Twenty years ago, on February 4, 2000, a shock wave reverberated from the heart of Europe: The far-right Freedom Party of Austria, founded in 1956 by National Socialist activists, entered government. Led by Jorg Haider, a provocateur who had made a name for himself rallying against the “Uberfremdung” (“over-foreignisation”) of his country and notorious for praising the Waffen SS and Hitler’s labour policies, the party’s October 1999 election campaign achieved the best result for any far-right party in a European democracy since the Second World War, taking 27 per cent of the vote.
After months of negotiation with the conservative People’s Party, the Freedom Party was asked to join a governing coalition. “This is the first time an anti-European, xenophobic party with a very dubious relationship toward the Nazi past has come into the government of a member state,” Germany’s foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, proclaimed.
It was certainly a shock. After the war, European electorates had grown comfortable choosing alternate governments of the centre left and centre right during the second half of the 20th century. Their leaders believed the Austrian experience to be an aberration and looked to make an example of the country. Members of the European Parliament declared en masse that the Freedom Party’s admission into a coalition government “legitimises the extreme right in Europe.”
International condemnation was swift. The European Union’s 14 other nations bilaterally ended cultural exchange and joint military exercises, and the United States and Israel recalled their ambassadors from Vienna. Figures ranging from Prince Charles to the musician Lou Reed cancelled planned appearances. By mid-February 2000, when Haider was refused entry to Montreal’s Holocaust Centre, the far-right leader had become persona non grata — and his country widely rebuked as a pariah state.
The European Union, built on the twin creeds of social democracy and Christian democracy, has now been forced to accommodate a third assertive ideology: nativist populism.
But in 2017, when Haider’s Freedom Party successor, Heinz-Christian Strache, scored a similar general election result and the party was once again invited into a ruling alliance, there was little attempt to ostracise the country. President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany moved quickly to welcome the new Austrian government, led by the 31-year-old conservative Sebastian Kurz, who sought success by adopting much of the Freedom Party’s anti-migrant stance. The youngest leader in the expanded European Union’s 28 nations, Kurz had called for Muslim-run kindergartens to be shut down and refugees relocated to outside Europe’s borders.
Migration riddles of Sarkozy, Berlusconi, Merkel and Cameron
The Freedom Party was gifted the foreign, interior and defence departments, and Strache — who denigrated Islam as “fascistic” and as a young man had been arrested at a torch-lit neo-Nazi procession in Germany — took control of the office of vice-chancellor. The coalition agreement was fittingly announced at Kahlenberg, the site of the Battle of Vienna, which resulted in the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1683. Crowds gathering in the Austrian capital to oppose the new government were a fraction of those who came out nearly two decades earlier, when protests were so severe that the new cabinet could only enter and exit the inauguration ceremony through hidden underground passageways.
The story of Austria in the 21st century is, in part, the story of the wider European project. Once, the far right was anathema. Now it is routine. Born outside the mainstream, its parties now operate as a powerful political force, pushing public debate and often government policy across the continent.
How did this happen?
The far right’s rise ultimately emerges from a crisis of the political centre. Politicians tasked with stabilising the Continent after the global financial crash of 2007-08 became adept at turning the political narrative away from their own culpability. Europe’s leaders found themselves re-evaluating the benefits of historic migration into their countries — forever initiating debates on “national identity” (Nicolas Sarkozy of France), rejecting the “multiethnic” make-up of nation-states (Silvio Berlusconi of Italy) and proclaiming multiculturalism dead (Angela Merkel of Germany and David Cameron of Britain).
The case of France is instructive. Sarkozy — the single-term French president from 2007 who announced that his country did not want immigration “inflicted” on itself — was the perfect foil for an insurgent Front National. In 2011, at the party’s compound in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre, I spoke to Marine Le Pen, who had recently assumed the leadership from her father, the convicted racist Jean-Marie Le Pen. She told me that attempts by the president to steal the Front National’s clothes would be unsuccessful in the long term. By presenting himself “as a kind of double of the FN,” Sarkozy had initially “managed to harness the force of that river and divert it to his own advantage,” Le Pen said. She laughed. “But now the river has returned to its own bed.”
Unthinkable only a decade ago, both the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany and Spain’s Vox are gaining ground as their countries’ third-largest parties, garnering millions of votes and scores of parliamentary seats.
So it proved. Le Pen’s far-right party successfully displaced the traditional conservatives (and dwarfed the incumbent Socialists) to make the presidential runoff in 2017. Though ultimately defeated by Macron, she still attracted over 10 million votes. Her rebranded National Rally party now finds itself neck-and-neck with Macron’s En Marche in the polls, cautiously optimistic of victory in 2022.
The taboo on the far right in government has been comprehensively broken: Mainstream parties appear happy to cooperate with those once considered “toxic.” Nativist representatives have been invited into ruling coalitions in Denmark, Finland, Italy and the Netherlands to act as support partners for traditional conservatives unable to win parliamentary majorities. No longer derided or dismissed by their mainstream rivals, far-right parties now show themselves capable of winning nationwide elections. Last year France’s National Rally, Italy’s League and Britain’s Brexit Party won the most votes in their countries’ elections to the European Parliament.
But far-right parties don’t need to win elections to see their agenda carried out. After the financial crisis, the governments of Europe almost universally adopted bullish positions on immigration, binding the issue with concerns around security, crime and benefits spending. In an age of austerity, “Natives First” policies are widely seen as economic common sense, championed by everyone from Denmark’s Social Democratic prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, to Italy’s previous deputy prime minister and leader of the League, Matteo Salvini. Against a cultural backdrop of virulent hostility toward the continent’s Muslim communities, campaigning on the ability to deny new arrivals essential privileges — from housing and health care to child care and welfare — can prove electorally beneficial.
Majority in the European Parliament
Haider died in a 2008 car accident in Carinthia, the province where he had been governor for nearly a decade. In 2019, Strache, embroiled in a corruption scandal, was forced to step down as Austrian vice-chancellor and was subsequently expelled from the Freedom Party. Yet their messages — politically anti-establishment, culturally anti-immigrant and anti-Islam — remain popular, permeating through Europe.
Now no country is immune from hearing, in the words of the historian Tony Judt, the far right’s “one long scream of resentment” — even those with brutal memories of a fascist past. Unthinkable only a decade ago, both the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany and Spain’s Vox are gaining ground as their countries’ third-largest parties, garnering millions of votes and scores of parliamentary seats.
The European Union, built on the twin creeds of social democracy and Christian democracy, has now been forced to accommodate a third assertive ideology: nativist populism. For the first time in history, the mainstream left and right combined no longer hold a majority in the European Parliament. As the far-right advance continues, it becomes increasingly likely its parties will hold the balance of power in a Continent unsure of its political future.
What began in Austria, 20 years ago, is far from finished.
— K. Biswas is a writer whose work has appeared in The New Statesman, The Nation and The Times Literary Supplement.