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How the far right got out of the doghouse

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Far-right European politicians have just achieved victory in Italy, after achieving historic results in France and Sweden.

“Everywhere in Europe, people aspire to take their destiny back into their own hands!” said Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Rally Party.

But if you think there is a new wave of right-wing radicalism sweeping Europe, you are wrong. Something else is happening.

POLITICO’s Poll of Polls analysis suggests that far-right parties in the region on average did not increase their support by even one percentage point between the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February and today.

POLITICO analyzed the median and average increase of all parties organized in right-wing groups of the European Identity and Democracy Parliament, the European Conservatives and Reformists, or unaffiliated parties with far-right political positions.

In general, the results indicate that if there was an increase in support for far-right parties, it happened several years ago.

The Sweden Democrats’ first surge came after the 2014 election, when the party grew from around 10 percent to 20 percent, the same share of a fifth of the vote they received in this year’s election. The far-right Alternative for Germany AfD in Germany grew rapidly in 2015 and 2016 reaching 14 percent in the POLITICO polling record. In Italy, the Northern League first overtook Forza Italia in early 2015 and peaked in 2019 at 37 percent before starting a downward trend that ended at 9 percent in last month’s election. . In the Italian elections, most voters switched between rival right-wing camps.

The far right has moved from the fringes of politics into the mainstream, not only influencing the political center but also entering the arena of power.

“There is a normalization of far-right parties as an integral part of the political landscape,” said Cathrine Thorleifsson, who researches extremism at the University of Oslo. “They have been accepted by the electorate and also by other mainstream parties.”

Cooperation between the center right and the extreme right has become less taboo.

“The rise of far-right parties is only part of the story. The facilitation and integration of far-right parties, as well as the adoption of far-right frameworks and positions by other parties, is at least as important.” tweeted Cas Mudde, a leading scholar on the subject.

This may destabilize Europe even more than gaining a couple of percentage points in the polls.

Italian far-right agitator Giorgia Meloni is a clear example. Although her party has its origins in groups founded by former fascists, she will now lead the third largest economy in the EU.

Leader of the far-right Italian party “Fratelli d’Italia” (Brothers of Italy), Giorgia Meloni | Pitro Cruciatti/AFP via Getty Images

In Sweden, the center-right party has started coalition talks for a minority government that would have to have the support of the opposition, most likely the far-right Sweden Democrats. Far-right parties have also entered the governments of Austria, Finland, Estonia and Italy. Other countries are likely to follow.

George Simion, leader of the far-right Romanian party Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR), celebrated Meloni’s victory in Italy, saying his party is likely to follow in his footsteps.

Spain heads to the polls next year and the Socialist Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, may find it difficult to win re-election. The conservative Popular Party is five to seven points ahead of Spain’s Socialists in all published polls, but is unlikely to win enough votes to secure an outright majority in government.

That means he may have to strike a deal with the far-right Vox party, whose leader, santiago abascal, is an ally of Meloni. While the Popular Party previously refused to govern with Vox, last spring its newly elected leader, Alberto Núnez-Feijóo, green-lighted a coalition deal with the ultra-nationalist group in Spain’s central Castilla y León region.

Tom Van Grieken, the right-wing Belgian politician, also pointed to Spain as the likely next example, especially for possible cooperation with the PP. “Across Europe, we see conservative parties that are considering breaking the cordon sanitaire,” he said, referring to other parties’ refusal to work with the far right. “They are tired of compromising with their ideological counterparts, the parties on the far left of the spectrum.”

Chairman of the Vlaams Belang party Tom Van Grieken | Stephanie Le Coqc/EFE via EPA

This did not happen overnight. The extreme right worked hard to shake off its extremist and neo-Nazi image.

“In some of the reporting on the Swedish Democrats, you would think they would deport people on trains as soon as they are in power. Come on, these parties have changed,” said an EU official with right-wing affiliations.

The far right has invested in “adjusting the image and trying to tread carefully on some issues, while shamelessly attending to others,” said Nina Wiesehomeier, a political scientist at IE University in Madrid. “This is particularly obvious in Italy at the moment, with Meloni clinging to the ‘God, country, family’ slogan as a continuation, while trying to purge the party of more radical elements.”

In Belgium’s northern region of Flanders, the right-wing Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) explicitly dismisses the “extreme right” label. Like his counterparts in Italy, Sweden and France, Van Grieken, the party’s chairman, denounced the more extreme positions of his group’s founding fathers and moderated his political message to make it socially acceptable to vote for the extreme right.

Overt racism is taboo. Instead, the rhetoric shifts to criticizing an open-door immigration policy. By carefully catering to centrist voters, the far right is aiming for a bigger slice of the pie, while continuing to tap into discontent against the system.

“There is a clear fault line between the winners of globalization and the nationalists,” Van Grieken told POLITICO. “This adds to concerns about mass migration, whether in Malmö, Rome or other European cities.”

Perfect storm

Now is the right time to capitalize on that transformation.

As Europe battles record inflation and Europeans fear skyrocketing heating bills, governments are warning of the political implications of a “winter of discontent”.

“It is a massive drain on European prosperity,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo recently told POLITICO. “In the current situation, it is difficult to believe in progress, it is very difficult to move forward. So there is a very pessimistic sentiment.”

The current war in Ukraine is the latest in a succession of crises: in global finance, migration and the pandemic. Experts argue that this is key to understanding the growing support for the far right.

“Such existential crises have a destabilizing effect and create fear,” said Carl Devos, professor of political science at Ghent University. “Fear is the breeding ground of the extreme right. People tend to translate that fear and outrage into radical voting behavior.”

Migration and identity politics are less prominent in the media due to the Ukraine war and rising energy prices, but they remain key issues in right-wing debate.

In Austria, coalition parties squabbled over whether or not asylum seekers should receive climate bonuses. In the Netherlands, the death of a baby in the Ter Apel asylum center sparked a renewed debate about overcrowded migration centers.

The combination of those problems is likely to deliver more victories for the right across the continent. “The extreme right offers nationalist and protectionist solutions to globalized crises, said Thorleifsson. “We see how the immigration issue was momentarily off the agenda during the pandemic, but now it has returned.”

Aitor Hernández-Morales, Camille Gijs and Ana Fota collaborated with the report.

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