The revival of rightwing populism is not an isolated development that affects one or a few European countries. Anti-liberal parties of the far right are advancing across Europe-from the Progress Parties in Scandinavia to the Northern League in Italy, not forgetting the many similar parties that exist throughout post-communist Europe. In some countries they are in national government; in others, they are on the margins of power. Either way, they-and not parties of the left or centre-are increasingly shaping the agenda of politics.
The fact that this phenomenon is virtually pan-European should caution us against imagining that its causes are superficial. The new European far Right is a response to European and global developments that the parties of the centre have failed to address. In some measure, it is a reaction against the failures of centre parties; but more profoundly it arises from risks of globalisation to which no party has made any serious response. The solutions proposed by the populist Right are demagogic and bogus; but it understands that globalisation has casualties-even in the richest societies. As in the period between the two world wars, the radical Right is seizing the initiative because it understands that the status quo is unsustainable.
There are many deep differences between the far Right in the interwar period and the present. Not all of them are comforting. The standard textbooks of political science interpret the far right as a political aberration that can only develop in conditions of economic and political crisis. In this, as in many other respects, they lag behind the times. In the interwar period, fascist and Nazi parties took advantage of the fact that in many parts of Europe democracy was weak. Today, when democratic institutions are well entrenched throughout Europe, the parties of the far right aim to exploit democracy rather than to overthrow it. In the period between the world wars, the far right came to power on the back of mass unemployment and hyperinflation. Today it is advancing in countries-such as Austria-where unemployment and inflation are low and there is nothing remotely resembling a general economic crisis.
There are other differences. During the interwar period, the European far right was corporatist and protectionist in its economic policies. Today, although the pattern varies somewhat from country to country, it is largely neo-liberal. Like the parties of the centre, the far right accepts globalisation as an unalterable economic reality. Unlike the centre parties, it understands that globalisation changes not only the economy, but also society as a whole in ways that are uncomfortable and threatening to a great many people.
It is this latter fact, I believe, that explains much of the political success of the far right. Rightwing populist parties know that the free movement of capital and production threatens falling wages for many working people in western European countries. Rather than seeking to alter neo-liberal policies, however, they seek to target immigrants- who are themselves often casualties of globalisation in other countries. For the poor in rich countries, mass immigration is globalisation in practice. For groups that face declining incomes, immigrants are symbols of the insecurities that accompany globalisation everywhere.
In linking the issue of immigration with the economic insecurity that accompanies globalisation, the far right has been able to mobilise types of prejudice that echo those of the interwar era. Let us not forget that, with the exception of Pym Fortuyn’s List in the Netherlands, the parties of the new European far right are all tacitly or overtly anti-Semitic. More broadly, they express an exclusionary type of nationalism that-in targeting external and internal minorities-has disquieting parallels with the politics of the Twenties and Thirties. The strategic coup of the far right has been to link nationalism with fear of economic insecurity—and to link both with popular alienation from European institutions.
In pursuing this strategy, the far right has been able to take advantage of flaws in the present structure of the EU, some of which are fundamental. There is little democratic accountability in European policy-making. Moreover, despite constant chatter about it, there is no real prospect of remedying this democratic deficit. The nation-state is an extremely ambiguous construction; but with all its faults it remains-for the present and the foreseeable future–the upper limit of democratic participation. Pushing for further European integration in these circumstances means giving more power to a European government that is democratically illegitimate-and, what is worse, is seen to be so. This is a development that can only strengthen extremism, for it gives the parties of the far right a dangerous opportunity to pose as defenders of democracy.
European policy in relation to the post-communist countries offers similar hostages to fortune. It has become a commonplace to argue that European institutions must be deepened as well as widened. Unfortunately, despite its popularity amongst centre-left politicians, this is an impossible combination. There are too many conflicts of interest among existing EU members to permit the two processes to advance at the same rate. Moreover, there is a large political risk attaching to eastern enlargement. Joining the EU as a full member means having full access to an open pan-European labour market. What will be the impact on support for the parties of the far right in Austria, Germany, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Denmark if workers from eastern Europe are able to compete freely in the labour markets of these countries?
The rise of the far right in Europe over the past decade is partly a response to the new realities of globalisation to which no party has so far developed an adequate response. In my view, globalisation is finally a technological development, and for that reason it is unstoppable; but it is also highly socially disruptive and sometimes politically destabilising in its effects-particularly when they are magnified by neo-liberal economic policies. Parties of the centre need to understand these risks if they are to stem the tide of rightwing populism. In addition, centre parties need to understand the political risks that flow from the over-extension of European institutions. Unless these truths are firmly grasped, Europe will continue to be a breeding ground for rightwing extremism.
Tr@nsit online, Nr. 25/2003
Copyright © 2003 by the author, Transit – Europäische Revue & Project Syndicate.
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John Gray is Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics.