Wednesday, July 24, 2024

How to puncture the populist right in Europe

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The far right’s national-populist narrative has gone largely unchallenged—despite its utter incoherence.

How to puncture the populist right in Europe
The Rassemblement National leader, Marine Le Pen, at the far-right convention in Madrid in May—her statist ‘national priority’ contradicts the economic libertarianism of the Argentine president, Javier Milei (Tennessee Witney /

Europe is tottering on a knife-edge. The far right has the winds in its sails, with unprecedented power at the heart of the European Union. In its founding member states (Luxembourg aside), the ‘post-fascist’ Giorgia Meloni is prime minister of Italy, Geert Wilders is the éminence grise of a hard-right coalition in the Netherlands, in Germany Alternative für Deutschland outpolled all three governing parties in the European Parliament elections and the populist right could be on the brink of power in France and Belgium.

Why has this come about, what are the flaws within the far-right project and how can progressives reverse these disastrous trends? These are the issues we address in our book published today.

Postwar success

Europe’s postwar prosperity and success was built on a social-market framework, a ‘historic compromise’ between capital and labour, right and left, based on an acceptance of the three key values arising from the French revolution: liberty, equality and solidarity. The Holocaust had combined with the mass unemployment and widespread poverty following the Wall Street crash of 1929 to generate a deep commitment to these values across the political spectrum.


Mainstream postwar politicians erected a cordon sanitaire which blocked the nationalist right from any alliance with orthodox conservatives. This consigned far-right parties whose roots could be traced back to interwar fascism—including the Movimento Sociale Italiano and the French Front National—to the fringes. They are however on the fringes no longer.

The cordon began to fray after social democracy’s neoliberal, ‘third way’ turn in the 1990s and accelerated after the financial crash of 2008.Those parties which had traditionally been the guardians of the labour interest abandoned their historic role at the very moment when profound economic changes were transforming the world of work. Into the vacuum stepped the far right with a reinvigorated national-populist ideology: former fascists re-emerging from the shadows, ‘post-fascist’ parties sanitising their past and new right-wing populist organisations.

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These forces exploited the failings of the neoliberal European establishment (with its ordoliberal German variant) and the fiscal conservatism installed in the Maastricht treaty of 1992, leading to economic and monetary union by the end of the decade. Since 2000, national-populist parties have propped up or led governments in 12 EU countries, most recently in the Netherlands.

Disorienting times

These trends have been slower to percolate through to the European Parliament. But there has been a steady weakening of the old postwar political order there too, confirmed and accelerated by the elections last month.

In disorienting times of economic hardship and insecurity, the appeal of populist nationalism to a past reconstructed as taken-for-granted ‘tradition’ strikes a chord in many countries. It focuses on issues of culture and identity, offering a simple but intoxicating narrative, often delivered with charisma but accompanied by disturbing echoes of prewar, fascist rhetoric.

The rise of far-right parties has been aided and abetted by the appeasement strategy of their opponents. Chunks of the orthodox right, such as the Partido Popular in Spain and Les Républicains in France, have been flirting with the far right. During the European elections, the European Commission president, Ursula van der Leyen, indicated that she would be open to a deal with the far-right European Conservatives and Reformists group in the parliament afterwards.

Even some on the left, as in Denmark, have been scrambling to accommodate elements of the national-populist agenda, particularly on ‘immigration’. And it has been a similar story in the United Kingdom, with the Conservative government ever more anxious to echo the tropes of the far right on people movement and ‘culture wars’.

Largely unchallenged

Yet the national-populist narrative has remained largely unchallenged—despite its incoherence. At the far-right jamboree in Madrid before the European elections, hosted by Vox, the new president of Argentina, Javier Milei, espoused a ‘libertarian’, minimal-tax economics, reminiscent of the last UK prime minister (briefly), Liz Truss, on speed. In the audience sat Marine Le Pen of Rassemblement National, which promotes a protectionist agenda for French workers.

The nation-state-first approach of these parties fails to confront the economic reality that, in an EU of 27 small and medium-sized countries, none can go it alone in today’s globalised and multipolar world. ‘Brexit’ has made some of them wary of calling for EU withdrawal, while others are fearful of breaking up the single market of integrated production processes and transnational supply chains. For all European states the optimal economic area is continental in scale.

In promoting culture wars, the reactionary agenda has pockets of appeal among older generations, as well as—alarmingly—an increasing number of younger voters. The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, Poland’s ousted Law and Justice party and Meloni in Italy promote the ‘traditional’ family model and want women to marry early and have more children.

Yet most of Europe is moving in the opposite direction. Since 1964, marriage in the EU has declined by almost half, while the birth rate has fallen sharply to 1.46 per woman—well below the 2.1.required to keep the population constant if in-migration is choked off. Rising educational opportunities and the spread of contraception mean most women are no longer prepared to be confined to the domestic roles the populist right prescribes. It is equally out of tune on LGBT+ rights: more than seven in ten Europeans agree that there is nothing wrong with a sexual relationship between two persons of the same sex.

On people movement, postwar Europe has been a continent of immigration and this trend will continue. Businesses and parties know that the EU’s working-age population will shrink while its elderly population grows: the number of EU citizens aged over 65 is forecast to grow by 25 million by 2040, while the number between 15 and 64 is projected to fall by 20 million.

The reality is that Europe will need newcomers to work in its economy. Meloni projected an anti-immigration stance in opposition but in office her government has raised work-permit quotas for non-EU workers to 452,000 for the period 2023-25. Progressives need to point out these contradictions and make the case for a managed migration policy.

More vulnerable

Research shows that economic stagnation and cuts to public services have been important in the rise of the far right. The Party of European Socialists’ Euro-election manifesto and some of the constituent parties’ campaigns recognised this with a partial break from the neoliberal shibboleths of the last three decades, while green-left combinations made gains in parts of northern Europe. Yet this was insufficient to stem the drift to the populist right, exacerbated by the orthodox right moving towards the nativists. This has made the position of the progressive core in the new parliament more vulnerable.

The gamble by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to call an early national election dramatically upped the stakes, presenting the possibility of a far-right administration in one of the two leading European countries for the first time since the war. The speedy decision of almost all sections of the French left to combine in a Nouveau Front Populaire was a welcome, if belated, recognition of the need for unity in the face of the far right. The final outcome, after the second round, will be crucial for France and more widely for Europe, in determining whether the populist surge can be pushed back and whether the union has the political forces capable of addressing the huge challenges it faces—climate, inequality, growth, demographics, security—over the next five years.

Narrow nationalism, racism and insularity go against the realities of our times. The states of Europe need to be open, outward-looking and co-operative if they are going to shape the future. Progressives should be confident that their values chime with the age. The conditions are there to offer and implement an uplifting programme of change.

European history has shown that, when progressives are united, reaction can be beaten. That needs to happen again.

Jon Bloomfield is a writer, European policy specialist, environmental practitioner and author of Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham. He is an honorary research fellow at the University of Birmingham.

David Edgar’s plays have been produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and many others. His political and cultural commentary has been published widely.

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