Europe Sees the Long March of the Extreme Right



The Austrian flag

The Austrian flag

Austria’s far right candidate, Norbert Hofer, has lost the second round of the election for the presidency by a mere thirty thousand votes to Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green Party leader. Europe has breathed a sigh of relief, but the stunning success of the nationalists, who won the first round and caused the resignation of the Socialist primer minister, is the symptom of a serious illness in the old world.

It calls itself the Freedom Party, but it was founded by former Nazis and is led by a populist firebrand named Heinz-Christian Strache, who crusades against immigration and thinks any interdependence between Austria and the outside world, be it political, social or economic, is a threat to the nation and the state. This is the same party that in 2000 was shunned by the other European countries when Jörg Haider, its leader at the time, entered a coalition government. Haider was forced to give in, and to most Europeans he retreated into oblivion (though not in Austria, where he governed a province).

This time things are different. Had Hofer won the presidency, Europe would not have been able to do anything—many other countries are experiencing the rise of nationalist populism themselves and fear that any hostile move would fuel its ascent. Mainstream parties have made major concessions to xenophobic and illiberal tendencies.

Belgium and Finland have government coalitions in which the far right actively participates. Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland party has entered the state parliament in three states following regional elections, and France’s National Front is leading in the polls for the next presidential election. To be sure, there are differences among these and other nationalist parties—the National Front wants to leave the European Union, whereas Austria’s Freedom Party wants to take back major powers from Europe—but they all express a profound resentment against globalization, immigration, and liberal democracy. Their criticism of the European Union is far from a healthy revolt against the bureaucratic, constructivist superstate idolized by Eurocrats. It is, in fact, a push for a national superstate that shields the people from the outside world in the name of nationhood and security.

The refugee crisis helped Austria’s Freedom Party immensely. The passage of almost one million people through the country, each seeking refuge after Germany welcomed them last year (before recently reversing course on asylum), was well exploited by the demagogues. Their incendiary claim, that Austria had lost control of its borders, that fanatical Islam had penetrated the country, and that terrorist attacks like those that struck Paris were an imminent possibility, has only helped Hofer, a soft-spoken and clever tactician, in his presidential bid.

Europe’s nationalists have learned to use the system to their advantage. They are anti-establishment but no longer openly anti-Semitic. They are anti-immigration but also favor economic protectionism, so their xenophobic instinct is usually diluted in a wider message that speaks to the fears of many Europeans who lost their jobs after the 2008 financial debacle. They are anti-Brussels, but oftentimes they conceal their raw nationalism behind a cloak of respectable Euroscepticism of the sort espoused by libertarians and certain factions of the mainstream right.

Their biggest success yet has been to shift the center ground of European politics. Recent immigration and refugee policy is but one area where this is noticeable. Mainstream parties have responded by attempting to steal their thunder by adapting their policies, instead of confronting them and fighting for the open society. The result is the far right’s growing popularity.

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