Another year, another unrealised right-wing scare in Europe. Though far-right parties are now a fixture on the European political stage, they made no significant gains on the continent in 2019. Despite growing political fragmentation, the Centre is holding. Nationalist populists are still as unsuited to governing as ever.
Matteo Salvini, the Italian rabble-rouser who leads the anti-immigrant League party tried to put together a kind of nationalist international coalition ahead of the European Parliament vote. There was a big rally in Milan to announce the alliance, but Identity and Democracy, the faction formed by Salvini and his allies, ended up as only the fifth-biggest group in the 751-seat legislature, with 73 members.
But then, in the European election, the far right only could have hoped for a symbolic victory. Power in the EU is largely concentrated on the national level, and there, too, the far right failed to pull off any spectacular wins. In the eight EU national elections in which nationalist populist parties had a chance to win seats, their average showing was 12.1 per cent — higher than the 11.7 per cent they won in their countries’ previous elections, but still not a frightening percentage.
Governing just doesn’t work out well for far-right parties in Europe. In Norway, the popularity of the far-right Progress Party has collapsed because of an endless line of scandals involving its ministers and legislators
Nationalist populists only made gains in three of the eight countries — Estonia, Belgium and Spain. In the small Baltic state, ultranationalist EKRE’s success was the result of rural voters left behind by the nation’s tech boom, which is largely happening in the capital, Tallinn. It could also be related to a bump in nationalist support in neighbouring Finland, of which more later.
In Belgium, young Flemish male voters unhappy with the country’s multiculturalist policies brought the anti-immigrant Flemish Interest party a second-place finish in the parliamentary election thanks to its flirting with the alt-right and its success on social media. And in Spain, nationalist Vox’s rise was in large part a response to popular demand for an extremely hard line against Catalan secessionists.
Elsewhere, the far right was dealt spectacular defeats. In Denmark, the People’s Party crashed at the ballot box after other parties, including the victorious centre-left, learnt convincingly to back tough but not extreme immigration policies and new, smaller forces challenged the People’s Party from the right. In Greece, receding economic pain softened public support for the neo-fascist Golden Dawn.
And in Austria, support for the Freedom Party never quite recovered from the scandal that led to the resignation of its former leader Heinz-Christian Strache in May: He’d been caught in an unusual sting operation, drunkenly plotting various shenanigans with a woman he thought was related to a Russian oligarch.
Governing just doesn’t work out well for far-right parties in Europe. In Norway, the popularity of the far-right Progress Party has collapsed because of an endless line of scandals involving its ministers and legislators. In Finland, the nationalist Finns party split in 2017, while part of the governing coalition, because the radical party base considered its ministers too moderate and compromise-minded; now, the party’s revived popularity, which has allowed it to hold its own in this year’s national election and since propelled it to first place in polls, is the result of a radicalisation that makes the Finns a coalition partner to avoid.
The far-right tendency to fail at governing is one reason such parties usually do better in polls than in elections. The average support level of Europe’s far-right parties in December, 2019 was 14 per cent — exactly the same as a year ago.
Race to the bottom
Averages can be deceptive, of course. But only five European far-right parties enjoy more than 20 per cent support at the end of the year, if one counts Switzerland’s powerful People’s Party, which saw a slight dip in electoral support this year. Of the other four, only Liga, the Finns and the Sweden Democrats are viable threats to centrist governments in their countries; in France, with its strong presidency, Marine Le Pen would need to win a presidential election for her National Rally party to govern, and she’s already been beaten twice by centrists.
Italy and two Nordic countries, then, are where far-right gains threaten to destabilise political systems in the near future. The Italian case is complex: The country has a powerful right-wing tradition, and its voters are tired of government dysfunction and an anaemic economy. Only the emergence of equally charismatic leaders capable of outshining Salvini can neutralise the threat he presents.
Sweden and Finland are another matter. The far right is strong there because the Nordics, with their generous social safety nets, have been failing at immigrant integration. Ghettos have emerged, education and health care systems have begun crumbling at the edges, and voters have noticed.
To find an alternative to the Danish scenario of an anti-immigration consensus, these countries need to get better at pulling newcomers into their tight social fabric — an exercise that requires visionary leadership and smart policymaking, which have been lacking the last few years as the inflow of immigrants has grown.
In the rest of Europe, political elites are learning to live with parties whose leaders say the formerly unspeakable, make offensive gestures and gather raucous crowds carrying signs not since before World War II. These political forces can be loud nuisances, but then protest parties always are.
The trick is not to let them grow into something bigger — a fascist tide of the kind that swept over Europe in the 1930s. That sometimes means letting the troublemakers into government as a kind of inoculation.
Leonid Bershidsky is a noted columnist covering European politics.