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Europe’s radical right: recognising and managing the ‘threat’

Safeguarding communities and nations from the potential threats of radical right narratives is not about controlling or prohibiting their political parties: but about bridging gaps between political leadership and communities.

This week saw the release of the UK’s Home Affairs Committee report on the roots of violent radicalisation. The report, a comprehensive overview of the drivers of terrorism and the appropriateness of current preventative approaches, mentions that the revised Prevent strategy, “only pays lip service to the threat from extreme far-right terrorism.” Though it has been agreed that Prevent resources should be allocated proportionately according to levels of terrorist threat, the report highlighted that the Committee received persuasive evidence about the potential threat from extreme far-right terrorism.

It is easy to argue that governments have not paid enough attention to the far right. However, it is far more difficult to pin down what can and should actually be done to protect European communities from the challenges posed by the contemporary radical right. To further complicate the scene, difficulties arise when we attempt to extract what we know about violent forms of the radical right from what we know regarding non-violent manifestations.

Recent months have seen increased public and governmental scrutiny towards the potential dangers of the radical right’s growing presence across the continent, and the increasing legitimisation of anti-immigration and anti-Islam discourses within mainstream European politics. There has been confusion over how to handle the matter - the radical right is seen both as something to fear, a ‘spectre haunting Europe’, and as a natural element of widespread public scepticism about immigration and integration of European Muslims.

In the wake of the Oslo bombings and Utøya massacre, as well as the recent discovery of a neo-Nazi terrorist group guilty of a decade of murders in Germany, the media and public eye has once again turned with apprehension to the ‘rise’ of the radical right in Europe. Beyond organised terror and lone wolves, a mounting wave of harassment and violent outbursts targeting asylum seekers and ethnic minorities has also presented itself in many European countries; notably in countries like Germany and Sweden in recent years. In many cases, European Muslims in particular have been targeted. In several European states, recent years have seen acts of violence by individuals and groups that are connected in some degree to right-wing extremist ideas or networks.

However, there remains confusion over the role of radical right parties and how they relate to phenomena like the intolerance and violence that has become apparent across Europe in recent years. It is important to note that the political and parliamentary manifestations of the radical right are non-violent and operate within the rules of democracy. These parties actively seek to disassociate themselves from real historical or perceived ties to their extreme and violent counterparts who operate outside of political systems. Radical right parties cannot simply be placed along a continuum of the moderate to the extreme. The relationship between illegal, anti-democratic and violent manifestations of the radical right - the extreme elements - and radical right parties is complex and varies across Europe.

Six months after the attacks on Oslo and Utøya, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) assembled 35 policy-makers, analysts, practitioners and former extremists from across Europe to develop new policy responses to the challenges posed by Europe’s radical right. In this workshop , the leading voices in counter-extremism efforts explored the prospects for countering the radical right’s influence in Europe. Two briefing papers were commissioned to examine the current and future challenges from the radical right – both violent and non-violent.

Drawing upon personal experiences from within the radical right itself, and from engaging with the radical right at the local and national levels, this group assessed the current state of evidence on right-wing extremism across Europe, and the relationship between political trends and violence. Based on the limited evidence available, the perpetrators of right-wing extremist violence tend to be young men with average or low levels of education. Radical right party supporters do share in this distinct social profile: men from the working or middle classes, with few formal qualifications and often pessimistic about their economic prospects. However, these social and demographic factors do not by themselves provide a convincing account of why some citizens are susceptible to right-wing extremist violence. Other evidence has suggested that, rather than political or ideological motivations, ‘thrill-seeking,’ opportunistic or criminal motivations appear most relevant. In fact, many perpetrators tend to lack a developed or overarching ideological worldview (See Goodwin & Ramalingam 2012 ).

These ambiguities point to a need to better identify the ‘threat’ posed by the radical right to European societies. Policy makers and practitioners alike need to be clear about motives in order to develop sound interventions. Why are the trends of radical right political successes worrying to mainstream policy makers and local and national communities? Are we concerned about the proliferation of radical right ideologies and narratives in mainstream politics and their impact on wider community relations? Or are we concerned about the potentials for violence? 

These trends are worrying because they are fuelled by and represent real grievances within communities and nations. It is time that governments and counter-activists look beyond the simplistic understanding that radical right parties are remnants of fascist histories, and instead recognise that both the violent and non-violent elements of the radical right feed upon discontent and disillusionment that exists within some communities. We cannot easily map the so-called ‘tipping point,’ or the moment when grievances are distorted by individuals to justify the use of violence. Most radical right parties operate under the rules of democracy and do not advocate violence. However, the narratives of these parties in some cases do allow violence under certain circumstances.

The ideological foundations of the non-violent can be used to justify the violent. Though questions remain as to whether the ‘threat’ of the radical right is inflated and whether our fear of violence might be higher than the risk, we should not ignore this fear. Our approach to the radical right should not only involve response mechanisms, but rather anticipation and active confrontation of the issues firsthand. What can mainstream political leaders do to minimise this risk of radical right narratives developing into violent manifestations? Six months after the terrible attacks in Norway, the following policy and practical recommendations are proposed:

  • Cross-cutting research and new data 

There is a need to pool our existing knowledge on all forms of extremism, including religious-based, left-wing and other extremisms. How can our knowledge of other forms of extremism inform our thinking about right-wing extremism? By examining different forms of extremism under a broad analytical framework, we can also seek to address and better understand ‘cumulative extremism’, or the spiralling of violence as different forms of extremism interact and set one another off. This can furthermore help us develop an understanding of how ideologies of any nature become channelled into violence. Understanding the dynamics between ideology and violence, across different forms of extremism, may allow us to map ‘trigger points’ and recognise at what point we must stage interventions. It may also help us to create new methods of directing these frustrations and ideological groundings into alternative channels of action for young people, rather than violence.

To date, much of the research on the radical right has fitted into two distinct streams - one mapping radical right politics across Europe and another smaller and less developed stream of research examining local-level right-wing extremist violence. There have been few initiatives focused on uncovering how these two forces are related. This is partially the result of an abundance of analyses on the former and a lack of systematic data on the latter, as well as the difficulties of relying on radical right party activists as a proxy for citizens who are susceptible to right-wing violence. Our understanding of the link between the two is patchy, and we still know relatively little about how sustainable either trend will be. There is a need to collect clear and comparable data across Europe and build longitudinal data sets to better understand patterns of both radical right politics and extreme right-wing violence. 

  • Responsible funding 

Government funding needs to take into account the needs and sensitivity of on-the-ground initiatives to disengage individuals from right-wing extremist movements. Funding cycles have let people down, preventing opportunities for practitioners to engage with individuals over long-term periods. For example, funding cycles have in some cases ceased funding in the middle of interventions. Work in this field must be individualised, prioritising care, emotional support, and long-term commitment to individuals. Interventions need to be able to ensure resources will be available throughout the entire process of disengaging individuals. There is thus a need for longer-term funding patterns, and a commitment from governments to fund this work seriously and invest in people at the local level. The challenge for practitioners is to decline funding when it is clear that the funding opportunity will not cover the costs of the full engagement process with individuals under their programmes.

  • Training and building community resilience 

Issues related to right-wing extremism have often been understood to fall under a ‘specialist’ area of work, thought to be most effectively dealt with by security forces. However, governments need to have confidence in the ability of communities to respond effectively. More needs to be invested in training and development for frontline workers to tackle these issues. Governments have often aimed to understand the demand and supply of radical ideologies rather than the local conditions that contextualise these. Communities harbour this expertise, and there is also a need to invest in new forms of community mediation and innovative methods of building community resilience. At the local level, communities can be encouraged to take responsibility and respond as individuals and groups to the presence of the radical right. However, governments can only facilitate this if they create effective channels of communication and allocate resources within and between communities and local government.  

  • New forms of political engagement 

Political leadership at the local and national levels needs to develop new methods and means of relating to communities. Politicians all too often adopt the narratives of the radical right without the policies, thus promising what they cannot and will not deliver. Political leaders need to adopt new tactics for reaching new audiences, new communications strategies and test innovative forms of mobilisation. Robust local leadership must be coupled with innovative methods of transmitting information across communities, from those with concerns and fears to those who can react at the policy level. Simply myth-busting is not enough. The divide between mainstream politicians and communities is not based on factual errors, but rather on a lack of trust and confidence. Any solutions must aim to build new relationships to bridge this divide.

It is time that we understand the adoption of radical right ideologies and frames as a rational choice, fuelled by real grievances. As indicated in recent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, we need to engage with white working class communities, not as ‘backwards’ communities susceptible to the radical right, but as diverse and resilient communities whose voices are not often heard in political debates. There is a general consensus that members and voters of radical right parties are often entirely ‘normal’ and reasonable individuals. The radical right should not be seen as a vacuum; people do leave these parties and movements because they become disillusioned with them and their outcomes. However, the demise of the radical right does not mean that the concerns and grievances they represent will disappear. Safeguarding communities and nations from the potential threats of radical right narratives is not about controlling or prohibiting these parties, it’s about bridging gaps between political leadership and communities. 

About the author

Vidhya Ramalingam is Research and Policy Manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, where she oversees a programme of work on Far-Right Extremism and Intolerance. She set up and runs the FREE Initiative (Far-Right Extremism in Europe Initiative), a new resource that offers practical guidance on how to take action against violent far-right extremism.


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