Monday, June 24, 2024

Analysis | A right-wing Europe is here to stay

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For years, we’ve talked about a seemingly inexorable trend: Little by little, Europe’s far right was gaining ground and nudging its way closer to power. Political firewalls against extremist factions once considered beyond the pale tumbled from country to country. The so-called “cordon sanitaire” erected by more mainstream parties against the putative descendants of Europe’s fascist movements had collapsed. The far right, headlines blared, was on the march.

The initial results of the European Union’s parliamentary elections may point to a definitive arrival. Across the continent, and especially in some of its biggest countries, far-right parties produced strong or record results. Their gains aren’t a ticket to power — a coalition of European center-right parties remains the biggest group in the Parliament and can collaborate with the mainstream center left — but they highlight the deeper trend. The European Union, long hailed as a post-national bastion of liberal values, is not just hospitable to illiberal nationalism, but possibly a crucible for a new age of right-wing politics in the West.

The vote is grim reading for centrist stalwarts like French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The latter’s Social Democrats were, according to exit polls, slated to finish a humbling third behind their main center-right rivals and the far-right Alternative for Germany party, or AfD. The former saw his party trounced by that of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, a chastening so dire that Macron dissolved the French National Assembly and scheduled snap parliamentary elections. Their predicaments echo across the Atlantic, with President Biden fighting a tough battle against a Trumpist movement that sees itself explicitly in alliance with the anti-immigrant, “anti-woke” parties of Europe’s far right.

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“Nearly a decade ago, the Brexit earthquake in the spring of 2016, in which voters in the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, was an early sign of a global trend toward conservative nationalism,” wrote Politico’s Nicholas Vinocur. “In retrospect, it seems clear this movement was part of what powered Donald Trump to a surprise upset over Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton in the U.S. presidential election of the same year.”

To be sure, the E.U. Parliament is not the continent’s most important institution. The Parliament is not as powerful as other E.U. branches, though it helps set the bloc’s agenda. “It cannot directly initiate laws, but it can veto and shape them and is responsible for approving the E.U. budget, giving it some agenda-setting authority,” my colleagues explained. “Members of the Parliament played a key role in negotiating the E.U.’s landmark artificial intelligence regulations this past year. The Parliament also has the last word on the selection of the European Commission president — arguably the union’s most powerful job.”

Ursula von der Leyen, the center-right German politician who has held the job for the past five years, is expected to seek a second term. This time, she may try to count on the backing of some European far-right leaders — specifically, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who has beaten a path from fringe obscurity into the European mainstream more effectively than any other nationalist leader in Western Europe.

Analysts see in Meloni’s rise a template for how the far right can come to power: In Italy, the center right was hollowed out and proved no barrier to a party that traces its origins directly to post-World War II neofascism. But they also see in her success an illustration of the limits of the far right’s capacity for collective mobilization: Meloni has kept a distance from (and is occasionally at odds with) supposed fellow travelers like Le Pen, who in turn has shunned hard line counterparts in Germany’s AfD party.

Still, European politics appears to be going toward where these parties broadly align: on skepticism around the E.U.’s aggressive climate policies and, more potently, on migration. “The different far-right parties across Europe have a shared position on identity, immigration and Islam, and it’s also where they’re increasingly converging with the center right,” Hans Kundnani, a visiting fellow at New York University’s Remarque Institute, told me.

“The new power center will not so much be the far right,” observed Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde, but the far right of von der Leyen’s center-right bloc, which will seize on the pressures exerted by Meloni and others to “push its traditional coalition partners further to the right, particularly on issues such as the environment, gender and sexuality, and of course immigration.”

No matter the open internal borders of the Schengen Zone, the European Union is working hard to fortify its external barriers to asylum-seeking migrants. On the back of a year-long investigation with a consortium of media outlets, my colleagues recently detailed how the European Union and individual European governments are supporting and financing North African states that detain tens of thousands of migrants and abandon some of them in remote areas of the Saharan desert.

“The E.U.’s refugee policy is a lot more Trumpian than people seem to realize,” Kundnani told me, adding that a more overtly right-wing European Union “won’t look that different from the current European Union.”

Kundnani, who is also the author of “Eurowhiteness: Culture, Empire and Race in the European Project,” argued that the present moment exposes the “myth of cosmopolitanism” that has long surrounded discussions of the European Union and its idealistic liberal technocrats in Brussels. Some evangelists of the European project saw in its workings the first step toward a borderless world, but the political reality of the continent tells a rather different story.

“The E.U. is a political form of regionalism in the same way that the nation-state is a political form of nationalism,” Kundnani said. “When you say you’re European, you’re not saying I am a citizen of the world.”

Leading policymakers are grappling with the inherent pessimism in the far right’s articulation of what it may mean to be European. “There is a disproportionate sense of disappointment in our societies,” Thomas Bagger, the state secretary of the German Foreign Office, told the New York Times. “We lost our trust that we had figured out the long arc of history and that it bends toward democracy. Russia lost its idea of the future, and [President Vladimir] Putin turned to the past. We are in danger of falling into the same trap.”

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