Europe’s diminished far right still poses a threat

Mainstream parties should be alert to the risks of sharing power with populists

Tony Barber

Across Europe, in the streets and conference halls, in social media and on television, radical rightwing populists pump out a relentless message. Society consists of the common people represented by the national-populist right on one side, and corrupt elites gorged on power and contemptuous of the masses on the other.

This week, the radical right’s flattering self-portraits and malicious conspiracy theories lie in shreds. A sordid scandal, involving the hypothetical exchange of government contracts for Russian financial and political support, has engulfed Austria’s far-right Freedom party (FPÖ) and swept it out of the ruling coalition in Vienna.

The FPÖ deserves punishment at the hands of voters in this week’s European Parliament elections. Yet its core vote will probably remain intact, as will that of like-minded movements in France, Hungary, Italy and elsewhere. These parties cater for the minority of Austrians and other Europeans who simultaneously dislike the EU, cannot stand immigrants and rage at globalisation.

Austria’s scandal recalls a memorable phrase coined by Victor Adler, the pre-first world war Social Democrat. He described the declining Habsburg empire’s political system as “absolutism mitigated by sloppiness”. Modern Austrian politics, in its far-right incarnation, is intolerance aggravated by sleaze. Is it too much to hope that the FPÖ will never again be allowed near the corridors of national power?

Whether in office or screaming from the sidelines, Europe’s radical right is the polar opposite of clean hands, democratic values and patriotism. The hallmarks of these parties are dubious financial deals and nepotism. Given a sniff of power, they race to control the police and intelligence services, strip courts and media of their independence and twist electoral systems to their advantage. To cap it all, they forge friendships with the Kremlin, endorse its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and trade their nations’ independence for Russian favours.

To be clear, mainstream European parties would be making a grave mistake if they were to heap all the blame on Moscow. Of course, the Russians interfere in European referendums and elections, as they did in the 2016 US presidential contest. There is no shortage of Russian money available for gaining influence over political parties. However, the chief causes of the radical European right’s rise are homegrown.

They lie in the reckless financial capitalism that flourished for 20 years after the collapse of European communism, until its near-breakdown harmed millions of people who were not responsible for the mess. They lie in expansive principles of freedom of movement that took no account of how less prosperous, less internationalised parts of Europe might react to rising numbers of economic migrants. They lie, finally, in the stumbling efforts of EU leaders to get a grip on these problems.

According to pre-election estimates, the radical right — together with the radical left and assorted anti-establishment populists — may claim about 30 per cent of the seats in the next 751-seat EU legislature. Among the rightwing nationalist parties that can expect good results are Italy’s League, led by Matteo Salvini, deputy premier and interior minister, and Hungary’s Fidesz, led by Viktor Orban, prime minister. However, Europe’s rightwing populists are no more a united force than the bulldogs fighting under a carpet to which Winston Churchill once compared rivals for power in the Kremlin. The pro-Russian sympathies of the FPÖ, France’s National Rally and the League disturb rightwing populists and nationalists in Poland, Sweden and the Baltic states, for whom Russia is a threat to national freedom, not a buddy with deep pockets.

The refugee and migrant question is also deeply divisive. Mr Salvini wants Italy to be rid of irregular migrants, but his counterparts in France and central Europe refuse to co-operate by backing EU-wide redistribution schemes. Lastly, the Alternative for Germany party and its northern European equivalents support free markets and fiscal discipline in a way that clashes with the interventionism of Marine Le Pen, leader of National Rally, and her southern European friends.

Europe’s traditional centre-right parties cannot afford complacency. Like their liberal and centre-left competitors, they will have the radical right snapping at their heels as long as they fail to renew the European model of welfare state capitalism that is coming apart at the seams. However, there are steps that the moderate right can and should take to prevent a calamity. First, they must think twice before parroting the prejudices and abusive rhetoric of the radical nationalists. Any short-term electoral gain is bought at the price of legitimising forces that are out to destroy the political order.

Second, and even more important, the moderates must take a far more clear-eyed view of the risks of offering a share of power to the radical right. Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s wunderkind chancellor, thought he had these risks under control when he brought the Freedom party into government after the 2017 national elections. Instead, the FPÖ, with its hands on the defence and interior ministries, was a menace to western security and to Austria’s democratic institutions. Either this lesson is learnt, or dangerous times are in store for Europe.

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