Is the far-right making a comeback? You might think so reading some of the headlines this week. “Behind the migrant row, Europe keeps shifting to the far-right,” warns Time magazine. “Finland leads rise of the far-right in Europe,” according to The Daily Telegraph.
The Irish Times went with the same theme, editorialising, “As similar nationalist parties have done recently in Sweden, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands, France, Italy, Belgium, and Hungary, the True Finns have also, although even more dramatically, become a lightning rod for popular alienation from politics and immigration.”
Is Europe slipping into the abyss? Are we really heading for a new Dark Age, with Europe’s Nazi past coming back to haunt us? Are fascistic far-right parties really ‘on the march again’ everywhere from Greece to France, from Italy to Holland? In a word, no. The current obsession with the rise of the far right tells us far more about the European elites’ crisis of confidence and legitimacy than it does about any Nazi reality.
In the discussion of the far right, European commentators have attempted to squeeze very different parties into the same category. Consider the list of far-right parties that are supposed to be plaguing democracy in the countries listed by The Irish Times. The Swedish Democrats, who have a murky background but claim to have purged their extremists, have less than 6% of the vote. They have just 5,800 members — hardly the numbers of which Nuremberg rallies are made.
In Denmark, the People’s Party, a breakaway from a more pernicious group, is much stronger and can claim to have helped reverse Denmark’s extremely liberal asylum laws, but it cooperates with the Danish government and has no history of violence. It justifies its anti-immigration policies in the language of celebrating diversity and protecting identities. This hardly sounds like a return to fascism.
The Austrian Freedom Party is even larger. It may be obnoxious and is probably anti-Semitic but this is hardly a novel stance in Austrian politics — there has only ever been one Nazi Party.
The Netherlands has had a strong anti-immigrant camp for a decade now, originally centred on the late Pim Fortuyn who was openly gay and justified much of his anti-Muslim ranting by claiming that Muslims are homophobic and, therefore, enemies of diversity. His spiritual successor, Geert Wilders, is shockingly frank in his views about Islam, but calls himself a ‘right-wing liberal’ and makes a point of keeping his distance from the Holocaust-denying French National Front, Hungary’s vile Jobbik party and Belgium’s disturbing Flemish Interest, all of which certainly do deserve the far-right label.
As for the Italians, widely ridiculed, many of the politicians we are told are ‘the good guys’ were once fascists or communists. One of the few who were neither is Silvio Berlusconi. The party which still carries the torch for Mussolini, though, scores just 2% in elections.
And that’s the point. In some — mainly small — countries which feel their national identity is threatened by globalisation or the European Union, parties which include strong measures against immigration in their platforms are flourishing. But parties which are openly racist and fascist are, by and large, marginal.
Take Britain. The BNP has less than 2% of the vote. True, it has a couple of MEPs, but that perhaps tells us more about how seriously the Brits view the European Parliament than anything else. In Germany, again the neo-Nazis are stuck on 2% and have made no headway at the federal level. In Spain, the Falange, Franco’s successors, don’t even register in opinion polls.
In plenty of other countries it’s the same: immigration is becoming a significant political issue, but an issue for all the parties.
If tight immigration limits, queasiness about multiculturalism and opposition to the transfer of further national powers to the EU makes a party far-right or neo-Nazi, what was Enda Kenny doing in 10 Downing Street earlier this week? (In Ireland we cannot preach too much when 1-in-8 voters two months ago supported either the political wing of a still-banned but inactive terrorist organisation, or eejits who think Leon Trotsky had the answers.) The fact is that some of these derogatory political labels are being applied willy-nilly to right-wing parties, usually by people with strong (and often extreme) political views or by people who don’t know any better.
It is precisely because the vast, vast majority of Europeans are broadly tolerant and have learned the lessons of the 1930s and 1940s that even parties which do (or might) have unpleasant ulterior motives have had to tone down their rhetoric. The Swedish Democrats have a pretty blue flower as their party logo, for heaven’s sake. Can anyone really see battalions of Swedes marching back into Finland carrying bunches of daisies? Where extreme parties win electoral support, it is not that voters are ‘voting for fascism’, or even endorsing everything the party stands for. Rather, it is a sign of isolation from mainstream politics. Across Europe, votes for small hard-right parties look like a two-finger ‘f**k you’ to traditional politicians, rather than an endorsement of Nazism.
There is one thing that unites Europe’s ‘far right’ parties — they are all vehemently anti-immigration. Even here, however, there are differences. Some supposedly far-right parties like Norway’s Progress Party want caps on the numbers coming into their countries, just like the Australians and the British. Others are concerned that many immigrants are hostile to their countries’ progressive and civilised values. And a few extremists want to ‘send them back’ and make their nations white again.
Generally, though, contemporary debates about immigration express societies’ general fear of risk and the unknown, more than an old-time hatred of Johnny Foreigner. And, it has to be admitted, in many European countries the only sections of society still opposed to gay relationships or demanding the return of capital punishment are immigrant communities.
The idea that fascism is returning to Europe is nonsense. There are some large right-wing parties either in power or in coalition, which might have loathsome politics and policies, but they are hardly fascists. There are medium-sized right-wing parties, many of which promote their anti-immigration beliefs in modern PC-speak. And there are small hard-right parties, some of which talk like Nazis but in reality are small groups of sad men and women with very little support.
The obsession with this week’s result in Finland and the ‘far right threat’ tells us far more about insecure and uncertain elites, particularly the one in Brussels which is trying to ram a single economic policy on 27 different countries, than it does about political reality on the ground. They exaggerate the threat of the far right and at the same time underestimate the extent of their own isolation.
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