Europe 2014: the rise of the far right

Jade Fell

Arena Politics

The 2014 European Union elections saw an unprecedented number of seats won by right-wing parties, ranging from right-of-centre Euro-sceptics to far-right fascist groups

Farage 2


In the run-up to the European elections, the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) was getting media attention for all the wrong reasons.

Shooting to fame across social media sites, UKIP’s activities were well documented, especially when a candidate was seen to do something inappropriate – which happened only too often. Janice Atkinson, a UKIP candidate who describes herself as the party’s ‘number two’, was photographed swearing at anti-UKIP protesters while campaigning. Another candidate, Demetri Marchessini, was heard to claim that there’s no such thing as marital rape, adding: “If you make love on a Friday and make love on a Sunday, you can’t say Saturday is rape.”

Unimpressed voters across the UK opted to get their own back against the party that had caused so much outrage by posting UKIP campaign leaflets back to the UKIP freepost address. Mail sent by freepost can be sent without a stamp, as the postage cost is picked up by the recipient. As word spread, more and more obscure items were sent through, including bricks and hefty Dostoyevsky novels. One thoughtful voter even sent the hardworking UKIP candidates eight litres of water to make sure they stayed hydrated while campaigning out in the hot sun.

The freepost address was eventually closed down after prohibited items – including human blood and faeces, which Royal Mail deemed to pose a significant health risk to its workers – were sent through. Still, the message was clear: the voters were not happy.

Elsewhere in Europe, other right-wing parties were also attracting media attention. In February an MP for the Greek far-right Golden Dawn party, Michalis Arvanitis, was photographed doing a Nazi salute to greet followers at a party event. Arvanitis claimed that the salute, which was returned by several guests gathered at the event, was one of “honour and victory”, insisting that the salute is an ancient Greek sign and not a Nazi one.

In Hungary, newspapers focused on the fear rippling through the Jewish community from the rising threat of the neo-Nazi Jobbik party. The party itself claims not to be anti-Semitic and suggests that this is a lie spread by the media. However, the facts speak for themselves – in 2012 Marton Gyongyosi, a leader of Hungary’s Jobbik, called for the compilation of a list of all the Jews in Hungarian government because he deemed them to be a security threat. Last year another party member, Krisztina Morvai, wrote that she “would be glad if the so-called proud Hungarian Jews went back to playing with their tiny circumcised dicks instead of vilifying me”.

Fast forward to the day of the European election results, and newspapers and social networks were once again painted purple and yellow with stories of UKIP as the party made history by becoming the first in more than 100 years to beat Labour and the Conservatives at a national election. UKIP won 27.5 per cent of the vote, electing 24 MEPs, with Labour in second place with 25.4 per cent, just ahead of the Conservatives. The Lib Dems lost all but one of their seats and came in sixth place behind the Green Party.

Speaking of the election results, UKIP leader Nigel Farage could barely contain his excitement. “Despite the onslaught we have faced over the last few weeks, as if the whole world was against us, the British public have stood firm, they’ve backed UKIP and we have won a national election. I’m over the moon,” he said. “We will go on next year to the general election with a targeted strategy and I promise you this – you haven’t heard the last of us.”

In fact, despite the hostility that UKIP experienced across the UK in the build-up to the elections, the results were, on the whole, not that surprising. Opinion polls taken prior to the elections suggested that the new European Parliament would see an increase in the seats gained by Euro-sceptic parties. Indeed, UKIP was not the only party from the far-right that saw success in the European Parliament, as other parties from the right side of the spectrum were seen to rise up across Europe. Results were described as a right-wing ‘sweep’ in the media.

In France the neo-fascist Front National, led by Marine Le Pen, finished first with 25 per cent of the vote, causing French President François Hollande to declare the elections an “earthquake”. Following the release of the election results, Hollande, whose French Socialist Party emerged from the ballot with the worst score since European elections were first held in 1979, held an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the party’s dire results.

The Front National has sent 24 MEPs to Strasbourg, representing an eight-fold increase over the last European Parliament. In an interview with French newspaper Le Monde, Le Pen said her party’s success meant a “massive rejection of the European Union” by the French public. “We are witnessing the total rejection of the system,” she said.

Success was also on the cards for Denmark’s far-right Danish People’s Party, which came top in the country’s elections after securing over 26 per cent of the national vote. Perhaps more disconcerting was the emergence of several more or less openly neo-Nazi parties entering the European Parliament for the first time, including Germany’s National Democratic Party and Greece’s Golden Dawn.

Taken together, the success of these far-right, anti-European parties somewhat diminished the lead of Europe’s three traditional mainstream parties. The top party in the European Parliament, German chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right European People’s Party, saw its support drop seven percentage points from the last European elections.

So what caused the sudden trend towards the right in European politics? Is the electorate becoming increasingly Euro-sceptic? Analysts have come up with several possible explanations.

In the UK, the vote for UKIP has undoubtedly been affected by voters’ attitudes towards immigration. Many Brits are critical of the EU’s open borders policy, which has been deemed to be responsible for increased immigration to the UK – when a new country is granted EU membership, citizens from that country are able to live and work freely throughout the union. In practice, this has meant that when Eastern European countries have joined the EU, there has been a wave of migrants relocating to richer nations in search of better employment opportunities. Ten years ago Poland joined the EU, with the then Labour government predicting that 13,000 Poles would come to the UK. However, the 2011 census showed 579,000 Poles to be resident in the UK, 90 per cent of whom have arrived since Poland’s 2004 accession to the EU.

Every week tabloid stories in the UK’s media suggest that parts of Britain are struggling to cope with levels of immigration as increasing pressures are put on government-funded services, such as the National Health Service and schools. High levels of unemployment in some areas of the UK have also spawned ‘they’re taking our jobs’ stories in the Euro-sceptic media.

Following UKIP’s success, and in response to countrywide immigration fears, UKIP leader Nigel Farage has announced that the party would push for the adoption of stricter immigration control methods akin to the Australian points-based system. Under such a system, individuals with criminal records or terminal illnesses would be denied a visa.

But how do we explain the same results across Europe?

Some researchers have suggested that the far-right success stems from the effects of the economic crisis, which many have blamed on the EU and the euro. Where this is the case, the vote is one against national governments considered pro-austerity or else unresponsive to the austerity-dominated European Union.

Professor Florian Schui, author of Austerity: The Great Failure, has attributed the success of the far right to failed austerity measures across Europe. “The failure to resolve this European-wide crisis has given rise to this European-wide reaction that has got people to vote for the far right,” he says.

Parties opposed to austerity regimes imposed by the European Union are among those that saw success in the European elections. In Greece, an anti-austerity coalition led by the left-wing Syriza party received the largest vote share. For Schui, the results of the European elections are, on the whole, not necessarily a bad thing. “If you want to find a positive side to it,” Schui says, “for the first time we have experienced an integrated European debate about a European topic that dominated the European election. I think this has really taken European integration a step forward politically.”

Tim Newark, author of Protest Vote: Britain’s Maverick Politicians, sees the results of the European elections as stemming from an enraged electorate. “In the UK, the UKIP vote is an anti-establishment one, delivered by people who feel left behind by the metropolitan elite,” he says, adding that the same can be said of Europe. “It’s no longer a left or right game, it’s about standing up against the political elite.”

One thing seems certain – the presence of what were formerly thought of as fringe groups within the European Parliament will have an effect on Europe as a whole, although the true extent of this will only be revealed with time. For Schui, the voters’ decision to give presence to these groups could mean the beginning of the unravelling of the European Union. “I think it all depends now on what the EU is going to do, will it switch gear and solve this crisis or not? The unresolved economic crisis which gave rise to the far right has been mishandled by European politicians, and whether we will see more of the far right depends on whether this problem is resolved.”

While the EU is unlikely to completely overhaul its current ideological position, it does have a history of pandering to the wishes of somewhat Euro-sceptic countries, notably with the compromises that had to be made to bring the Maastricht Treaty to fruition (see Europe? But we’re British!). But Tim Newark doesn’t believe that the EU will be particularly accommodating towards member states that want more autonomy. “The EU can’t and won’t change its direction, it’s just not in its DNA! It’s a united states of Europe or bust!” he says.

When asked if he thinks a smaller EU is on the cards, Newark suggests that a lonely future could be in store for Britain: “I can see Britain being boxed into a position by Germany and its allies, so no concessions are made at all to Cameron and his pledge for a repatriation of powers, which could lead Britain to vote to leave the EU.” If Britain leaves the EU, he argues, Germany may feel safer in its position. “Maybe that’s what Germany wants,” he muses. “The free movement of people within the EU will see Britain with a larger population – and possibly richer and more economically dynamic – than Germany by the middle of the century.”

About the author:

Jade Fell is a staff writer on Global: the international briefing


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