Members of Alternative for Germany (AfD) party attend the ‘demonstration for the future of Germany’ in Berlin. Image Credit: AFP

Madrid: Last weekend, thousands of demonstrators for and against the far right squared off in mass rival rallies in the heart of Berlin. Calls of “we are the people” were met with chants of “go away Nazis” and loud pulsating techno music.

The Berlin protests and counter-protests are being played out with increasing regularity across Europe — a continent that has seen far-right politics and parties gain in electoral support at the expense of more mainstream, centrist and neo-liberal politicians.

In Italy, where national elections were held March 4 and no singular party had enough votes or support in either the Chamber of Deputies or the Senate of the Republic to govern by itself, the far-right Italian League is now a coalition kingmaker. Its leader, Matteo Salvini, along with Luigi Di Maio of the Five-Star Movement had agreed to a coalition deal. They had also proposed the 82-year-old Euro-sceptic Paolo Savona as Finance Minister, a nomination that Italian President Sergio Mattarella rejected, leading to market turmoil across the European Union and calls from the League’s Salvini that Brussels was subverting Italians’ political will.

 The move to a wider global economy has seen great multiculturalism and labour being imported from outside a host’s country.”

 - Dr Owen Worth | Senior lecturer at the University of Limerick in Ireland  

Salvini managed to inscribe the intention to deport 500,000 refugees illegally in Italy into the proposed coalition deal.

In Germany, Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right party with neo-Nazi roots, gained enough support in last September’s federal elections to surpass a post Second World War constitutional threshold meant to thwart extremists, and is now the third-largest party in Berlin’s Bundestag.

It’s a scenario that has been repeated across Europe. Poland, Greece, France, Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Hungary have all seen anti-immigrant — and anti-Muslim — parties of the far right make electoral gains.

But why?

“There are many things as play,” Dr Owen Worth told Gulf News. He’s a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of Limerick in Ireland and an expert in the rise of the right in the EU. “The wider de-industrialisation that has happened since the 1970s, coupled with a growth in international organisations after 1991 [and the collapse of the Soviet bloc],” has been a factor. So too broader societal changes.

“The move to a wider global economy has seen great multiculturalism and labour being imported from outside a host’s country,” he said. “There tends to be a split between baby boomers, who tend to favour far-right parties and romantic nationalism, and the young millennials who are generally accepting of change and multiculturalism — and are condemned by the former as ‘politically correct’ — this has contributed to high divisionals in some countries. The attitudes of one drives the attitudes of the other.”

refugees Salvini intends to deport from Italy

Along with globalisation, there’s also the impact of the financial crisis of 2008.

“The financial crisis has increased fears of losing national identity and social identity with community,” Dr Worth told Gulf News. “And there’s immigration, which is reinforced by popular myths surrounding indigenous employment” — the notion that foreigners are taking jobs from locals.

While those economic and societal factors are at play, the parties of the far right are focused now too on Islam, and the perceived Islamification of a predominantly and traditionally Christian region — and Dr Worth describes this as “central” to the rights’ rise.

“Islamophobia has replaced anti-Semitism in more far-right parties — with many favouring the Israeli state, although not necessarily Judaism — as the main external enemy,” he said. “Islam is portrayed as singular, backwards and highly threatening to a western way of life.”

Germany’s AfD in its party manifesto, for example, says “Islam does not belong in Germany” and calls for a ban on the construction of mosques. In the neighbouring Netherlands, where the People’s Freedom Party under Geert Wilders finished in second place in elections in 2107, the far-right group ran with a proposal to ban the Quran and close mosques and Islamic schools.

But globalisation too plays a significant role in the rights’ rise and the growth of populist movements Dr Worth noted, adding that “globalists” and “globalism” had been singled out by nearly all nationalist-populist groups from the United Kingdom Independence Party to Italy’s League and Wilders’ party.

“It refers to a conspiracy of businessmen or bankers who want to construct a world socialist government to undermine the western way of life and national sovereignty,” he said. “It follows that same premise of conspiracies as such that date back to Nesta Webster in the years after the First World War and as seen in Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’.”

As Sunday’s rally and counter-rally in Berlin demonstrated, there are groups willing to oppose far-right parties at the street level. But how can the rise of the right be countered effectively?

“Much — but not all — of the support is generational, so it does mirror similar rises in support for the right that we’ve seen before in Europe,” Dr Worth told Gulf News. “Many of the parties are short-termists and are prone to splits, and therefore there is an argument that populism might burn out.”

But he also noted that a radical left tradition has “emerged across Europe to counter the movements on the right and has far more of a rational — as well as age — behind it”.

For Dr Worth, however, there is a central theme.

“It really comes down to the nature of post-crisis capitalism in Europe — one that is rife with austerity and inequality,” he said.

And certainly too, social media is a driving force behind the far-rights’ growth and in keeping its conspiracy theories well fed with constant updates and new material.

“Certainly, conspiracies abound around globalism that were once seen as preposterous but have started gaining significant support,” he said. “In this sense, it is a post-truth era as every bit of mainstream news is questioned,” he said.

A right turn across Europe

1) Italy

The League — previously named the Northern League — is at the centre of negotiations now to try and form the next Italian government. In its former incarnation, it called sporadically for northern independence, cutting loose the poor south of Italy, which drained the tax income disproportionately paid by the rich north. When Matteo Salvini took over in December 2013 it became a strongly anti-immigrant, Euroskeptic and Italian nationalist party. These policies secured it some 17 per cent of the popular vote in elections on March 4, three points ahead of that of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, allowing Salvini to claim leadership of the right. Salvini is sure of his ground: he broke with the former prime minister to make the compact with the Five-Star Movement. In the parties’ joint agreement, Salvini managed to inscribe the intention to deport 500,000 refugees illegally in Italy, and to insist on Italy’s right to pursue a path of economic growth irrespective of the limits imposed by the EU.

2) Austria

Under Sebastian Kurz, the conservative People’s Party won 31.5 per cent of the vote in last October’s election, giving it the largest bloc in the national parliament. Almost as many people voted for the insurgent far-right Freedom Party, as did for the establishment centre-left party, the Social Democratic Party, which both got about 27 per cent. The People’s Party benefited from a strong performance on social media and by focusing its campaign on limiting immigration, lowering taxes and improving the nation’s social welfare system. The Freedom Party, led by Heinz-Christian Strache seeks to curb immigration to shrink welfare benefits to non-Austrians and to curtail what it calls political Islam in the country. It does not wish to leave the European Union, despite voicing strong criticism of the bloc’s handling of refugees and borders.

3) Germany

The far-right Alternative for Germany party, known by its German initials, AfD, started five years ago as a protest movement against the euro currency, won some 13 seats, becoming the third strongest party. It marked the first time in more than 60 years that a far-right party passed the Constitutional 5 per cent threshold and took seats in the federal Bundestag. AfD attracts voters who are anti-establishment, anti-liberalisation, and anti-European. Frauke Petry, the former leader of the party, has said border guards might need to turn guns on anyone crossing a frontier illegally. The party’s policy platform says “Islam does not belong in Germany” and calls for a ban on the construction of mosques.

4) The Netherlands

The anti-European Union, anti-Islam Party for Freedom, led by Geert Wilders, finished in second place in Dutch elections held in March of 2017. It also succeeded in pushing many right-leaning parties to adopt tougher stances on immigration and is likely to influence policies in the new government. A new right-wing party, the anti-European Union Forum for Democracy, won two seats. Wilders, one of Europe’s most prominent far-right politicians, has said he wants to ban the Quran and close mosques and Islamic schools. He was found guilty of leading an anti-Moroccan chant at a political rally, but the Dutch court imposed no punishment. He also described Moroccan immigrants as “scum” who endanger the Netherlands.

5) Poland

Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party were returned to power in parliamentary elections in 2015, with 39 per cent of the popular vote. Since assuming power, the party, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who has no official role in the government, has moved to curb public gatherings, strengthen government control of the media and curtail judicial independence, a move that is drawing concern in Brussels. The EU Commission has cited the Polish government for not respecting the rule of law, a rare rebuke reflecting growing alarm about the government’s commitment to democratic norms.

6) Hungary

Fresh off re-election six weeks ago, Viktor Orban and his right-wing Fidesz party have consolidated their power base, worrying many Western leaders about his increasingly authoritarian rule. After the election of Donald Trump in the United States, which Orban supported enthusiastically, Fidesz targeted the organisation of George Soros and his Open Society foundation, cracking down on what the party calls “foreign-funded” non-governmental organisations that advocated for transparency and human rights’ protections.

7) Sweden

The far-right Sweden Democrats party has turned its back on its roots in the white-supremacist movement and won some 13 per cent of the vote in elections in the autumn of 2014. That was up from only 2.9 per cent eight years earlier. The 2014 result gave it 49 of the 349 seats in the Swedish parliament and a general election is due on September 8. Because none of the mainstream parties would form a coalition with the Sweden Democrats, which is led by Jimmie Akesson, the country is governed by a shaky minority coalition of Social Democrats and the Green Party. The Sweden Democrats’ platform calls for heavily restricting immigration, opposes allowing Turkey to join the European Union and seeks a referendum on European Union membership.

8) Greece

Founded in 1980, the neo-fascist party Golden Dawn came to international attention in 2012 when it entered the Greek Parliament for the first time. Then, it won 18 seats. Those election results came amid the height of Athens’ debt crisis and its need for three separate bailouts from the EU, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund. The party, which the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner described in 2013 as “neo-Nazi and violent,” holds extreme anti-immigrant views, favours a defence agreement with Russia and said the euro “turned out to be our destruction.” New elections in Greece are due by the autumn of 2019.

9) France

While she did make the run-offs in last May’s French president election, Marine LePen has struggled to take the National Front beyond its 25 per cent benchmark. She is now involved in a rebranding and reorganising of its core values. The party does, however favour protectionist economic policies and would clamp down on government benefits for immigrants, including health care, and drastically reduce the number of immigrants allowed into France. The party was established in 1972; its founders and sympathisers included former Nazi collaborators and members of the wartime collaborationist Vichy regime. While it is closer to power than at any time since its founding, the two-stage French electoral system remains a significant stumbling block, with most French voters choosing the more moderate options.

— With inputs from agencies