More than 70 years since the defeat of fascism, populist right-wing parties are winning votes and challenging governments across Europe. From Italy to Sweden, from Hungary to Spain, politicians on the far right are denouncing migrants, inciting hostility to Muslims and stirring up what many politicians see as a dangerous wave of nationalism that threatens the stability and values of established democracies.
The political landscape seems suddenly to have changed. Donald Trump is riding high in America. Theresa May has already fallen victim to the populist pressures of Brexit. Vladimir Putin is secretly funding right-wing parties across Europe. And the world of social media is now full of messages of hate, intolerance and racial taunts.
The established political parties are deeply worried. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, says Europe must wake up to the new dangers to the European Union. President Macron is under siege in France, denounced every weekend by groups of violent “gilets jaunes” (yellow vest) demonstrators. And the European elections have just shown a huge rise in support for far-right groups, once seen as fringe remnants of fascism, who are now entering the European parliament in large numbers.
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All politicians have to send out “populist” messages to win votes. Appealing to what people want and promising easy solutions to their problems is not new. But there is a new brand of populism that is allied to an arrogant and divisive nationalism and thrives on identifying and denouncing enemies within a country’s midst – immigrants, gypsies, liberals and especially Muslims. These new populists say that Europe’s heritage and Christian values are under threat. They warn of cities being swamped by black and brown-skinned immigrants with alien values and cultures who bring a wave of crime, drugs and prostitution in their wake. They appeal to an older generation worried about job losses and nostalgic for lost greatness and social stability. And they also appeal to a young generation that feels excluded from power and impatient with established rules and social conventions.
Around the world, from Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to Viktor Orban in Hungary, a shameless new form of government is on the march. It trades in feelings not facts, nostalgia not progress, grievances not solutions and chauvinism rather than co-operation. From behind a cover of ancient hatreds and hyped-up modern threats, it disdains established processes and norms and governs as though ordinary rules do not apply. In Poland, the right-wing government has tried to take control of the courts by appointing judges that favour its views. In Italy, the deputy prime minister and driving force of the present coalition has promised a census of people of Roma descent and has threatened criminal prosecutions of any ships that pick up migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean and landing them in Italy. In Austria the leader of the Freedom Party – until he was caught proposing an corrupt deals with a group posing as Russian oligarchs – proposed closing mosques, described migration as “population replacement” and used language reminiscent of the Third Reich. Ministers in Estonia flashed a “white power” sign while being sworn in. A fascist senator in Australia spoke of a “final solution” for Muslims. And in Germany, where the far right led to the Holocaust and world war two generations ago, some members of the Alternative for Germany party are again denouncing Jews.
Alarmingly, the far right now sees itself as part of a global movement. It recently tried to organise a convention of all those parties across Europe that share attitudes and policies once seen as dangerous and unacceptable. Matteo Salvini in Italy expresses open admiration for Orban in Hungary. In Britain, those on the right of the ruling Conservative party, especially the leaders of the Brexit movement such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, have been in touch with Steve Bannon, the maverick American far-right campaigner and former Trump adviser, who is now trying to build a far-right network across Europe.
Why is the populist right doing so well? Partly, this is the result of the failure by mainstream parties to deliver greater prosperity for ordinary people. Most European countries have grown steadily richer. But the wealth gap has widened enormously. The rich have become much richer, while the poor have seen their real wages stagnate. Chief executives of big British companies now earn on average 183 times more than the pay of an ordinary worker in their companies – a difference at least twice the pay difference 20 years ago. They are paid 165 times more than nurses and 140 times more than teachers. This gap is even greater in America and India. Mainstream parties, either on the left or the right, have lost any political vision, and offer no solutions to modern problems – drugs, violence, increasing crime, housing shortages, social care and health systems that are overstretched.
Populist parties promise quick and easy solutions – even if these promises are untested and rely on what many say are fake facts and fake news. And voters are ready to disregard the rights of minorities and the vulnerable if these stand in the way of sweeping new measures. A recent survey in Britain found that half of all voters said Britain “needs a strong leader willing to break the rules.”
The mainstream parties have been alarmed by the rise of the far right. This was particularly evident in Britain, where the recent European elections put the new Brexit party well ahead and forced the ruling Conservative party into fifth or sixth place, behind even the Greens – a result so humiliating that it forced the party to compel Mrs May to resign even before the results were published.
It is the centre-right that feels most threatened. They are bleeding support to those on the far right. Traditional conservative parties in Europe – the Christian Democrats in Germany, the British Conservatives or the Popular Party in Spain – have reacted by trying to steal many of the far-right’s ideas and policies or entering into coalitions with groups that were once seen as extremists. On the whole, this has proved disastrous. The spectacular collapse of the coalition in Austria of the mainstream People’s Party with the far-right Freedom party came after the corruption of Heinz-Christian Strache, the Freedom Party leader, was revealed in a sting video. But it has left Sebastian Kurz, the young Austrian chancellor, without any ally in government and looking foolish and naïve. His government is likely now to fall.
In other countries, established Conservative parties have proposed alliances with the far-right: before the election in Sweden last September the liberal conservative Moderate party proposed a deal with the hard right Sweden Democrats; the Popular Party in Spain formed a regional government with Vox, the new right-wing party; and in Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands, long seen as bastions of liberal tolerance, the ruling parties are making concessions to the right. In Denmark, for example, the government now allows the police to confiscate jewellery and other valuables from arriving asylum-seekers.
Many Europeans blame President Trump for the success of the far right. His nationalist America-first rhetoric won him the presidency and voters do not seem to worry that he says things often shown to be untrue or denies what he said only days later. Europeans think they can copy his tactics. Putin is also blamed for encouraging and secretly funding parties such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front – now renamed as the National Rally – as part of Russia’s attempt to destabilise established political structures in the West. These trends have been encouraged by social media, where those with the most extreme views or hate-filled messages are winning the greatest following. Traditional governments seem powerless to respond. Theresa May has been forced out of office. Merkel has given up leadership of her party. Nationalism now dominates politics in Poland and Hungary. Is the world moving back to the dangerous political tensions of the 1930s? Will history repeat itself?