The various movements gathered under the name of Europe’s "far right” have not risen like a straight line on a graph. There have been - still are - lows as well as highs.
Yet there is a new sense of purpose, thanks to a new movement - called "The Movement,” and launched by former Donald Trump aide Steve Bannon - and to Hungarian premier Viktor Orban’s call to the right to "concentrate our strength” on the May 2019 elections to the European Parliament.
Chief among the lows is a French group that had been on a long high: Marine Le Pen’s National Front, now renamed National Rally ("Rassemblement National"). Accused of misusing 7 million euros (about $8.1 million) of European Parliament funds intended to pay for assistants in Brussels but allegedly diverted to pay salaries in France, a court has ruled that a 2 million euro tranche of state subsidy should be blocked.
Le Pen denies the misuse and tweeted that the loss of funds will "assassinate” the party. Seemingly successful until roundly defeated by Emmanuel Macron in last year’s presidential election, Le Pen’s party has since been losing members, and even party officials.
In the Netherlands last year, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party was well beaten by the center-right VVD party of Mark Rutte, now the Dutch prime minister.
The Freedom Party has not revived much since, though it remains second in the polls. And in the Iberian Peninsula, neither Spain nor Portugal, presently under leftist governments, has produced far-right movements of any size at all.
In Spain, a party named Vox is trying to break through - to the apparent indifference of Spaniards. So much for lows. The highs are higher, and the preparations are ramping up to make them higher still, and to secure a large, even majority, far-right representation in the European parliament in next year’s elections.
Italy has had its populist breakthrough, in the shape of the 5-Star Movement/Lega (League) coalition that is now confronting the harsh facts of Italy’s economy, but with Matteo Salvini, head of the Lega and deputy prime minister, keen to spread the nationalist ideology in Europe.
Salvini told a July party rally that the 2019 vote "will be a referendum between the Europe of the elites, banks, finance, mass migration and precariousness versus the Europe of peoples, work, tranquility, family and future.”
In Germany, the Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), a party brought into existence to oppose the large, mainly Muslim immigration into Germany, hovers around 15 per cent in the polls, only a little lower than the once-mighty Social Democrats (SPD), again the main coalition partner with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), after briefly pulling ahead in February.
The larger story is that the AfD has risen from the 12.5 per cent it received in last year’s election, while the SPD has fallen back from their 20 per cent as working and lower middle-class voters deserted the latter for the former.
Energized by this backing, the AfD has launched itself against Germany’s left-dominated cultural sector, vocally protesting against theatres staging spectacles which identify the party with Nazism.
An even larger rise is enjoyed by the Sweden Democrats, whose 20 per cent in the polls is only a little behind the ruling Social Democrats’ 24 per cent, and the largest opposition party, the Moderates, at 22 per cent.
Again, the story is of a far-right rise from the low teens last year, and a fall in both the center-left and the center-right - with immigration again the battleground. A general election is due on September 9.
Among the most prominent of the new nationalists is Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, whose Fidesz party had a third smash victory in the election this year. He gave a long, ambitious speech at his party’s summer open university in which he predicted that in the European elections, "we can wave goodbye not only to liberal democracy, but also to the entire elite of ’68” - blaming the liberal baby boomers and the leftist movements of the late 1960s for a swing into dangerously lax multiculturalism, threatening national unity. There’s no question of Orban’s importance.
Hailed by Steve Bannon as a "Trump before Trump,” his form of illiberal democracy is, according to political scientist Ivan Krastev, "likely to be the major alternative to liberalism in the coming decades.”
Bannon, now apparently trying hard to get back in favour with the U.S. president, has created The Movement, a bid to unite the parties of the far right in Europe before next year’s European elections. It’s been a long-term dream: in a 2014 interview, he said that "I think you’re seeing a global reaction to centralized government, whether that government is in Beijing or that government is in Washington D.C., or that government is in Brussels.” Bannon’s reach, like Orban’s and Salvini’s - may exceed his grasp. The movements they try to unite are notoriously fissiparous and undisciplined. The Movement - which Bannon hopes will rival George Soros’ liberal Open Society Foundation - will have limited funds and a maximum of 10 staffers. Immigration, the central issue, is now much reduced. Governing parties of the left and right in Europe have quietly adopted some of the far-right’s demands. Yet for the moment at least, some force seems to be with them. Immigration rates are lower, but the pressure from the desperate of Africa and the Middle East is only greater.
Radical groups still threaten Western cities. And in the White House, a president whose heart is presumably with The Movement now basks in the glow of a booming economy - some of which is a legacy from his predecessor, Barack Obama - and may see Trump’s Republican Party win the November mid-term elections because of it. The far-right will stay on a high some time longer yet. - Reuters
* The author co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. The opinions expressed here are his own