Zack Blumberg: Europe’s far right movements come on strong, but what next?

Thursday, April 11, 2019 - 3:34pm

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The Michigan Daily

In the 2015 Polish parliamentary election, the far-right Law and Justice Party, or PiS, won with an outright majority (meaning they did not need to form a coalition to govern), something that had not been done in Poland since the fall of communism in 1989. While other European far-right parties aren’t doing nearly as well, they are still garnering both votes and attention; Marine Le Pen of the National Rally finished second in France’s presidential election in 2017, the Alternative for Germany, or the AfD, holds 13 percent of the seats in the German Bundestag and the League, another far-right party, is part of Italy’s governing coalition. Unfortunately, it’s undeniable that this extremist movement is doing well. However, the rapid rise of this movement raises a critical question: Are European far-right parties sustainable and, if so, how? While the resurgence of right-wing extremist ideology in Europe is highly disconcerting, it is unlikely that fear-mongering and xenophobia are issues that stable, successful parties can be built upon in the long-term.

To begin, however, it is important to acknowledge the flip side of political sustainability: building up a far-right populist party is, comparatively, quite easy. European far-right parties focus, first and foremost, on xenophobia and immigration. Compared to the platforms of more traditional parties, which are usually more complex and nuanced, being anti-immigration is simple, easy to explain and taps into anger and fear. This helps recruit people who feel disenfranchised and creates a strong voter base. Additionally, by virtue of being extreme and providing shock value, far-right parties receive news coverage disproportionately. The AfD, a party that was created in 2013, exemplifies both of these phenomena. In 2017, only four years after its founding, the party claimed 13 percent of the seats in the Bundestag, placing it third. Additionally, in the lead up to the election, it was by far the most discussed party on Twitter. While the AfD is only one example, it shows how rapidly far-right parties can grow, as well as how effectively they can dominate political discourse in the short-term.

However, in the longer term, many of the tactics utilized by far-right parties are simply unsustainable and do not lend themselves to stability, success or effective governance. First, being xenophobic and anti-immigrant relies primarily on a large influx of immigrants. Since peaking in 2016, the number of immigrants coming to Europe has been declining — less than half as many immigrants arrived in 2018 as in 2016. This could decimate the platforms of many of these parties, leaving them with little to campaign on as people become less worried about immigration. Additionally, while railing against immigrants is an effective way to garner support for the party, it does not translate smoothly into effective governance. When in power, a party is expected to work to accomplish things. As the Law and Justice Party has discovered, far-right tactics are highly effective for gaining power, but are less impactful when making policy. Being in power, PiS is under the microscope, and things like corruption scandals have lowered the party’s approval ratings. Additionally, as immigration rates have fallen, people have become less worried about the issue, and subsequently less enamored with the party’s xenophobic message. Realizing this, the PiS has shifted, choosing to target LGBTQ people instead. This shift in approach underscores the shaky political ground European far-right parties stand on, especially when thrust into the limelight.  

Additionally, the bold claims far-right parties tend to make can clash with legal and bureaucratic boundaries, forcing parties to walk back on these positions. Near the time of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, withdrawing from the European Union became a trendy talking point for many populist right parties. Across the continent, parties came up with their own portmanteaus to promote the idea of leaving — a Nexit in the Netherlands or a Swexit in Sweden. However, as Brexit has devolved into a political and bureaucratic nightmare, bold far-right parties have been forced to acknowledge how disastrous the process of leaving would be. Even Steve Bannon, an American far-right nationalist who has worked with European far-right parties, admitted these parties needed to shift toward reforming the EU from the inside. These legal clashes can serve to undermine the bombastic promises that drive far-right parties in the first place and sink their reputation.

While all these factors point toward the unsustainability of the European far-right movement, its collapse is far from a foregone conclusion. In countries like Poland, the lack of a strong or competent opposition party can allow the PiS to govern relatively unchallenged, even if the party itself becomes less popular. Additionally, and most worryingly, if far-right parties are able to overcome bureaucratic barriers, they can work to undermine the systems that are designed to contain them, as PiS has somewhat successfully attempted to do by undermining Poland’s court system.

While Europe’s most recent far-right movement has grown rapidly, that’s to be expected, thanks to the nature of the movement’s parties. The real test for these parties, however, is how they fare going forward as political and social climates change. Future success is far from certain, and there are many factors that threaten their ability to succeed in the future.

Zack Blumberg can be reached at zblumber@umich.edu.