Historians' Watch

Europe’s far right: the new normal?

In February 2017, the political scientist Simon Hix posted a series of graphs on his Twitter feed. The most comprehensive of these gave a remarkable panorama of party family votes in all democratic elections in 31 European countries since 1918. Leaving aside the possible problems with such simple visualisations, the various graphs highlighted a range of long-term trends. One of the most striking was the sharp increase in vote share for the European far-right after 1990. This was especially clear on the graph for Western Europe, which showed that the far-right captured significantly more votes in the 1990s than in any preceding decade since World War Two.

This draws attention to an obvious, but rather neglected, point about the supposedly recent “turn to the right” in Europe: namely, the extent to which Europe’s far-right benefited from the collapse of the political culture of the Cold War. The re-emergence of the far-right in the 1990s was no coincidence. It fed off – and took advantage of – the shifting political sands of the first post-Cold War decade.

There were a number of ways in which the end of the Cold War created a propitious climate for the European far-right. At the most basic level, it made the far-right thinkable again. In the wake of World War Two, political ideas that appeared to be too far to the right were tainted by their association with fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism. Radical fringe groups persisted in many European countries – nostalgics for Mussolini or Pétain – but they had little electoral traction.

In Communist Eastern Europe, an official discourse of anti-fascism aggressively suppressed any remnants of the far-right and, in the West, anti-totalitarianism was an important element in both social-democratic and Christian democratic ideologies. With the horrors of the war fresh in the minds of many Europeans and authoritarianism in Spain and Portugal still alive until the 1970s, it was hard for any far-right movement to exert meaningful pressure on a European state. There were some exceptions – such as the role of the Organisation Armée Secrète during the Algerian War in the early 1960s or the influence of far-right ideas on the Greek military junta of the early 1970s – but these did not have a Europe-wide impact.

The end of the Cold War removed the taboo surrounding the far-right. Despite the incessant claims by those on the left that parties like the Austrian Freiheitliche Partei (FPÖ) or the French Front National (FN) were clearly fascist, European electorates in the 1990s did not see it the same way. Yes, these sorts of parties seemed to hark back to previous iterations of the far-right, but the end of the Cold War marked a crucial turning-point. Today, anti-fascist arguments in Europe are weaker than ever. In countries like France and the Netherlands, a majority of the electorate still vote against the far-right because they believe it to be beyond the pale, but an ever-growing number of (particularly young) voters listen more to the message than the history.

Part of this, of course, is because the message also changed in the 1990s. The end of the Cold War liberated the European far-right from both knee-jerk anti-communism and a Reagan-Thatcher form of muscular neo-liberalism. In the 1980s, “new right” ideologues in France and Italy were extolling the virtues of the Star Wars programme and Thatcher’s intervention in the Falklands, but these were weak foundations on which to build a political party. Since many conservative and centre-right parties in Europe in the 1980s were sympathetic to anti-communism and neo-liberalism, why would their voters switch to a far-right party saying the same thing?

In the 1990s, however, most European far-right movements found two areas where they could definitively outflank their rivals: immigration and economic insecurity. With respect to the former, the far-right became the standard-bearers of an issue that had not hitherto been of major concern to European electorates. With postcolonial immigrant communities becoming more assertive and multiculturalism elevated to the status of an official ideology in countries such as the UK and the Netherlands, the far-right was perfectly positioned to capture those who felt alienated by this new configuration.

In terms of economics, most far-right parties quickly ditched their incipient neo-liberalism in the late 1980s in favour of an increasingly protectionist and anti-European stance. This was best exemplified by the FN’s opposition to the Maastricht Treaty in the French referendum of 1992 and the emergence of Eurosceptic parties in the UK at the same time. In the subsequent decades, the European far-right – in both Western and Eastern Europe – became the largest explicitly protectionist political movement.

The far-right was helped enormously in this by the crisis of the European left from the late 1980s onwards. Even if most social-democratic and West European Communist parties had more or less detached themselves from a rigid Marxist-Leninist framework by the late 1980s, the collapse of the entire European Communist system nevertheless dealt a huge blow to the legitimacy of the left. This was both an ideological and an electoral problem. Ideologically, the left had lost its raison d’être and electorally the left’s traditional support base amongst the working-class was falling away.

Not surprisingly, far-right parties began to fill the void. Former industrial and mining areas that had voted for socialists or communists for decades began to wobble. In France, which has the most developed and longest-standing far-right party in Europe, this process of substitution has had dramatic effects, with the ex-industrial northern, eastern and southern belts of the country vulnerable to the FN. In deprived parts of France, the Netherlands and Germany, the far-right has found a fertile ground for its message. This is reflected in election results, where far-right parties have succeeded in getting as much as 30% of the vote in specific localities.

The question is: how far should we be alarmed by this progression of the far-right? At a time when the United States, India and Turkey are all flirting with forms of authoritarianism that seem to draw on the most dangerous traditions of the European far-right, the answer is probably that we should be very concerned indeed. But a more historical perspective suggests that, in Europe at least, we might have to resign ourselves to the persistence of the far-right in all its forms.

This does not imply that we should normalise the words and ideas of the far-right; nor does it mean that Europe is facing a rerun of the 1930s. Rather, we should recognise that the peculiar ideological configuration of the Cold War artificially deflated the far-right. As taboos, limitations and structural constraints fell away in the 1990s, the far-right logically made a comeback. Today, for better or for worse, a far-right that captures 15-30% of the vote has become the new normal – and an old anti-fascist rhetoric is unlikely to stem the tide. Instead, it will almost certainly be necessary to build alternative coalitions and political structures to keep the far-right from power.

Banner Image: Flickr Creative Commons Blandine Le Cain.

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