The European Union and the seventeen of its twenty-seven member-states that form the eurozone are in the middle of intense efforts to manage the region's financial predicament, avoid a new recession, and avert the collapse of Europe's entire political and economic project. Even if all this works - and it is a big "if" - the costs will be immense, and the crisis that Europe has been experiencing since 2008 is still the most significant since the great depression of the 1930s. But while the economic consequences have hitherto been fairly similar, the political consequences have been very different.
Ever since the 1930s, economic crises have been linked to the rise of political extremism. After all, it is generally held that the great depression brought Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party to power in Weimar Germany; and that in times of material hardship people tend to turn to charismatic leaders who promise to clean up the mess (including corrupt politicians) by putting the nation above corporate profits and international interests. It is then unsurprising that many commentators have warned that the post-2008 crisis will lead to a resurgence of the radical right or even the return of fascism.
So far, this has not happened. Since the beginning of the financial crisis (roughly in mid-2008), populist and radical-right parties in Europe have overall failed to make remarkable electoral advances. True, such parties increased their support (sometimes significantly) in Finland, Hungary, Latvia and the Netherlands; equally, they lost ground in Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Norway, and Poland. At the same time, radical-right parties remain largely absent from the political life of at least one third of all European countries - from Iceland to Spain, from Ireland to Estonia. The experience, taken as a whole, suggests the question: why, this time around, has Europe's severe crisis not led to a widespread rise of the radical right?
A stalled advance
Three answers suggest themselves.
The first is that the link between economic crisis and radical-right success is, in fact, less general than often claimed. For example, two of the most hazardous economic periods in postwar Europe - the oil shocks of the 1970s and the post-communist transition period of the 1990s - produced no great advance for the radical right. Moreover, even in the paradigmatic case of the 1930s, extreme-right parties were really successful in only a few European countries (notably Germany); in most of the established democracies they remained marginal (e.g. the Netherlands and Britain).
The second is that European democracies are much stronger today than they were almost a century ago. After all, the Weimar republic was Germany’s first experiment with democracy and it was only a decade old when it was hit by the great depression. Today most European countries have much longer experiences with democracy; even the "new democracies" in the post-communist east are twice as old now as Weimar Germany was when it was hit by the crisis. Moreover, most contemporary European democracies are highly developed welfare states, still able considerably to moderate the effects of the crisis on its citizens. And the process of European integration itself has changed fundamentally the dynamics of European politics, by making countries interdependent economically and politically; in turn this both softens the economic blows on the most hard-hit and makes aggressive nationalist positions highly problematic.
The third answer is that radical-right parties tend to profit from the predominance of socio-cultural issues such as crime, corruption and immigration. During times of economic hardship, however, voters tend primarily to focus on socio-economic issues such as inflation, unemployment, and general economic conditions. A survey of European opinion between spring 2007 and autumn 2008 is revealing here. The percentage of Europeans viewing the economic situation as one of the two most important issues facing their country jumped in this period from 20% to 37%, and those regarding inflation as important rose from 18% to 37%; meanwhile, those strongly concerned with crime decreased from 24% to 17%, with immigration from 15% to 9%, and with terrorism from 12% to 5%. Such socio-cultural issues are at the centre of radical-right politics; in a period when their salience is declining and becoming largely marginalised in electoral campaigns, it makes sense that radical-right parties are not doing particularly well.
This process was closely matched in the case of the radical-right Party for Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders in the Dutch elections of June 2010. The Netherlands was by then becoming more strongly affected by Europe's larger crisis, and especially by the severe problems in other eurozone countries, especially Greece (where the first rescue package was agreed in May 2010). Until well into 2009, the public debate had remained mostly focused on socio-cultural issues, notably the alleged problems of integration of Muslims into Dutch society (the bread and butter of Wilders’s party). Once the economic crisis started to dominate public debate, the PVV started to drop in the opinion polls. In the end, the PVV did manage to achieve a fairly substantial result, but it received only about two-thirds of the public support it had before the economy became the central issue in the Dutch public argument.
A longer view
What does this all mean for Europe’s future, in a context where it will take several years (at least) for the region's economy fully to recover? Many radical-right parties will survive and continue to contest elections during these years, with the outcome of their campaigns being influenced by both domestic and global developments.
According to one theory, their real successes are yet to come, as people start to express their increased "status anxiety" only after the economic situation has stabilised. The rationale here is that economic crisis leads some voters back into the fold of established parties, either because they have more trust in the latter's handling of the economy or (perhaps better) they have even less confidence in radical-right parties' ability to deal with social, economic or cultural issues. But this doesn’t mean that citizens have changed their view on these matters or become more positive toward the mainstream parties; to the contrary, many have grown even more frustrated with political (and other) "elites" after these elites disappointed their high expectations (expectations that political leaders help to fuel during election campaigns).
It is impossible to predict in exact terms how post-crisis Europe will look politically. But there is no reason whatever to assume that the radical right's current lack of achievement means the beginning of its end. If anything, it makes this current the proverbial sleeping dog laying in the corner, waiting to be awoken by new rounds of debates over socio-cultural issues. And once that cycle restarts, and there is no doubt it will, the radical right may well again look more convincing and well-prepared than most of the established parties.