Markus Soeder, State Premier Bavaria, Horst Seehofer, Federal Minister of the Interior, Manfred Weber, Chairman of the EPP group, take their seats to draw up CSU list for the European elections. Matthias Balk/ Press Association. All rights reserved.
I will never forget the day that I sent off the final manuscript of the English edition of On Extremism and Democracy in Europe. It was Friday November 13, 2015. Elated at having finally finished a task I thought would take much less time, I came home to celebrate with my wife. Barely inside the house, she asked me, “did you hear about Paris?” I had not, having been totally immersed in finishing the manuscript: but I knew it was not good news.
The last time Paris was big news was at the beginning of that year, when two brothers attacked the headquarters of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing twelve people, including most members of the editorial staff, including the famous cartoonists Jean Cabut (Cabu) and Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb). This time it was even worse. A small group of homegrown Jihadi terrorists had conducted a series of coordinated attacks at three diverse but highly public sites in Paris, killing 130 civilians and injuring 413. It was one of the darkest days in Europe this century.
Although terrorist attacks have abated somewhat in recent years, at least in Europe, the continent is facing even bigger threats to liberal democracy today than on that day. Illiberal democracy has come to full fruition in Hungary, at the heart of the biggest liberal democratic project in history, the European Union. Not only did the EU fail to stop it, it actively enabled it, through lavish subsidies to the country and opportunistic political protection of the Orbán regime by the European People’s Party (EPP), the main political group in the European Parliament.
The Hungarian example has become an inspiration for authoritarian politicians across Europe, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, where leading politicians in aspiring (e.g. Macedonia) and current (e.g. Poland) member states have followed Orbán’s lead.
At the same time, Europe is part of a less and less predictable and more and more authoritarian world. Four of the five largest countries have seen an authoritarian turn in recent years, from China to India and from Brazil to the United States. Even in Indonesia authoritarian forces are prominent, albeit polling “only” in second place. And the EU is still limping from “crisis” to “crisis,” eagerly awaiting the final details of the Brexit deal, while bracing itself for another “populist backlash” in the 2019 European elections. Whatever the future holds, the key issues discussed in this book – the far right, populism, Euroscepticism and liberal democracy – will be at the forefront of the political struggles.
The normalization of the radical right
This book is a collection of op-eds I wrote, and interviews I gave, in the past decade or so. It is impossible to capture the political transformation that Europe has undergone in that period; in part, because it is still ongoing and the outcome, while looking increasingly grim, is far from certain. The political developments have also affected my own thinking, which can be seen from the various readings, which are published in chronological order, and have not been edited or updated, to provide a better insight into my own intellectual development as well as the mood of the time.
I started studying the far right as an undergraduate student at the University of Leiden, the Netherlands, in the early 1990s. It was still a marginal force within my own country, and, except for some specific countries (notably Austria and France), in Europe. Scholarship on the far right was in its infancy and strongly normative, with most people studying it from an explicitly “anti-fascist” perspective. Even “neutral” scholarship was frowned upon. Today, the far right has established itself at the center of European politics, while scholarship is predominantly “neutral”, although most scholars remain hostile to the far right itself (but increasingly sympathetic to its voters). Today, the far right has established itself at the center of European politics, while scholarship is predominantly “neutral”, although most scholars remain hostile to the far right itself (but increasingly sympathetic to its voters).
The public debate over the far right has fundamentally changed in the past decades. In the late twentieth century far right voices were either excluded or marginalized in the public debate. While the far right received disproportionate attention in the media, it was almost always within a strongly negative framework. Moreover, the media reported about the far right, but rarely gave the far right a direct voice.
In countries like Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, for example, op-eds by far right politicians were consistently rejected by mainstream media, to the extent that few would even bother to submit them. Compare that to today, when far right leaders like Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen can write op-eds for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and even AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland has published an op-ed in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
The normalization of the radical right is largely a consequence of the Rechtsruck of European politics, in part a calculated, and often opportunistic, response by center-right, and to some extent center-left, parties to the increased electoral success of radical right parties. The twenty-first century is so far the century of socio-cultural issues, with most elections dominated by non-economic issues centered around “identity” – with the notable exception of those countries most affected by the Great Recession, like Greece and Spain. In some ways, the radical right is setting the political agenda in Europe, by determining what we talk about and how we talk about it. But it can only do that with the tacit support of mainstream media and politics.
One of the most important consequences of the normalization of the far right is that far right politics is no longer limited to far right parties. Authoritarianism, nativism and populism are expressed, in more or less strident ways, by a broad variety of mainstream political parties. In fact, some parties have moved so far to the right, that it is no longer clear whether they are mainstream or radical right. This is certainly the case for Hungary’s Fidesz or Poland’s Law and Justice party, but similar concerns can be raised with regard to the Belgian New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), the British Conservative Party, the French The Republicans, the German Christian Social Union (CSU), and increasingly the Spanish Popular Party (PP). Similar concerns can be raised with regard to the Belgian New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), the British Conservative Party, the French The Republicans, the German Christian Social Union (CSU), and increasingly the Spanish Popular Party (PP).
While this Rechtsruck has given radical right parties more political influence, and made some of them Koalitionsfähig (again), it has also created an electoral challenge for them. In some countries, it has pushed the radical right further right, to remain distinctive from the mainstream right and regain the “radical” position on European integration and immigration (see the shift to Frexit and Nexit of Le Pen and Wilders, respectively). But in other countries the mainstream right went so far right, that the radical right saw no other possibility than to shift to the mainstream. This is the case, most notably, in Hungary, where Fidesz and Jobbik have shifted positions, and Jobbik is now campaigning against the “undemocratic” and “anti-European” Fidesz government.
Open extremists and career politicians
Another new phenomenon, long considered impossible within the academic literature, is the success of openly extreme right parties. With Golden Dawn (XA) in Greece and Kotleba – People’s Party Our Slovakia in Slovakia, two neo-fascist parties are currently represented in a national parliament of an EU member state.
At the same time, members of the extreme right National Movement (RN) were elected to the Polish parliament on the list of the radical right Kukiz’15 movement and the longstanding German National Democratic Party (NPD) has a Member of the European Parliament. Outside of electoral politics, openly neo-fascist organizations like Casa Pound in Italy, or the slightly more guarded Identitarian Movement, are rearing their heads, building infrastructures and grabbing media attention with carefully crafted stunts.
What has become termed “the rise of populism”, meanwhile, is increasingly limited to the populist radical right. Since ignoring its own electoral promises, as well as its own referendum, and accepting the austerity policies associated with yet another bailout, SYRIZA has become an embarrassment rather than an inspiration for the European populist left. Podemos has lost electoral momentum, as it struggles with corruption scandals, the issue of Catalan independence, and an ideological and strategic disagreement over its left populist course. The last remaining hope comes from two movements led by true career politicians, i.e. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s established Unbowed France (FI) and Oscar Lafontaine and Sarah Wagenknecht’s new Get Up movement.
For all the talk about populism, without a doubt the political buzzword of the twenty-first century so far, it has little policy implications. Political systems are not fundamentally revised, either at the national or at the European level, and referendums are more criticized than before the recent rise of populist parties. Political systems are not fundamentally revised, either at the national or at the European level, and referendums are more criticized than before the recent rise of populist parties.
While some mainstream right-wing politicians, like Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, claim that only “good” populism can defeat “bad” populism, they mostly refer to, and implement, nativist policies. And on the other side of the political spectrum, left-wing populism has gotten a new boost through the work of Belgian philosopher Chantal Mouffe, the widow of Ernesto Laclau, but their program is only “populist” according to their own definition.
This is not to say that populism is irrelevant, or no longer relevant. Populist attitudes are widespread across European populations, and are being fed and strengthened by an almost daily diet of sensationalist media coverage. They constitute a growing threat to liberal democracy in Europe, and around the globe, as they undermine consensus politics, while strengthening similarly intolerant anti-populist positions.
Moreover, although populism itself is not anti-democratic, it is logical that someone who is dissatisfied with the way democracy works for many years, will start wondering whether democracy as such is worthwhile. While I’m not a big fan of the “end of democracy” narrative, which is creating a growing, lucrative cottage industry in academia and punditry, it would be hard to argue that liberal democracy is alive and well.
Among the most important threats to liberal democracy in Europe are the rise of populist parties, the increasingly authoritarian responses to terrorism, and the opportunistic reaction to illiberal democracy within the European establishment. As several scholars have documented for the 1930s, including Giovanni Capoccia and Daniel Ziblatt, European democracies died at the hands of fascist outsiders, but with the crucial help of conservative insiders. A similar development is under way in contemporary Europe, in which the EPP played a major role in facilitating the creation of Orbán’s illiberal state. And while other political groups criticize Orbán and the EPP, they remain largely silent, or are much less outspoken, on authoritarian tendencies within their own member parties (such as SD-Smer or GERB). European democracies died at the hands of fascist outsiders, but with the crucial help of conservative insiders.
Grandstanding in the European Parliament might make for many likes on social media, but when not followed by actions, will strengthen the illiberal democrats directly and indirectly. It allows them to build their illiberal democratic regime, while at the same time pointing out the ineffectiveness, and hypocrisy, of liberal democracy. Moreover, fighting populism with anti-populism weakens rather than strengthens liberal democracy. It delegitimizes the political adversary, polarizes and simplifies differences and groups within society, and furthers a zero-sum type politics, which undermines the essence of the system: compromise between legitimate political adversaries.
The failure of the populist promise in Greece
It is here that Greece yet again features prominently, and not in a good way. After three years of populist coalition government, the populist promise has failed, and both ANEL and SYRIZA have plummeted in the polls. New Democracy has seen a modest uptake, but they are nowhere near pre-crisis levels, while other parties have remained stagnant in past years, despite ongoing political upheaval. The fact that few disappointed SYRIZA voters have found their way back to liberal democratic parties is not that surprising, given that parties like ND and PASOK mainly excel in anti-populism, opposing government policies almost irrespective of their merits.
This is not to say that SYRIZA has become a liberal democratic party. There have been too many attempts to circumvent or undermine the independent judiciary and media, for example, which mainly failed because of the incompetency of the populist forces and the dysfunctionality of the Greek state. But while anti-populism might make for effective opposition, it is no basis for government. So, when ND will return to power, possibly in coalition with the post-PASOK Movement for Change, it will do so with little positive agenda or support.
But let me try to end this introduction on a positive note. While the world has not become a better place since the English edition of this book was published, Greece has. Not only is the economic situation better, albeit far from good, the political situation is less precarious. SYRIZA has moderated and Golden Dawn has not become the main opposition party, as former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis tirelessly predicted. Similarly, the EU has survived Brexit with more ease than was expected and is experiencing a serious Brexit bump in popularity. And, slowly but steadily, the EPP is finally starting to address the membership of Fidesz, while the EU is pressuring both Hungary and Poland, although to different extents.
Serious challenge to the loud and the silent
History does not repeat itself, but it also does not progress in a linear fashion. Liberal democracy is facing its most serious challenge in (Western) Europe since the end of the Second World War. As much as Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” was unsubstantiated and wrong, so are the growing claims of the “End of Liberalism” (and liberal democracy) premature and sensationalist at best.
European politics is transforming, which is not a bad thing. Whether it leads to the end or revitalization of liberal democracy is up to all of us, the loud minority of populists as well as the silent majority of liberal democrats.