Europe’s far right - Culture matters more
The far right in Europe is rising in many European countries in spite of its inability to provide a coherent economic message
“We are providing food produced in Greece for Greek citizens only.” Ilias Kassidiaris, spokesman of Golden Dawn, sounded adamant gesturing towards a queue of hundreds of shabbily dressed, mostly elderly people waiting on August 1st for a handout of food aid in Syntagma Square outside parliament. A line of young women and men wearing the right-wing party’s trademark black T-shirts checked identification before giving grateful recipients a plastic carrier bag filled with fruit, vegetables and pasta.
Golden Dawn is Europe’s most recently successful far-right party. It won 6.9% of the vote and 18 seats, mostly in Athens, at parliamentary elections in June. Nikos Michaloliakos, the party’s founder and leader, insists his is not a neo-Nazi group, despite a swastika-like official symbol and the Nazi-style salute from party members when he appears on a podium. Golden Dawn’s voters include many police officers, disaffected young Greeks and older people living in city districts with high rates of crime.
The party has gained some credibility thanks to its food handouts and other social efforts, yet its overt racism, anti-Semitism and taste for violence disturbs many Greeks. “This party has a strong hooligan element as well as connections with the criminal underworld,” says Yiannis Boutaris, the mayor of Thessaloniki, who was criticised by Golden Dawn for backing the city’s first gay-pride celebration.
A common view is that the economic downturn and austerity in the euro zone explain the rise of the anti-immigrant far right in Greece, the Netherlands, Hungary, Finland and other EU countries. But Matthew Goodwin, an expert on the far right at Nottingham University, finds the evidence unconvincing. “We are all voting for Nazis because Europe is in recession? That’s claptrap,” he says. Concerns over national culture, identity and a way of life matter more than material worries. The potential for a xenophobic party exists in every European state whether a country has a triple A credit rating, as the Netherlands does, or a country is on the brink of bankruptcy, as Greece is. “All it needs is for a semi-competent party to pick up on these sentiments,” says Mr Goodwin.
The National Front in France (see article) and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands have been especially adept in exploiting the latent feelings of resentment against immigrants. Mainstream parties struggle to convince ordinary voters that they understand the popular anxiety about globalisation and the distrust of elites. Fiercely anti-immigrant, the Freedom Party (PVV), claims to trace its ideological roots back to the ideas of the Enlightenment and to defend them against culturally different newcomers.
At elections in 2010, the PVV, which had been founded only five years earlier, used an anti-Islam platform to become the third-largest Dutch party. The PVV leader, Geert Wilders, has called Islam a “backwards” religion and requested a ban on the Koran. At the same time Mr Wilders has fashioned himself as defender of gay rights and gender equality. He is a staunch supporter of Israel, which happens to make his anti-Arab stance more plausible.
Mr Wilders’ party has had a profound effect on Dutch politics. Mainstream parties terrified of bleeding votes have taken many of his ideas on board. A recent minority government that was supported by the PVV adopted a ban on burkas, a ban on double citizenship and other anti-immigrant policies. Most of these have been dropped since he pulled the plug on the cabinet earlier this year, but the Dutch Muslim minority was bruised.
The economy is Mr Wilders’ Achilles heel. He took up fierce criticism of the EU and the single currency in the hope that his anti-EU-polemic will camouflage his lack of ideas for how to deal with the economic downturn. “The far right is struggling to weave an economic story into their message,” says Jamie Bartlett at Demos, a think tank in London. “They don’t have a coherent story to tell.” In the run-up to the Dutch elections that will take place on September 12th, Mr Wilders is campaigning hard on an anti-EU platform criticising the bail-out packages, promising a referendum on membership of the euro zone and even playing with the thought of ditching the Dutch EU membership altogether.
Hungary’s Jobbik, an anti-Semitic and anti-Roma party, is in a different league of extremism compared with the PVV. Jobbik’s economic policies however are relatively sophisticated. The party advocates a mixture of state-control and protectionism combined with support for small entrepreneurs and farmers. Jobbik calls this an eco-social national economy: “Economic policy must endeavour to defend Hungarian industry, Hungarian farmers, Hungarian businesses, Hungarian produce and Hungarian markets”. Most Jobbik voters show little interest in the finer points of the party’s economic policy. Instead they harbour a sour resentment against what they call the “multis”, or multinationals, even though foreign companies, unlike some Hungarian firms, pay their employees’ tax and social security. A whole subculture of national-identity politics is flourishing in Hungary, with its own music, summer camps, bars and even a national taxi service called nemzeti.
A national culture seemingly under threat is also the main attraction of the far right in the Nordic countries, which, with the exception of Finland, are still relatively untouched by the euro crisis. Norway’s Progress Party, the True Finns in Finland and the Danish People’s Party are all contenders for entering government in their country’s next general election. Only in Sweden has the far-right been shunned.
Nordic far-right parliamentarians fight shy of comparison among each other, but the similarities are striking. They share a loathing of Islam, decry the attrition of Nordic culture and have strong views on law and order. Outsiders can be surprised by their growing appeal in a region that is famous for tolerance. Yet their plain-speaking and promises to care for the elderly, reduce taxes and preserve indigenous traditions strike a chord with many.
After the second world war the far-right was taboo in much of Europe. As memories of the war fade, Europe’s far-right parties have adopted the welfare aspirations of the centre-left and flavoured them with protectionism and nationalism. Their increasing popularity suggests that this recipe will go down well - unless mainstream parties find ways to calm voters’ pressing anxieties over culture, identity and Europe’s way of life.