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Europe’s Far Right Has Stalled

Leonid Bershidsky
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Europe’s Far Right Has Stalled

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Another year, another unrealized right-wing scare in Europe. Though far-right parties(1) are now a fixture on the European political stage, they made no significant gains on the continent in 2019. Despite growing political fragmentation, the center is holding. Nationalist populists are still as unsuited to governing as ever.

I  had an early inkling that the far right wouldn’t advance much in 2019 when I went to Brussels in February to interview Michel Modrikamen, the Belgian lawyer who was supposed to be U.S. nativist ideologue Steve Bannon’s point man in Europe. Bannon had talked about disrupting the European Union’s operation by fueling a radical right-wing wave in the European Parliament election in May. But Modrikamen, leader of the People’s Party, a small nationalist political force in the francophone part of Belgium, wasn’t working on anything as ambitious as that: Instead, he was interested in organizing a kind of discussion club for European nationalist and conservative politicians. Dreams of centralized war rooms for nationalist parties turned out to be unfeasible because of strict campaign financing laws. U.S. money and technological know-how failed to materialize. (The People’s Party was disbanded in June after a disappointing showing in the European and Belgian elections).

Matteo Salvini, the Italian rabble-rouser who leads the anti-immigrant League party, was another friend of Bannon’s who  tried to put together a kind of nationalist international coalition ahead of the European Parliament vote. There was a big rally in Milan to announce the alliance, but Identity and Democracy, the faction formed by Salvini and his allies, ended up as only the fifth-biggest group in the 751-seat legislature, with 73 members. That’s an improvement on the 37 its predecessor group, Europe of Nations and Freedom, had in the previous parliament, but the growth came at the expense of other like-minded groups. Salvini’s creation was not involved in the haggling over top European Union jobs, and it plays no role in EU decision-making. Given that European elections are often used by national electorates to vent their frustrations, but have little economic impact, this result is the equivalent of a mighty swing-and-miss for the far right.

But then, in the European election, the far right only could have hoped for a symbolic victory. Power in the EU is largely concentrated on the national level, and there, too, the far right failed to pull off any spectacular wins. In the eight EU national elections in which nationalist populist parties had a chance to win seats, their average showing was 12.1% — higher than the 11.7% they won in their countries’ previous elections, but still not a frightening percentage.

Nationalist populists only made gains in three of the eight countries — Estonia, Belgium and Spain. In the small Baltic state, ultranationalist EKRE’s success was the result of rural voters left behind by the nation’s tech boom, which is largely happening in the capital, Tallinn. It could also be related to a bump in nationalist support in neighboring Finland, of which more later.

In Belgium, young Flemish male voters unhappy with the country’s multiculturalist policies brought the anti-Islam, anti-immigrant Flemish Interest party a second-place finish in the parliamentary election thanks to its flirting with the alt-right and its success on social media. And in Spain, nationalist Vox’s rise was in large part a response to popular demand for an extremely hard line against Catalan secessionists.

Elsewhere, the far right was dealt spectacular defeats. In Denmark, the People’s Party crashed at the ballot box after other parties, including the victorious center-left, learned convincingly to back tough but not extreme immigration policies and new, smaller forces challenged the People’s Party from the right. In Greece, receding economic pain softened public support for the neo-fascist Golden Dawn. And in Austria, support for the Freedom Party never quite recovered from the scandal that led to the resignation of its former leader Heinz-Christian Strache in May: He’d been caught in an unusual sting operation, drunkenly plotting various shenanigans with a woman he thought was related to a Russian oligarch.

Strache’s fall highlighted the fundamental conflict between far-right politicians’ ability to perform well in polls and elections and their ineptitude at governing. Salvini provided another glaring example this year when he pulled his party out of the ruling coalition to force an election only to watch his former partners from the left-wing populist Five Star Movement form a new alliance with the centrist Democratic Party. Salvini, formerly Italy’s powerful interior minister, found himself out of a job. Though he’s still extremely popular and a massive threat to the Italian elite, he’ll likely only govern if he can somehow put together a majority together with other far-right forces, such as the Brothers of Italy party.

Governing just doesn’t work out well for far-right parties in Europe. In Norway, the popularity of the far-right Progress Party has collapsed because of an endless line of scandals involving its ministers and legislators. In Finland, the nationalist Finns party split in 2017, while part of the governing coalition, because the radical party base considered its ministers too moderate and compromise-minded; now, the party’s revived popularity, which has allowed it to hold its own in this year’s national election and since propelled it to first place in polls, is the result of a radicalization that makes the Finns a coalition partner to avoid.

In Estonia, three EKRE ministers have already been dismissed, one of them after serving for exactly one day in office. A fourth, Interior Minister Mart Helme, barely survived an attempt to remove him after he called Finland’s 34-year old Prime Minister Sanna Marin a “sales girl.” Further EKRE missteps, dismissals and confidence votes will remain a threat to Estonia’s government coalition next year.

Far-right parties do best in elections when they’re in opposition — when they can play the “no one likes us, we don’t care” card, as one researcher wrote about the Finns this year. That’s why I regret the adamant refusal of Germany’s mainstream political parties to form coalitions with the nationalist Alternative for Germany after its strong showing in three state elections in the country’s east this year (it came second in Thuringia, Saxony and Brandenburg). Letting the far right get a taste of actual responsibility and the constraints that come with it tends to open voters’ eyes — and in coalition governments, even populist rabble-rousers have to try to act reasonably, so the damage can be minimized.

The far-right tendency to fail at governing is one reason such parties usually do better in polls than in elections. The average support level of Europe’s far-right parties in December, 2019 is 14% — exactly the same as a year ago.

Averages can be deceptive, of course. But only five European far-right parties enjoy more than 20% support at the end of the year, if one counts Switzerland’s powerful People’s Party, which saw a slight dip in electoral support this year. Of the other four, only Liga, the Finns and the Sweden Democrats are viable threats to centrist governments in their countries; in France, with its strong presidency, Marine Le Pen would need to win a presidential election for her National Rally party to govern, and she’s already been beaten twice by centrists.

Italy and two Nordic countries, then, are where far-right gains threaten to destabilize political systems in the near future. The Italian case is complex: The country has a powerful right-wing tradition, and its voters are tired of government dysfunction and an anemic economy. Only the emergence of equally charismatic leaders capable of outshining Salvini can neutralize the threat he presents. 

Sweden and Finland are another matter. The far right is strong there because the Nordics, with their generous social safety nets, have been failing at immigrant integration. Ghettos have emerged, education and health care systems have begun crumbling at the edges, and voters have noticed. To find an alternative to the Danish scenario of an anti-immigration consensus, these countries need to get better at pulling newcomers into their tight social fabric — an exercise that requires visionary leadership and smart policymaking, which have been lacking the last few years as the inflow of immigrants has grown.

In the rest of Europe, political elites are learning to live with parties whose leaders say the formerly unspeakable, make offensive gestures and gather raucous crowds carrying signs not since since before World War II. These political forces can be loud nuisances, but then protest parties always are. The trick is not to let them grow into something bigger — a fascist tide of the kind that swept over Europe in the 1930s. That sometimes means letting the troublemakers into government as a kind of inoculation.

So far, European centrists largely are doing OK at containing the infection.

(1) Defining a party as far-right isn't straightforward. The line is especially thin between "far-right" and "national-conservative." Some analysts attach the far-right label to political forces such as Poland's Law and Justice, Hungary's Fidesz or the Netherlands' Forum for Democracy. I don't, based on these parties' reluctance to form alliances with unambiguously far-right forces such as Italy's League and on their pragmatic approach to legislative work and governance, more characteristic of center-right forces.

To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Sarah Green Carmichael at sgreencarmic@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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