ist Jetz!” (“Never Again is Now!”), carrying banners with slogans such as “Nazis Out” and “Hate is Not an Opinion”. At the end of the event, the crowd suddenly began to sing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, a passage from his Ninth Symphony, based on verses by Friedrich Schiller, which celebrates fraternal joy among all human beings, and which thousands of voices spontaneously chanted in the genius of Bonn’s birthplace. This music, one of the greatest contributions of German culture to humankind, and that, on 7 May, marked exactly 200 years since its first performance, has been the anthem of the EU since 1972, which endowed the moment with moving symbolism for many European democrats inside and outside Germany.

“I’m rather optimistic, and we shouldn’t be naive, but only about 20 to 25 per cent of our citizens have lost trust in the government,” said Reiner Hoffmann, who was president of Germany’s DGB trade union confederation until a couple of years ago and is now vice president of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), Germany’s oldest political foundation, in conversation with Equal Times.

“You can lose trust very quickly and it really takes time to win it back. People have to see and feel that there is a change,” says Hoffmann.

“At first, I was a bit sceptical when we started with these huge demonstrations, because how long can this last? You can’t organise mass demonstrations every weekend, or every other weekend. There are many more things that have to happen, especially at the local level [where the far right is particularly present]. And in autumn there are also elections in three German states [Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg] where the AfD is quite strong.”

Hoffmann recalled that the far right in Germany has violent overtones (the lead candidate of the Social Democratic Party – SPD, Matthias Ecke, was recently hospitalised after being attacked while pasting election posters in Dresden, in one of nearly 2,800 crimes against German politicians recorded so far this year). Part of the AfD’s support, he says, comes from the uncertainty felt by citizens. Many issues, such as environmental sustainability policies, are perceived “as a threat, not an opportunity”. This, he says, is owed to poor communication on the part of the government, which has failed to explain to Germans how the ‘green transition’ will affect their wallets. On the other side is the climate-change denialist AfD, which rejects the immigration that was so warmly welcomed by much of German society in 2015, and is capitalising on the logistical problems that arose at local level in the integration of the refugees.

Our governments and trade “have not been sensitive enough to address those problems, which are real”, says Hoffmann. “Citizens are not per se against migrants, but what the AfD did, quite successfully, was to change the narrative. So, we are coming from an approach of inclusive integration to what the AfD said should be ‘exclusive solidarity’, which means solidarity with ‘our people’ who are unemployed, who are suffering the high rise in living costs. They successfully turned the most vulnerable people of society against the migrants. And we did not really counter this narrative, which was a big deficit on the part of trade unions.”

Arzheimer agrees that trade union involvement and education have historically been exclusionary factors in the far-right vote across Europe, and “while this effect may become weaker, and although the trade unions have problems of their own, I believe that trade unions and their networks are indispensable in ensuring an effective civil society response to the far right”.

The demonstrations in Germany were “very important, because they punctuated the populist narratives, and because they sent a very strong signal to the mainstream parties”, he adds, noting that several studies in France and Italy show that demonstrating against the far right, even weeks before an election, often takes several points off their voting intention figures. For Hoffmann, they have been a “wake-up call”, but much remains to be done at municipal, regional and trade union level to stop the situation from worsening. If we do not take care of it, he warned, “there is no guarantee that the European Union, as we have known it for 70 years now, is going to last forever”.

More ‘Hungarys’: the risk of more spokes in the wheel, everywhere

For Elena Ventura, coordinator of several research projects on the far right at the thinktank Carnegie Europe, the demonstrations have so far not spread to other countries, so they seem “very specific to Germany”, where there is “much collective shame for the Holocaust”, in contrast to Italy or Spain, where a radical, more explicit “nostalgia” for Mussolini and Franco is emerging.

She nonetheless agrees with Hoffmann that the far right is very effective at connecting with supporters in local elections, on the street and online, and that the major parties in general need to make significant improvements in these areas, as well as in their language and their messages, as “they are not explaining to people why immigration is beneficial” for their country.

Meanwhile, radical populists express themselves in simplistic and direct ways, connect very well with voters and “use social media very well” albeit using “illicit” tactics “such as disinformation”. Most Europeans are not necessarily aware of what is at stake in these elections, warns Ventura, but it is likely that a much more divided and ineffective European Parliament will emerge, with new spokes in the wheel, like “repetitions of Hungary”. Despite Giorgia Meloni’s government, Italy may not necessarily go this way, but as of this summer onwards we could see it happening in countries such as Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and, “for sure, France”.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin