The onward march of the nationalist far-right across Europe is over

Academics and journalists thought the rise of nationalist populism was unstoppable. But it does appear to be diminishing, for three reasons

Denis MacShane
Wednesday 14 October 2020 16:46 BST
Italy's Matteo Salvini meeting with Hungary's far-right prime minister Viktor Orban
Italy's Matteo Salvini meeting with Hungary's far-right prime minister Viktor Orban

What is happening to the populist EUphobe anti-immigrant right in Europe? Weekend elections in Austria for control of the nation’s capital, Vienna, saw a loss of 21 per cent for the Austrian Freedom Party, founded by ex-Nazis in the 1950s. A few years ago their leader, Jorg Haider, entered a coalition government and the party came close to winning the Austrian presidency on a Priti Patel type platform of antagonism towards migrants and refugees.

Something similar happened last month in Italy, where Matteo Salvini was crunched by voters in regions like Tuscany which he claimed he would win. He walked out of the Italian government earlier this year hoping to provoke new elections as a springboard to power. This flopped as the centre-left Partito Democratico formed an alliance with the populist 5 Star Movement and installed a solid government that has guided Italy through the Covid crisis.

In Germany and France, the once rising Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National have fallen back badly in the polls. In Switzerland, the efforts by the nationalist anti-EU Swiss People’s Party (SVP) to win their referendum to ban freedom of movement for EU citizens into Switzerland was defeated last month with a 60 per cent vote to uphold an open door policy to fellow Europeans.

Since 1990, the SVP had been gaining in seats and votes and became the biggest party in Switzerland entering the federal cabinet. In last December’s federal elections, the SVP lost support and the referendum vote confirms the forward march of the anti-Muslim, anti-EU Swiss populists is over.

For the last decade, academics and journalists have been in thrall to the idea that a new form of nationalist, populist identity politics was about to conquer Europe. Figures like Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Nigel Farage were winning in France, the Netherlands and the European Parliament. Writers bored with mediocre mainstream politicians bigged up more exotic parties such as the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany or point to nationalist clericalist parties in Poland and the Franco-nostalgia party Vox in Spain and Viktor Orbán, the proponent of “illiberal democracy” in Hungary. “National populism”, professor Matthew Goodwin, was quoted as saying in 2018, “is unstoppable”.  

But it does appear to be stopping. Three reasons: Brexit; Trump; Covid. The rest of Europe looks with amazement on the crisis Brexit has caused in Britain. It is not just the 20 per cent drop in the pound’s value against the Euro or the UK changing prime ministers more often than Italy ever did. Europeans can see the flight of business from the City or the threat of hormone-altered meat and chlorine-washed poultry arriving in UK supermarkets and shudder.

The UK was once a model for pragmatic stability but now looks like it’s breaking apart, with Scotland leaving and every Northern Irish citizen taking out an Irish passport as the British one no longer offers travel, work or residence rights in Europe.

The nationalist anti-immigrant populists have also suffered from their identification with Trump. Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s ideological networker in Europe, held a rally in Milan last year with Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and the Austrian Freedom Party’s Heinz-Christian Strache. They grandly announced they would conquer the European Parliament. In fact, the big winner of that election were the Greens who are likely to enter the German federal government next year as the AfD fades.

Trump’s clownish demagogy has made him a global laughing stock. Other than Boris Johnson, there is not a single EU leader who wants to get close to him. If Joe Biden wins, the patron of European rightist populism will be finished and make even less attractive the appeal of European anti-immigrant nationalism.

The third factor was Covid. Swiftly, the EU moved to dump its liberal economic orthodoxy and announced the biggest programme of government borrowing and solidarity transfers between EU economies who have profited from the single currency and those with poorer populations who have struggled. In Germany, the government is borrowing €10,000 every second as Berlin embraces Keynesian economics.

In Spain, the Franco nostalgics of Vox have linked with rightwing libertarians – Hispanic Claire Foxes – to demand an end to government measures aimed at controlling the pandemic. But most Spanish citizens like most Europeans accept that strong, organised, properly funded government measures to serve the national interest cannot be replaced by profit-maximising private firms who owe no loyalty to the nation or its people. There is renewed interest in fair taxes on the digi-giants, on eco taxes and asking the super-rich to pay a share.

The decline of the Brexit-Trump nationalist right is little consolation for nostalgics in traditional social democratic parties or for the liberal left. The left has a future in Europe but will not regain its 20th century hegemony. Twenty-first century democracies will be run by coalitions of parties and interests. But at least the spirit of 2016, when Brexit, Trump, Salvini and Le Pen seemed to be the shape of future politics, now seems long in the past.

Denis MacShane is the UK’s former minister of Europe. He writes on European policy and politics

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