Europe’s Failure to Prevent the Rise of Radical Populism

(Photo: Aljazeera)

The Gryphon explores the repercussions of the rising Far Right in Europe.

In February 2014, in a room somewhere within the peach-coloured brick walls of Stockholm’s Rosenbad, a handful of smartly dressed men and women sat down for a meeting. Swedish government functionaries sat opposite key European policymakers, whilst academics from the London-based think tank, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, were dotted around the room, mumbling to each other in hushed tones. The meeting was the culmination of years of work on the rise of populist extremism in Europe. Outside, the waters were running relatively calmly – Obama’s reassuring baritone and beaming grin accompanied any transatlantic news, Germany’s alarming new far-right party ‘Alternative for Germany’ had suffered a humiliating electoral defeat, and Ed Miliband was making awkward banter with David Cameron in parliament.

And yet, in that busy room overlooking Stockholm’s Lake Mälaren, the atmosphere was cold and gloomy. All the people inside had agreed: right-wing extremism was on the rise in Europe. They had reason to be fearful; after all, the presented research had been commissioned in the wake of a deadly attack in Norway by the far-right terrorist, Anders Breivik, which killed almost 80 people. Crucially, these papers contained not just the details on Europe’s alarming political fringe, but recommendations on how to curtail it. Despite the gloom lurking on the horizon, they believed they had a plan-of-action which might smother this nascent movement. The report outlined harsher laws on hateful rhetoric, ‘exit programmes’ for those involved in far-right movements, smarter policing during far-right marches and encouraged governments to talk in a calmer manner about far-right touchstones like immigration.

Fast forward to today and the UK, goaded on by xenophobic rhetoric, has elected to leave the EU even as a financially devastating ‘no-deal’ dangles menacingly above. Populist parties, often founded with explicit fascist connections such as the Sweden Democrats, Austrian Freedom Party and the French National Rally, smash all expectations in a dizzying torrent of alarming election upsets. Further East, authoritarian populists proudly flaunt EU rules and turn their back on a migrant crisis which worsens by the day. The once still waters of European politics have become a turbulent deluge as the social democratic parties, which once defined this peaceful European era, are losing ground across the continent. What went so wrong? Why were these recommendations so useless? And, most importantly, what should we be doing about the rise of European political extremism?

The first and most obvious problem with the outlined approach is a fundamental misdiagnosis of the threat posed by far-right movements. Ideas like ‘exit programmes’ or cracking down on violent hate crime are clearly intended to target the truly radical extremists like Anders Breivik. While dangerous, this nucleus of democracy-disavowing radical populists is somewhat a relic of the past. Instead, the past decade has seen the growth of ‘respectable’ populists who openly embrace the democratic process. These charismatic and popular individuals have straightened their image and redefined their parties to be electorally successful as mass-appeal movements with the ability to capture the attention of voters for centrist parties who feel ignored by the status quo.

In France, the catastrophic collapse of the socialist party saw voters defect not only to Jean-Luc Melenchon’s ‘Left Party’ but also to the Front National, a trend that has been reflected across Europe. The European far-right is no longer defined by cracking skulls and fearsome marches, but by a concerted effort to win over the voters from centrist parties. The legal tools one would use to thwart the former are powerless against the latter.

Additionally, by embracing the democratic process, the far-right can frame these ‘anti-democratic’ legal challenges as a danger to the political process. While hate-speech laws are cheered on by the general public against shadowy extremists, they become insidious and elitist when wielded against seemingly democratic groups. Every police department which focuses more on hate speech than on violent crime, every politician ‘censored’ for their inflammatory rhetoric, every ‘joke’ taken ‘too seriously’ by the ‘liberal establishment’ is trumpeted up by the far-right as a conspiracy against free speech. With this, the centrists lose their moral high ground in the eyes of the public, abandoning their apparent commitment to democracy in order to preserve some elitist status quo. All the while, demagogues with openly fascist roots can present themselves as the ‘free-speech loving defenders of the downtrodden’.

This notion of ‘the elite’ is an incredibly powerful one. Legal challenges, police campaigns, politicians skirting around difficult topics – these are all avenues open only to the ‘establishment’. Every time they are brought to bear against radical populists, even more voters become fed-up of this shadowy group of centrists telling them what to think. Defining themselves as the vanguard against a perceived elite has always been a key populist strategy and until the centre can rise above this murky reputation, populist parties will continue to succeed. With the centrist remainers in the UK increasingly relying on the declarations of huge companies about revenue loss, it shouldn’t be hard to see how fears of this unknown elite have played heavily into brexiteer hands.

Otto Von Bismarck once said ‘Politics is the art of the possible.’ It isn’t a question of right or wrong, of selecting the perfect outcome every time and marching our way to a happy little utopia – it’s a game of compromise. Merely dismissing voters’ fears and issues as ‘wrong’ or ‘stupid’ does nothing to further the opposing case and merely pushes them into the arms of those who tell them they’re right to worry. Until we on the left can sit down and engage with these voters, to hear their concerns and treat them like adults, their feelings of isolation will only continue to push them to the extremes of European politics. Maybe if we stop looking for solutions in hushed closed-door meetings between suited functionaries in Stockholm, and instead in the hearts and minds of those multitudes swayed by populist rhetoric, we won’t have to look back again in four years and ask  once again “What went so wrong?”

Scott Alexander