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Euro elections 2014: You Tell Us bloggers discuss the far right in Europe (part one)

Our young bloggers from across the EU discuss the rise of the far right in Europe. Part two here.

  • Who are you calling a Nazi?
  • Celebrating the Polish way
  • Croatia's flammability
  • How the rise of the front national is reshuffling the political game and endangering France’s relationship with Europe
  • Who are you calling a Nazi?

    by Marcus How

    The rise of the populist far right in Europe is not a recent phenomenon. Granted, some of the parties have only emerged in the last decade; but others have been in gestation for longer. Of all these parties, perhaps the most successful has been the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). Cobbled together from former Nazi moderates and German nationalist sects following the advent of the Second Republic, the FPÖ has occupied a central position in Austrian politics since 1956.

    The party has assumed many different guises over the decades. For thirty years, its nationalism was relatively benign, its leaders moderate. The party was sufficiently pragmatic to prop up the minority Social Democratic (SPÖ) government of Bruno Kreisky between 1970 and 1971, notwithstanding the fact that Kreisky was Jewish. The party shifted even further to the centre following the election of Norbert Steiger as chair, who emphasised the party’s values of economic liberalism and individual freedom.

    The centrist shift was such that the FPÖ entered into coalition with the SPÖ in 1983. But despite its modernisation, the FPÖ won only 5% of the vote in that election, one of its worst ever results. As it assumed the poise of government, opinion polls registered even greater declines in its share of the vote. Internal strife wracked the flailing party, especially as the popularity of the charismatic Jörg Haider increased: in 1986, he was elected leader on the back of the votes of the disgruntled nationalist wing of the party.

    Haider is chiefly remembered as a maverick who reinforced the international perception that Austria had not addressed the full extent of its embrace of Nazism and the Third Reich. He loudly admired the full employment policy of the Nazis; the mettle of former Waffen-SS veterans; and made a variety of racist and anti-Semitic comments. He was overtly anti-establishment, his radicalism chiming with a population who are historically suspicious of such attitudes. Indeed, under Haider’s leadership, the party proved itself proficient at capturing the votes of both the middle and working classes, both in the countryside and in the cities – no mean feat in a country where a sharp split exists between the two.

    By 1999, the party was at the height of its popularity, narrowly beating the centre-right Austria People’s Party (ÖVP) to second place in the federal elections. The two parties formed a coalition, albeit on condition that Haider be precluded from the cabinet and relinquish his chairmanship of the FPÖ. Wolfgang Schüssel of the ÖVP – a reformist centrist – was to serve as chancellor to soothe tempers abroad. Tempers flared nonetheless, with fourteen European states severing diplomatic ties with Austria, expressing disgust that an extremist party could rise to power.

    Government proved again to be the undoing of the FPÖ, as the party quarrelled in the wake of a vote share that fell from 26.5% in 1999, to 10% in 2002. In 2005, Haider splintered from the party with the majority of its elected members to form the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), which espoused social conservatism and economic liberalism. It was not the same beast as the FPÖ, building its support base primarily in rural areas. Either way, it was a flash in the pan: despite scoring well in the 2008 elections, days later Haider was killed when he crashed his car on a remote road in Carinthia, where he was governor. The incident allegedly followed a drunken argument he had with his secret homosexual lover. The BZÖ were eliminated as a party in parliament at the 2013 election.

    In the meantime, the FPÖ has enjoyed a revival under the leadership of Heinz-Christian (“H.C”) Strache, a young dentist who played the vote-winning anti-establishment card, steadily increasing the party’s vote share from 11% in 2006, to 17.5% in 2008, to 20.5% in 2013. He accomplished this by appealing to the youth. He raps, fraternises on Facebook and shows off his abs. The FPÖ seen sharing the platform with populist parties elsewhere is young, modern and radical – a worrying cocktail.

    ***

    For an outsider, it is easy to laugh at the FPÖ, despair of the Austrian public and talk about Nazism. This is a mistake. Strache has assumed the mantle of a man who was surely one of the wiliest European politicians of the last thirty years. It is true that the sentiments Haider capitalised on, and the values he espoused, grew on Austrian soil. But he also anticipated a wider phenomenon well in advance of the likes of Wilders, Le Pen, Grillo, Vona and Farage.

    The phenomenon in question was the reality that there is a cross-section of society who would be left behind, or at the very least out of pocket, by globalisation. In the case of Austria, globalisation is primarily symbolised by the processes of European integration. With more borders than any other European state, it has been particularly exposed to the cross-border traffic resulting from the free movement of labour. Many Austrians feared the rapid socioeconomic change migrant influxes could bring, ever anxious about upheaval. Haider and the FPÖ were thus able to appeal to the “little man” in a way that transcends the left-right distinction.

    On the one hand, the party championed workers anxious about job security and employment conditions, and threatened by the spectre of the multinational and the foreign worker. Elsewhere, it championed social conservatives and nationalists frustrated that their concerns about the dilution of national identity are ignored by the establishment. Later, Strache harnessed the party’s ideal of individual freedom to attract the youth.

    None of this may be new, but it was novel at the time. The cross-voter appeal also demonstrates that it’s probably a misnomer to refer to the ‘European far right’ as such. More than anything, the European populist parties have aspirations to be mass movements espousing a form of lower case national socialism: above all else, welfare, employment and freedom for the native worker at the expense of the foreigner. Most European populist parties have embraced this idea: for example, even UKIP – originally Thatcherites on speed – have broadened their appeal with old left-wing voters by saying that they would protect their benefits and wages.

    But even Haider’s ascent in the 1980s was not entirely unprecedented. The Austrian public had been sold a national socialist agenda before. In March 1938, Nazi Germany marched into Austria and annexed it following nigh unanimous consent in a referendum. The conditions for annexation had been taking root since the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1919 – and there was considerable desire for it among all three major political groupings; except it was prevented by the allied powers.

    In the run-up to the referendum, the Nazis ran a blisteringly effective campaign. Although Jews and other identified undesirables were forbidden from voting – and considerable peer pressure was exerted on floating voters through gentle suggestion – the votes cast did not need to be manipulated.

    This was because amidst the spectacle and razzle-dazzle of the campaign, the Nazis offered something to everybody in a country that had been festering at the very bottom of the European barrel for twenty years. To the socialists and working class, they pledged full employment; to the conservatives, they pledged that they would protect the church and restore law and order; and to the pan-German nationalists, they promised to fulfil that long-awaited union of Germans.

    This isn’t to argue that history is repeating itself in Austria specifically, or Europe more generally. But it serves to illustrate that in uncertain times, extremist parties can draw support from across the political spectrum with a multi-faceted radicalism that pleases everyone, even if it is at the expense of some scapegoats – which the masses are prepared to overlook until the hangover kicks in, and the damage has been done.  

    Celebrating the Polish way

    by Marzena Sadowska

    We celebrate Independence Day (11/11) in different ways: in Poznań, this is named after Saint Martin Street, one of the central streets in the city. The celebration includes a parade, concerts, a small market with local products and, supposedly only on this day, traditional Saint Martin’s croissants are eaten. This is my favourite Independence Day celebration, but it is not the one I pay most attention to because it coincides with the Independence March in Warsaw.

    Organised by Polish far-right groups (among them All-Polish Youth and National Radical Camp) under the name of the National Movement, this demonstration took place for the first time in 2010 and has been repeated every year since then. In the beginning, families and older people were noticeably the main group among the participants. Last year though, Human Rights Watch noted that young people dominated the march, many of them carrying national flags, flags with Celtic crosses and symbols of the National Radical Camp. The participants attacked two squats (on streets other than those on the agreed route) with stones and flares, set cars afire, attacked the Russian Embassy and burned down the Rainbow, an artistic installation which they were not supposed to go past.

    Every year a large police force is deployed in an attempt to keep order, and yet every single one of these marches ends with the trashing of the city. Every year the march has more participants: in 2011 about 20,000 (according to the organisers), in 2012 the police estimated that no more than 25,000 people took part, but the organisers spoke of around 100,000. In 2013, although at the planned end of the demonstration there was about 10,000 people, the organisers again confirmed 100,000. This year was notable as the invitation was extended to football fan clubs (i.e. to hooligans), which hadn’t happened before. The march was also de-legalised for the first time, but it didn’t affect the behaviour of the participants and the scale of destruction one iota.

    In a word, this is the biggest demonstration in Poland, and it is growing. Every year I spend Independence Day following the news from Warsaw as closely as I can. Some of my friends live in Warsaw, and some of them take part in counter-demonstrations, so I have every reason to worry about their safety. In a way, far right movements have stolen this holiday, which should be a day for celebrating our freedom. I’m not the only one glued to computer screens and news feeds. All of the media outlets concentrate on events in Warsaw. There are other celebrations happening there and elsewhere, but everything is trapped in the shadow of the Independence March. In a way I feel like I am robbed of the choice of how to spend the day – I spend it worrying about the safety of my friends and about the shape our capital city will be left in.

    Currently, the National Movement is taking part in the European Parliament elections. None of the polls are giving them much of a chance, but they have registered lists of candidates in each electoral district (each list is supported by at least 10,000 signatures from that district’s residents). Their standing in these elections is puzzling, given their very anti-European Union ideas and their emphasis on national sovereignty. On the other hand, they want their share of the money and prestige coming from being MEPs. It seems like their followers are not numerous enough to put them there, though.

    It’s hard to predict how successful they are going to be: in all probability, they are not going to have members in the European Parliament just yet. But what about the next European elections? Or the next parliamentary elections in Poland? The National Movement is very active online (and they have very good web PR), but not in mainstream media. I do not think this is going to change soon. It doesn’t look like the nationalist ideas are going to gain much more popularity at the moment.

    The crisis is probably coming to an end and we are not under any attack right now, and there aren’t isn’t a big migration movement to Poland. None of the traditional factors feeding the growth of nationalist ideas seem imminent. On the other hand, there will be far right political parties in the new European Parliament. I would be surprised if our National Movement didn’t draw some kind of inspiration from this. 

    Croatia's flammability

    by Marko Boko

    In the last round of You tell us! blogs (part onepart two), we offered some thoughts on the nature of political apathy, which seems to be recognised as a concern all around Europe. What I am happy about is that, having admitted as much, one really tough topic has surfaced in the ensuing discussion. And actually, it concerns those who routinely exploit this apathy, combining it with the socio-economic crisis – that is the far right. I'm going to offer a Croatian perspective on this.

    It is well known that Croatia seriously experimented with its far right movement after Yugoslavia collapsed. So I won't go over that. But, the point is that most of the political arsenal that fits under the far right umbrella came out of the 1990s and what is even more important – World War II. It is clear that the rise of the Croatian far right is not completely in line with the west European phenomenon. The focus is not the same. But still we "contribute" to a common European far right arena.

    When it comes to WWII, it is amazing just how many average everyday political debates have the potential for ending up in a heated discussion about who was on which side in WWII (Croats were both antifascists and fascists, divided mostly as a result of the Nazi puppet state, the Independent State of Croatia), and who committed more crimes etc. Questions related to such topics are still highly flammable in daily politics and they have huge weight in relations between the political parties and the citizens/voters.

    These questions were even more important in the 90s. Sometimes your life could depend on being identified as antifascist, which was (and sometimes still is) equivalent to being a communist, which was equal to being anti-Croatian or pro-Serbian. However, in the Croatian constitution, it is clearly written that the modern Croatian state is based on antifascist values. This might sound rather funny or sad, or both, but on these scales were measured, and still are, how much you love Croatia, and whether you deserve to live here.

    After the war ended and we got our own independent state (from other countries, but not from various interests that were favoured by extreme privatisation), the absence of a real and big external enemy meant that the (far) right began to splinter.

    The political mainstream started leaning towards centrism, especially when Croatia set forth on its EU path. The biggest right wing party chose to support that goal and their ideology was adjusted accordingly. As a result, some voters were driven to support minor far right parties that had "stayed true" to their ideologies. But not on a huge scale, as this constituency was always mindful of the "bigger evil" that was the left (social democrats - successors of the Communist party) mainstream party. That is why it seemed perfectly reasonable, in order to fulfil some of the EU requirements, to support mainstream centre right parties that had actually made some pretty unpopular overtures towards the interests of the nationalist or the far right groups.

    Once our mainstream political space became bereft of any strong political discourse or identifiable ideological stance and since this was overtaken by particular individual interests, which have become even more important, we cannot really speak of a classical far right in Croatian (parliamentary) political life. It is visible, hovering just outside that arena, and all the time you can feel how it breathes down your neck, ably packaged into the liberal language of right wing mainstream parties and media. Discussion about WWII and the 90s can always be depended on as a reliable tool to switch a debate from real life problems to who is 'the Other', or the enemy. And there is no need to use big words to keep this fire going. The whole of our society seems to be well-trained and indeed straining to find the moment for a pointless discussion and to join in, while the ones who start it can be sure that they will "get the job done".

    Croatia joined the EU on 1 July 2013, so the time has come to finally jettison the old discourse. It is interesting to draw the parallel with the Serbian path towards the EU – where "former" radical nationalists are now pro-EU, and have signed up to most of the values that have been sent their way from Brussels. But it will be interesting to see what will happen if (or when) Serbia actually joins the EU. For now, far right movements are confined to outside the classical political arena, and out of the parliament.

    In my previous blogs I have mentioned far right movements (minor political party extensions), often openly supported by the Catholic church, that gather around particular questions (gay marriage and the call for a Serb cyrillic script ban by referendum). Once they win the unqualified support of a respectable number of voters, these groups can easily be persuaded to feel that everything they say is right, regardless of the topic, which is naive.

    Of course, they weren't willing to stop at that. They have gathered seven other (far) right parties into an alliance named, "Alliance for Croatia", based on conservative and Catholic values, focused on national interests only. None of the important socio-economic questions are raised by them. They want to end the domination of the strongest centre right party over the right wing scene, on the grounds that "they have showed what they can do". But it is hard to believe that they will succeed. Also, they are already running for the European Parliament in order to defend Croatian sovereignty and our independence in Brussels.

    The Croatian far right is difficult to compate with other European far rights, as these right wing scenes have different enemies. Western European concerns seem to revolve around immigration, an issue that has not yet reached Croatia's right wing. Here, the far right has in its sights on the LGBT groups, Roma, and Serbian citizens. For now.

    But if we do not start to mobilise a more organised and solidary movement against the fascist trends in Croatia and Europe, any other social grouping that does not exactly follow the "correct values" will easily be blacklisted. This time it will not be done covertly during the night in the streets, it will be done in broad daylight in the European parliament and the national parliaments across Europe.

    How the rise of the front national is reshuffling the political game and endangering France’s relationship with Europe

    by Maximilien von Berg

    The rise of the Front National (FN) in France can be explained, firstly, by the failure of traditional government parties – the Socialist Party (PS) and the centre right party (UMP) – to echo people’s concerns and to offer working solutions with tangible results. Second, by the change of leadership it operated in 2011. Marine Le Pen has orchestrated a break-up with her father’s old party. The lifting she gave it was well-timed and necessary for an organisation that had become deflated. But beyond a new figurehead and a general rise in popularity of so-called extreme right-wing parties across Europe, the Front National’s potential has been fundamentally altered. Unless the centre-right reacts, or the social-economic conjecture improves, the FN’s popularity may prove long-lasting.

    The FN campaigns on exiting the Euro and NATO, the reintroduction of tariffs, and a slashing of immigration quotas. Its plan is a simple rejection of most of Europe’s achievements since World War II. Basically, the party proposes to turn inwards to find solutions and a brighter future. This amounts to the old nationalist adage. Le Pen may be right that France should start a self-assessment of its problems. Whether her solutions are the right ones is another matter. But Marine Le Pen’s programme differs sharply from that of her father, at least economically. Marine’s economic programme is much more basic and brutal than her father who used to caress a more economically liberal stance, closer to Poujadism of which he was a frontrunner once upon a time. Looking at the modern FN’s programme, it borders the ideology of the hard left of the political spectrum.

    Any analysis of the rise of the FN requires some context as to the role the party has historically played, and the role of its historical and now ailing leader – Jean-Marie Le Pen. The FN’s struggle to carve its course away from the extremist stigma and fascist and anti-Semitic sympathies was protracted. The ‘diabolisation’ – understand demonisation – of the Front National in France has endured throughout the existence of this party, founded in 1972 by the organisation ‘Ordre Nouveau’ with Jean-Marie Le Pen as its leader. His culminating success was to beat socialist candidate Lionel Jospin in the first round of the 2002 presidential election and take on Jacques Chirac, the president, in a run off for the second round. The fresh endorsement of Marine Le Pen, his youngest daughter, changed the dynamics. She has been able to leverage her soft power to reshape her party as one for which it is no longer shameful to cast a ballot. Using her assertiveness, debating skills, a less radical and provocative tone, her gender and her ambition, she transformed the FN into a party that is now perceived as ‘Republican’ – a term used to designate consistency with French institutions.

    The fact that more people than ever may cast their vote in favour of the FN in the EU elections, according to surveys, is an indication that mainstream parties are not answering the questions and issues these people care about. The FN simply presses on people’s fears of economic austerity advocated by the EU, of being governed by a remote group of bureaucrats in Brussels, and of foreigners stealing their jobs. These are concerns the PS refuses to acknowledge on the one hand, and the UMP has failed to tackle in depth on the other. The truth is that the FN has also changed its positioning and has become less extreme.

    If the consequence of demonising the FN and its themes makes the mainstream suppress any of the so-called extreme right rhetoric, then these parties will not address people’s concerns. Henceforth, centrist parties can provoke their own demise, or at least concede victories to the FN in the next European legislature. Mainstream political parties – primarily the PS and the UMP – which are still extremely dominant in the French assembly thanks to an electoral system that favours larger parties, should isolate the FN by directly addressing the theme and language the party capitalises on – for European elections are proportional and will not hand the PS and UMP the same advantage as at home. Would having fundamentally anti-European parties influence the course of Europe not be a sordid irony?

    The UMP should tackle FN themes head on – not ignore the FN – because it is stealing more voters away from the UMP than from the Socialists. Instead, the UMP has been campaigning against the PS and the FN has been campaigning against the UMP. The FN is eating the UMP’s voter base. FN themes resonate with voters for a reason: immigration in a highly unemployed society, high unemployment in a state providing huge amounts of public spending, and flat growth in a highly indebted country provide easy ammunition for a protest party like the FN, which has always campaigned against Europe, never served in government, and has always been an outcast from the establishment. The PS’s sense of political correctness bars it from discussing the real, dirty problems, to find their root cause, and to make the unpopular decisions that come with reform. But the UMP must do so if it wants to beat the FN.

    The right wing has a core of supporters that have been present for over a century in France. Fascist cells still survive and the cult of Marshall Petain has increased, if anything, since his death. Petain and figures of the old regime are resurfacing from latent movements who do not have a voice in today’s politics. In fact, the rise of an amenable version of FN in the person of Marine Le Pen may spark further action on the radical right, but she is receiving new and hefty support from moderate middle class voters. As long as people fail to grapple with a changing world the FN may surf the wave. The FN’s approach is simplistic and focuses on a few topics: the negative effects of the globalized capitalist economy; the failure to accommodate waves of immigrants and more generally the immigration policy; and an emphasis on security. The FN’s economic arguments come close to those of extreme left and communist inspirations. In fact, with the exception of the FN’s take on immigrants, they take similar stands. Yet, the FN remains as ideologically dry as the PS – see my previous blog – although it is much more dangerous than the PS because it is solely destructive.

    In Hungary, Austria, and Switzerland movements show the possibility of right wing parties gaining real power. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders is already in a 38 MEP alliance with Le Pen and their counterparts in Italy, Slovakia, and Sweden - aiming to receive increased EU funding while working against it. Nigel Farage, the leader of euro-sceptic UKIP, is also poised to achieve success and add to the anti-European trend within the heart of the EU. Ultimately I cannot emphasise how important it is that voters do not vindicate simplistic anti-European issue parties. These parties raise worthy issues while providing no answers except to pull out of one of the greatest political projects ever conceived and implemented - for the wrong reasons. Isolation and more hardship would lie on that path.

    Read part two here.

    About the author

    David Krivanek is an Associate Editor of openDemocracy, and edits the digitaLiberties debate. He was previously editor of Can Europe Make It?, and currently works for an international organisation in Beirut.


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