Europe’s national populist uprising—led by the Central Europeans and far-right parties across the continent—just received a couple of big shots of mojo. Austria’s Islamophobic, EU-antagonistic Freedom Party emerged from the October 15 election in a position to govern with Austria’s conservatives, which would add a respected Western European country to the growing ranks of rightist-led states in the EU. And the weekend ballot in the Czech Republic, won hands down by billionaire populist Andrej Babiš’s ANO party, further fuels the insurgency that challenges the postwar vision of an integrated, liberal Europe without borders.
The triumphs of Babiš and Austria’s wunderkind, Sebastian Kurz, a 31-year-old conservative who went populist to win, could expand Central Europe’s bloc of illiberals into a yet more powerful, determined force in Europe. (Two weeks ago, this force’s greatest victory went almost unnoticed: EU heavyweights admitted that plans to resettle refugees across the EU according to quotas, which the Central Europeans have fought tooth and nail, were effectively dead.) Against the background of Brexit and the separatist movement in Catalonia, the future of the European project, as its denizens fondly call the EU’s larger mission, is in real jeopardy.
Earlier this year, establishment Europe had sighed in relief, concluding that “Europe” was safely back on track after the existential shock of Brexit and panicked backlash against the 2015 migration crisis. Indeed, in France and the Netherlands, voters appeared to have stymied right-wing populism by depriving Marine Le Pen’s National Front and Geert Wilders’s People’s Party—both EU-antagonistic, xenophobic nativists—of victories. But the final tallies should have been anything but comforting: Le Pen captured a third of the Fifth Republic’s vote for president; and Wilders’s party expanded its seats in parliament from 15 (2012) to 20, making it the nation’s second-strongest party—again.
Similarly, the triumph of Austria’s liberal candidate for president, Alexander Van der Bellen, in December 2016 set off celebrations, even though his opponent in the Freedom Party, a figure who’d knocked around neo-Nazi circles in his younger days, copped 46 percent of the tally. Nearly half of Austrians could vote for a former neo-Nazi running in a racist party that itself was founded by former Nazis! Grounds for celebration? Hardly. Does it mean half of Austria is racist? Not by a long shot.
Many Europeans believed that the tide had turned against the nationalists because they had so desperately wanted it to be the case. The hopeful jubilation exuded such relief because, in fact, Europe’s mainstream has no idea how to check the rightists’ steady advance. Their analysis of the phenomenon is deeply flawed, and their responses only exacerbate it.
The far right is more muscular than ever today, and its offensive against the EU and Europe’s political elite more advanced than most realize: Despite their jumbled programs and off-the-cuff rants, they proffer a vision of a fortressed, Christian Europe of nation-states with illiberal post-democracies and authoritarian leaders. One sign of their power and allure: A quarter of the parties in the EU Parliament, the union’s premier democratic forum, are ethnic nationalists opposed to the EU’s supranational Dasein. And EU Europe now has powerful nationalist autocracies on its flanks in the form of Russia and Turkey, which for EU Europe’s far right serve as models of the kind of patriotic, no-nonsense, militarily buff states to which they aspire. Moreover, Russia, knowing a kindred spirit when it sees one, assists them in destabilizing the EU by helping finance their causes and showering the Internet with extremist, anti-immigrant propaganda.
The far rightists aren’t just “protest parties,” although they are that, too. Despite their differences, they share a basic, coherent ideology that understands democracy in terms of what political scientists call “post-democracy” or “illiberal democracy”; these are systems in which citizens vote and parliaments meet, but in centralized, top-down systems led by a small, unchanging elite in whose hands near-absolute power rests and their clientele’s business interests are well served. The nation-state, which the EU aimed to dethrone, is at the center of their universes, and their version of the nation-state is based on the primacy of a single ethnicity that rules according to its interpretation of the nation’s beliefs and traditions (which certainly don’t include LGBT rights, for example, or sanctuary for African refugees). As Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has explicitly said, the homogenous ethnic nation must remain pure, untainted by foreign blood. This racist thesis inevitably bodes ill for the likes of refugees, Roma, Jews, and ethnic minorities within its weaponized borders, just as it did during Central Europe’s interwar democracies, the traditions of which today’s alt-nationalists regularly invoke.
Indeed, the populists’ gains this autumn are bracing news for a continent mired in crisis, just when the rest of the world most needs a confident, liberal Europe. Although Germany remains a pillar of stability in the middle of it all, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) won 12.6 percent of the September 24 national vote, making it the first far-right party ever to enter the Bundestag. The AfD’s presence, along with Angela Merkel’s weak mandate for a fourth term as chancellor, will hamper—but not completely obstruct—her efforts to work together with French President Emmanuel Macron to undertake urgent, long-overdue reforms of the EU and the eurozone. The eurocrisis and the EU’s glaring democracy deficits have led Merkel, Macron, and many other Western leaders to the opposite conclusion of the national populists: The Western leaders believe that the EU must become more tightly integrated, even if this means a “two-speed” EU in which the larger states, such as Germany and France, will have even more say and the smaller ones in Central Europe even less.
Of course, Europe’s far right obviously sees the Macron-Merkel fix as entirely the wrong approach. The rightists, however, aren’t set on a path of destruction alone. Indeed, they want the EU replaced with a different kind of European community: a Europe of nations. Their Europe is a giant free-trade zone that impinges as little as possible on sovereignty (which, admittedly, their members in the east won back from the Soviet Union only 27 years ago). The notion of a Europe of nations—in contrast to a community of values or a political union—seems to have ever more sympathizers among the EU’s more than 500 million citizens, and that number swells the longer the EU itself muddles along in its current, unacceptable state.
Europe’s right taps into deeply rooted racist and authoritarian currents that have long coursed through the continent and didn’t disappear the day the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, as historian Mark Mazower astutely argues in Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century (2000). Opinion surveys consistently show that a slice of the electorate in every country wants a strongman leader, distrusts civic culture, dislikes foreigners and people of color, etc. In Central Europe, which endured at least four decades more of dictatorship than the western Europeans, the numbers tend to be higher. These illiberal souls are the far right’s natural constituency, and though they are certainly too many, in themselves they’d be just a thorn in the side of liberal democracy and not a threat to it.
But what’s rattling about today’s European far right is that it’s attractive to a demos beyond the hardcore haters and authoritarian personalities. In part, this broader group of dissatisfied burghers is casting a protest vote against a deeply flawed EU and neoliberal consensus they feel unable to crack otherwise. They rightly understand that they’re powerless against the EU, as they were in the 1990s and aughts. At that time, as John Feffer argues in Aftershock: A Journey into Eastern Europe’s Broken Dreams, the EU required market reforms that shattered their economies and pauperized millions—and all in the name of one day joining the EU.
So compact and shatterproof is the establishment consensus that, regardless of the parties in power, Europe west of the Oder-Neisse, which divides Germany and Poland, runs like one big grand coalition. The spectrum of conservatives, social democrats, liberals, and greens concur broadly on most of the major issues of the day—above all on the sanctity of the EU—even if they admit that its shortcomings are profound. Some voters obviously see voting for the far right as the only means to express their disapproval. They rightly grasp that Macron and Merkel’s planned reforms aren’t enough to redress the fundamentally undemocratic structures of the EU, the dominance of German decision-making, and the EU’s compulsory austerity policies. Most of Europe’s elite recognize that the EU can’t go on this way, but they know that major transformation, which would involve changing the EU treaties, simply has no chance of passing in all 28 (27 without the UK) national parliaments. The EU is split down the middle: between nation-state-ists in the east and the integrationists in the west.
This is why Europe’s mainstream parties have been taking such a shellacking in recent years, vulnerable not just to the extreme right but also to leftist populists such as Spain’s Podemos, Greece’s Syriza and Corbyn-led Labour in the UK. In the Czech election, 60 percent of the vote went to right-wing parties (ANO and the Freedom and Direct Democracy party) and left-wing parties (Czech Pirate Party, Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia) that assailed the post–Velvet Revolution status quo. The two mainstream parties—one liberal, one social democratic—together took just 18 percent of the vote.
In order to combat the phenomenon of right-wing extremism, in the long term the member states must revamp the EU root and branch, and leftists have to corral the legitimate issues of populism (and maybe some of the brimstone, too). In the short term, Europe’s modern-minded conservatives have a key role to play, too. Merkel did so with honor, by refusing to give ground to the AfD in this year’s campaign and ruling out a coalition with the rightists. In contrast, Austria’s Kurz pillaged the Freedom Party’s ugly stockpile of half-truths and lies, taking on its xenophobic language and pseudo-remedies.
The far right, and mainstream parties too, have fueled the angst that settled over large parts of Europe’s population during the 2015 and 2016 refugee crisis—a critical moment in the right’s rise. Completely overwhelmed logistically, Germany and the other EU nations as a whole handled the inflow very poorly, which created dramatic scenes of desperate multitudes crossing the Mediterranean, storming borders, and trekking en masse to the north. But today there is no migration crisis. The numbers applying for political asylum now are less than 10 percent of the 2015 figures—and now, two years later, Germany and other on-the-ball countries have structures set up to accommodate refugees and ease them into society. The far-right parties may blame all of today’s social ills on migrants, but in fact there are very few migrants in the places they call home. (The Czech Republic took in just 12 refugees this year, and Hungary and Poland took in none. Orbán recently called Central Europe a “migrant-free zone.”) In eastern Germany, the AfD’s heartland, the numbers are paltry. In other words, the source of dismay cannot be the migrants or migration itself, so trying to outfox the far right by clamping down further on refugees won’t accomplish anything.
Europe’s conservatives, including those in Central Europe, have to follow Merkel’s example, not that of Kurz. And all politicos, Merkel included, could do much better explaining the benefits of migration and diverse societies. This isn’t a long-term solution but rather a firewall. Meanwhile, Europe has soul-searching to do. The grounds for the flight of its people into the lap of the extreme right lie in its own failings, and the inability of either the mainstream or the left to offer viable alternatives.