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How the far-right got out of the doghouse

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European far-right politicians just stormed to victory in Italy, after achieving historic results in France and Sweden.

“Everywhere in Europe, people aspire to take their destiny back into their own hands!” said Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Rally Party. 

But if you think there is a new wave of right-wing radicalism sweeping Europe, you’d be wrong. Something else is going on.

Analysis by POLITICO’s Poll of Polls suggests far-right parties in the region on average did not increase their support by even one percentage point between the start of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine in February and today.

POLITICO looked at the median and average increase of all parties organized in right-wing European Parliament groups of Identity and Democracy, the European Conservatives and Reformists or unaffiliated parties with political far-right positions.

Overall, the results indicate that if an increase in support occurred for far-right parties, it happened several years ago.

The Sweden Democrats’ first surge happened after the 2014 election, when the party grew from around 10 percent to 20 percent, the same one-fifth share of the vote they received in this year’s election. The far-right Alternative for Germany AfD in Germany grew fast in 2015 and 2016 reaching 14 percent in POLITICO’s polling tracker. In Italy, the Northern League overtook Forza Italia for the first time in early 2015, and peaked in 2019 at 37 percent before starting a downward trend ending on 9 percent in last month’s election. In the Italian election, voters mostly switched between rival right-wing camps.

The far-right has moved from the fringes of politics into the mainstream, not only influencing the political center but also entering the arena of power. 

“There is a normalization of far-right parties as an integral part of the political landscape,” said Cathrine Thorleifsson, who researches extremism at the University of Oslo. “They have been accepted by the electorate and also by other, conventional parties.”

Cooperation between the center-right and the extreme-right has become less taboo. 

“The rise of far-right parties is only part of the story. The facilitating and mainstreaming of far-right parties as well as the adoption of far-right frames and positions by other parties is at least as important,” tweeted Cas Mudde, a leading scholar on the issue. 

This may risk destabilizing Europe even more than winning a couple of percentage points in the polls.

Italy’s far-right firebrand Giorgia Meloni is a clear-cut example. While her party draws its origin from groups founded by former fascists, she’ll now lead the EU’s third-largest economy.

Leader of Italian far-right party “Fratelli d’Italia” (Brothers of Italy), Giorgia Meloni | Pitro Cruciatti/AFP via Getty Images

In Sweden, the center-right party has started coalition talks for a minority government which would have to draw on opposition support, most likely from the far-right Swedish Democrats. Far-right parties have also entered governments in Austria, Finland, Estonia and Italy. Other countries are likely to follow. 

George Simion, the leader of Romania’s far-right party, Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR), celebrated Meloni’s win in Italy, saying his party is likely to follow in their footsteps.

Spain heads to the ballot box next year and socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez may have a tough time winning re-election. The conservative People’s Party is between five and seven points ahead of the Spanish socialists in all the published polls, but it is unlikely to garner enough votes to secure a governing majority outright.

That means it may have to come to an agreement with far-right party Vox, whose leader, Santiago Abascal, is an ally of Meloni’s. While the People’s Party previously refused to govern with Vox, last spring its newly elected leader, Alberto Núnez-Feijóo, greenlit a coalition agreement with the ultranationalist group in Spain’s central Castilla y León region. 

Tom Van Grieken, the right-wing Belgian politician, also pointed to Spain as the next likely example, especially because of the possible cooperation with the PP. “All over Europe, we see conservative parties who are considering breaking the cordon sanitaire,” he said, referring to the refusal of other parties to work with the far-right. “They are tired of compromising with their ideological counterparts, the parties at the left end of the spectrum.”

Chairman of Vlaams Belang party Tom Van Grieken | Stephanie Le Coqc/EFE via EPA

This didn’t happen overnight. The far-right worked hard to shrug off their extremist, neo-Nazi image.

“In some of the reporting on the Swedish Democrats, you’d think they’ll deport people on trains as soon as they’re in power. Come on, these parties have changed,” said one EU official with right-wing affiliations. 

The far-right invested in “image adjustment and trying to tread carefully with some issues, while unashamedly catering to others,” said Nina Wiesehomeier, a political scientist at the IE University of Madrid.  “This is particularly obvious in Italy right now, with Meloni sticking to the slogan of ‘God, homeland, family,’ as a continuation, while having tried to purge the party from more radical elements.”

In Belgium’s northern region of Flanders, the right-wing Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) explicitly dismisses the label “extreme-right.” Just like his counterparts in Italy, Sweden and France, Van Grieken, the party’s president, denounced the more extremist positions of his group’s founding fathers and moderated his political message to make voting for the far-right socially acceptable. 

Overt racism is taboo. Instead, the rhetoric changes to criticizing an open-door migration policy. By carefully catering to centrist voters, the far-right aims for a bigger slice of the cake, while still riding on the anti-establishment discontent.

“There is a clear fault line between the winners of globalization and the nationalists,” Van Grieken told POLITICO. “This comes on top on the concerns about mass migration, whether it’s in Malmö, Rome or other European cities.”

Perfect storm

Now, the time is right to capitalize on that transformation.

As Europe is battling record inflation and Europeans fear exorbitant heating bills, governments warn about the political implications of a “winter of discontent.” 

“It’s a massive drainage of European prosperity,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told POLITICO recently. “In the current situation, it’s hard to believe in progress, it’s very hard to make progress. So there’s a very pessimistic feeling.”

The current war in Ukraine is the latest in a succession of crises — in global finance, migration and the pandemic. Experts argue that this is key to understanding the rising support for the far-right. 

“Such existential crises have a destabilizing effect and lead to fear,” said Carl Devos, a professor in political science at Ghent University. “Fear is the breeding ground for the far-right. People tend to translate that fear and outrage into radical voting behaviour.”

Migration and identity politics are less prominent in the media because of the Ukraine war and rising energy prices, but they’re still key issues in right-wing debate.

In Austria, the coalition parties fought over whether or not asylum seekers should receive climate bonuses. In the Netherlands, the death of a baby at the asylum center Ter Apel led to a renewed debate over the overcrowded migration centers. 

The combination of those issues is likely to feed into more right-wing wins across the continent. “The far-right offers nationalist, protectionist solutions to the globalized crises, said Thorleifsson. “We see how the migration issue was momentarily off the agenda during the pandemic, but now it’s back.”

Aitor Hernández-Morales, Camille Gijs and Ana Fota contributed reporting.

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