A fresh wave of hard-right populism is stalking Europe
In Germany, the AfD are weaponising climate change
A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of a rising hard right. In Germany the overtly xenophobic Alternative for Germany (afd) has surged to become the country’s second-most popular party. Its success is polarising domestic politics and it seems poised to triumph in state elections in the east next year. In Poland the ruling Law and Justice party is leading the polls ahead of a general election on October 15th, and it is being drawn further to the right by an extreme new party, Confederation.
As we explain in this week’s Briefing, there could be more grim news to come. Next year the hard right could gain more sway in elections for the European Parliament, due to be held in June. Marine Le Pen, the leader of National Rally, could win the presidential election in France in 2027. If she did, France would become the second big country to be run by the hard right, after Italy, where Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy took power last year in a coalition with the nativist League.
Make no mistake, Europe is not about to be overrun by fascists, in a repeat of the 1930s. But the new right-wing wave presents a big challenge. Handled badly, it could toxify politics, disenfranchise a large share of voters and prevent crucial reforms of the European Union (eu). Rather than trying to exclude hard-right parties entirely from government and public debate, the best response is for mainstream parties to engage with them, and on occasion do deals with them. If they have to take some responsibility for actually governing, they may grow less radical.
Europe’s hard right has enjoyed several surges over the past quarter of a century. In 2000 J?rg Haider, an anti-establishment demagogue, shocked the continent by entering government in Austria: his Freedom Party is now the most popular there. A migration crisis in 2015, when over 1m people from poor and war-torn countries crossed the eu’s borders, led to another wave of support for xenophobic and Eurosceptic parties, including Britain’s Brexiteers.
The new wave that is breaking is different in three ways. First, the hard right has opportunistically found new topics to drum up fury about. Most such parties are still anti-foreigner, but having seen Britain’s experience, some have moderated their hostility to EU membership, and fewer want to ditch the single currency. All are animated by new concerns, most obviously hostility to pro-climate policies, which they argue are an elitist stitch-up that will fleece ordinary people. In Germany the afd has successfully mobilised opposition to a government push to require people to install expensive heat pumps in their homes, forcing the government to water down the measures.
The second shift is the breadth of their support. Our calculations show that 15 of the eu’s 27 member countries now have hard-right parties which have support of 20% or more in opinion polls, including every large country bar Spain, where the nationalist Vox did badly in July’s elections. Almost four-fifths of the eu’s population now live in countries where the hard right commands the loyalty of at least a fifth of the public.
The final shift is that the stakes have been raised, particularly at a European level. The war in Ukraine has created a pressing need for the eu to welcome new members in the east, ultimately including Ukraine. In tandem, it will need to streamline decision-making to reduce the veto powers member states wield. The presence of a larger bloc of anti-immigrant nationalists could make that crucial task far harder. Hungary’s Viktor Orban, a guru to other populist-nationalists, has consistently tried to block eu reform. Imagine if he gains more allies.
How should centrist voters and parties respond to the threat from the hard right? The old answer was to erect a cordon sanitaire. Mainstream parties refused to work with the insurgents; mainstream media refused to air their views. That approach may have run out of road; in places it is becoming counter-productive. In Germany the isolation of the afd has reinforced its narrative of being the only alternative to a failed establishment. Mainstream parties cannot pretend for ever not to hear the voice of 20% of voters without eventually corroding democracy.
Meanwhile, there is more evidence that hard-right parties in Europe tend to moderate their views when they have to take responsibility for governing. Exhibit A is Ms Meloni, the first hard-right prime minister of a western European country since the second world war. Despite liberal fears, she has not, or at least not yet, picked fights with Europe, upended migration policy, or restricted abortion or gay rights. She has remained a supporter of nato and Ukraine, by no means a given on the hard right. In the Nordics a similar pattern has played out. The Finns and the Sweden Democrats, two nationalist parties, have become more pragmatic since either joining or agreeing to support a governing coalition.
Any decision to include a hard-right party in local or national government should be taken with extreme caution, especially in places where a history of fascism arouses acute sensitivity. Some rules of the road may help. One is that to be considered, any party must agree to renounce violence and respect the rule of law. Just as important is the constitutional context: at what level of government should they be included? What are the checks and balances created by the electoral system and other institutions? It may make sense to allow the afd to take part as junior members of local-government coalitions in Germany, for example. It would be a disaster if the hard right were to win France’s presidency, with its enormous powers.
Tame or flame
Last, mainstream parties must accept that they have not done enough to satisfy a large and angry minority of their citizens. Trying to accelerate the green transition by loading people up with costs they cannot afford (Germany’s rules on boilers, for instance, or Emmanuel Macron’s ill-fated attempt to increase taxes on fuel) is just making greenery unpopular. Better communication and compensation for the worst-hit are both essential. Failing to control national borders alienates people, whereas a well-managed migration system could be shown to benefit them. The new success of the hard right in Europe is in part a failure of the centre—so the centre needs to raise its game. ■
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This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline "The real threat from Europe’s hard right"
From the September 16th 2023 edition
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