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The Far Right in Europe

Wednesday, 23 July, 2014

Words by Stephen Polesel
Photography by Sarah Valle and Zoe Efron

The far right is experiencing a forceful surge in popularity in Europe. This disturbing phenomenon has seen a dramatic rise in xenophobia, hyper-nationalistic protests, and arbitrary attacks on immigrants and ethnic minorities. Perhaps the most alarming aspect is that political parties are championing some of these causes, and winning seats in parliament.

It is commonly suggested that the far right is taking advantage of high unemployment and disillusionment in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, which had a devastating effect on Europe’s economies. Portugal, Spain, Greece, and Italy are experiencing a dire sovereign debt crisis with low economic growth, low public spending, and high unemployment. The European Union (EU) put together a series of bailouts to try to stimulate growth and lift the struggling economies out of crisis. As a condition of these bailouts the EU—led by Germany and France—imposed stringent conditions on recipient countries such as Greece. But the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party capitalised on the growing sense of anger and frustration among many Greeks, depicting Germany and the EU, with their harsh demands, as the enemy.

Lampros Fountoulis, a recently elected Golden Dawn member of the European Parliament, has stated that people vote for his party because they don’t want a government that is “subordinate to foreign tyrants”. Golden Dawn has developed a dangerous isolationist narrative, bolstered by anti-EU, anti-Semitic, and anti-US rhetoric. This fortress mentality longs for a ‘strong’, sovereign Greece that is not subject to the pressures of globalisation and the transnational movement of capital and labour.

Golden Dawn’s populist, anti-intellectual platform provides convenient answers to the country’s economic problems. Like many far-right parties, Golden Dawn blames outsiders: the EU, the US, illegal immigrants, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, and the fiction of an international Zionist conspiracy. The University of Melbourne’s Professor Leslie Holmes explains that the perception of problems caused by immigration and foreign workers can be as powerful as facts in this debate. Professor Holmes suggests that the creation of the Schengen area, which allows for ease of movement throughout Europe, has also contributed to the perception of foreigners taking local jobs. In France, this has given force to the anti-immigration rhetoric of far-right party National Front (FN) and its president, Marine Le Pen. Despite the electoral victory of socialist President Francoise Holland in 2012, the far right has enjoyed steady support over the past decade.

More recently, the FN has rejuvenated its support base by voicing anti-Islamic, racist, and socially conservative policies. According to Professor Holmes, the FN’s anti-Islamic sentiment can be explained as a fear of losing aspects of local culture and identity. “The overarching theme is identity politics,” Professor Holmes says. To a certain extent, the eurozone crisis has served as a catalyst for the right’s emphatic assertion of local identity and culture. While Greek anti-EU sentiment is critical of French and German dominance and the roles of these nations in dictating the terms of stimulus packages, the French right rejects the EU for different reasons. Anti-EU rhetoric espoused by the FN suggests that France is making burdensome contributions to the EU, which ultimately assists irresponsible and lazy southern European economies, while French citizens lose out. Despite this difference, the far right in both France and Greece advocate leaving the EU.

A common characteristic of both Golden Dawn and the FN is protectionist economic policies. This reflects a fundamental departure from centre-right ideology, for these far right parties are taking aim at neo-liberalism and the global market. Golden Dawn and the FN’s imaginings of an idyllic, nationalist identity are threatened by global capitalism’s erosion of state boundaries via the transnational transportation of goods. This yearning for a protected market is symptomatic of a deeper yearning for cultural protectionism, in the face of threatening external forces. Professor Holmes points out that, although for different reasons, the far right’s distrust of international capitalism can be seen to mirror the far left’s rejection of the perceived capitalist world order. In this sense, parties like Golden Dawn challenge the binary left-right distinction. Like many manifestations of identity politics, traditional understandings of class are inadequate.

The rise of the far right could also be attributed to a broader political de-alignment in Europe, representative of disillusionment with traditional, mainstream parties. In the UK, the British National Party (BNP) has long been a hyper-nationalist force that opposes immigration and seeks to ‘preserve’ aspects of the UK’s white, ‘Christian’ culture. The far right in the UK has a dangerous relationship with football hooliganism and racially motivated violence. Organisations like the English Defence League have gained prominence in recent years for their aggressive protests and alleged criminal activity, countering the perceived threat of Islam in the UK.

But the rapid rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is a significant addition to the landscape of the UK’s political right. UKIP is Eurosceptic, advocating the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and the retention of the pound sterling. It had a relatively low profile for nearly two decades, but won an impressive 24 out of 73 UK seats in the 2014 European Parliament elections. Party leader Nigel Farage’s comment that he would feel “concerned” if Romanian immigrants moved next door would suggest that, to an extent, UKIP is similar to Europe’s other right-wing, anti-immigration parties. UKIP capitalises on the Conservative Party’s less strident anti-EU stance and could pose a legitimate threat to the Tories in the 2015 UK General Election.

In some ways, the political discourse on the conservative side of politics in the UK is characterised by a desire to embrace the toughest stance against the Brussels-based EU. Senior Conservative figures such as Prime Minister David Cameron and Mayor of London Boris Johnson have been influential in reshaping the Conservative Party’s anti-EU rhetoric. To a certain extent, this fear of ceding sovereignty to the continent is historic, and can be traced back to Winston Churchill’s early scepticism of UK involvement in the European project. For many in Britain, deeper involvement in the EU is at odds with the desire to maintain sovereignty, national identity, and important cultural symbols such as the pound sterling. The UK is significant because this discourse has entered the political mainstream in the form of Euroscepticism, rather than the more hostile and xenophobic anti-EU platforms of far right parties like UKIP, Golden Dawn, and the FN.

Professor Holmes warns that it would be reductive to attribute the rise of the far right in Europe to one specific, unifying phenomenon or factor. He points to the failure of the far right parties to form and maintain a coherent bloc in the European Parliament as evidence of their considerable differences. Issues such as immigration, unemployment, public debt and protectionism are certainly common issues for many of Europe’s far right groups, but differences in history and culture make it unwise to generalise. For instance, Greece’s experience with modern democracy is relatively recent and fragile, and it only joined the EU (known at the time as the European Communities) in 1981. By comparison, France was a founding member of the EU and has a longer history of representative democracy, although volatile issues such as decolonisation and multiculturalism have influenced its political culture for decades.
The future is uncertain for far right parties in Europe, but the recent European Parliament Elections demonstrate that in 2014, these parties to continue to draw considerable support.