Politics & Law

European democracy on the brink?

07 December, 2022

Recent elections in France, Sweden and Italy show far-right political parties making big gains. How far will this trend go and what does the future hold for democracy?   

By Mike Jewell

Credit: Joconde database: entry 000PE005448. Auguste Couder: Opening of the Estates-General in Versailles, 5 May 1789

For a number of years, commentators have been discussing “how Europe is swinging to the right”, and I have always nodded sagely, rubbed my chin pensively, tut-tutted and murmured, “mmm, very worrying!”

Then, as I sat down to pen this article, I started to wonder what “a swing to the right” really means. After all, there are lots of different kinds of right-wing ideologies, going by different names. We have social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, Christian democrats, classical liberals, nationalists, the radical right, the extreme right, fascists, the New Right, the centre right. Then we have right-wing populism, which apparently is a combination of civic-nationalism, cultural-nationalism and sometimes ethno-nationalism, localism, along with anti-elitism…Still with me? Yes, I’m thoroughly confused, too and struggling to link all of this back to today’s Europe and where the continent is headed.

Maybe we should go back to the beginning. The terms “left” and “right” as characterisations of broad political views date back to the French Revolution. In the legislative assembly, liberal deputies generally sat to the left of the presiding officer's chair, while the nobility – monarchists who supported the Old Regime – generally sat to the right. This dividing line between the supporters of the republic and supporters of the monarchy endured throughout the 19th century and the left-right terminology became mainstream and was adopted across the political world.

Societies have changed dramatically, of course, since that time and the monarchist-republican face-off has been consigned to history, with the marginalisation or abolition of Europe’s ruling royalty. Nowadays, the definition of “right wing” varies considerably across societies, and political systems.

Voting behaviour in different countries is influenced by personalities, events, timing, regional issues, party loyalties and electoral systems. All politics is local, but there are common threads, one being the growing influence of so-called far-right political parties. Ironically, given the history of the right wing as favouring the established order, the modern surge seems to be capturing widespread disillusionment with the current system and institutions, although there is also a more familiar rallying cry for the preservation of national identity and rejection of multiculturalism.

Some commentators are calling this “the crisis of democracy”. Despite the impassioned pleas from apologists to defend democracy at all costs, in the view of many voters, democratic politics have sold out to the interests of high finance. The alternation between centre-right and centre-left governments has produced little more than minor variations on an unchanging policy theme that has seemingly rendered democracy powerless in the face of the untouchable large economic and financial corporations and serves only to benefit the richest 1%, while doing nothing for the rest of society. The growing inequalities have created deeply divided and fractured societies.  

The global financial crisis of 2008 and governments’ response did little to restore confidence in the system, with the widespread adoption of neoliberal deficit-control and austerity measures increasing the gap between the privileged elite and the majority of the population and reinforcing divisions within societies.

The far-right parties are continuing to capitalise on the dissatisfaction of those who have been left behind and the complete lack of confidence in what is widely seen as a corrupt, privileged and unrepresentative political establishment, which merely serves its own ends, but is incapable of solving countries’ social and economic problems.

The far right’s attempts to capture the current wave of negative sentiment is generally referred to as “populism” and, in an article in Institut Montaigne, a French think-tank, far-right populists were characterised this way:

“They reject all ruling elites and other political parties, whom they accuse of hijacking democracy. Distrustful of globalisation…they assert the need for strong national sovereignty above all else and emphasise national interests. Their idea of the nation is based on ethnicity and identity, thereby rejecting foreigners and immigrants… Finally, they present themselves as the best possible guarantors of security and authority in the face of delinquency, criminality and a threat of decay.”

The reaction against foreigners and immigrants has been one of the most visible facets of the populist movement across Europe. Immigration is a raw nerve in many countries, as a result of the large-scale movement of peoples into and around Europe in recent years. It has been very easy for the populists to whip up support by playing on people’s irrational fears about the harm and disruption foreigners will cause to their sense of order.

Observers are quick to point out that Europe has not (yet) succumbed to the far right, highlighting the differences between countries and noting that the right-wing tsunami some predicted after the 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US has not materialised.

However, many commentators acknowledge that the current strength of the far right is much more than simply a temporary fad. Contemporary populism has taken root in many European societies, disrupting the foundations of their democracies. Indeed, there are even signs that the far-right movement is actually now embedded in the system, exerting its influence from the inside, rather than throwing bricks from the outside.

One example of this is the approach of rightist populists in the European Parliament, who have somewhat toned down their outspoken criticism of the EU, in favour of influencing EU policy and institutions from within, according to a joint declaration issued in 2020. Their presence within the EU is solidifying, with an increasing number of parliamentary seats. The majority are part of the Identity and Democracy Group (ID), which secured 73 seats in the 2019 elections, up from 36 in the previous parliament. Other right wingers sit in the Conservatives and Reformists Group. As yet, these two blocs are struggling to present a unified policy stance, but their growing numbers at the heart of European institutions reflects their increasing potential to influence Europe’s future. 

A complementary trend is the gradual “normalisation” of the far right, with the apparent convergence of some populist positions and those of traditional centrist conservatives. This has been noted for example in relation to tougher stances on immigration, while established conservatives are less and less likely to seek alliances with their traditional enemies the centre-left, in order to freeze out the far right. Instead, we are seeing more co-operation across the spectrum of right-wing ideologies.

Sweden’s new government is a case in point. Three centre-right parties have come together to form a governing coalition, but still lack a parliamentary majority. They have turned to the far-right Sweden Democrats – who emerged as the largest right-wing party – for additional support, thereby giving the far right direct influence over policy for the first time. Such an outcome would have been unthinkable less than a decade ago when no mainstream party would have anything to do with its leader, Jimmie Åkesson.

Meanwhile, in Italy, Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy are actually heading a government, a remarkable rise to power for a party that was only founded ten years ago, but they still lack an overall majority and have been forced into a coalition with a broad range of right-wing parties.

Elsewhere, in Spain, there is a distinct possibility that the conservative People’s Party will unseat the ruling socialists in forthcoming polls, but without enough votes for an overall majority. That means they may have to come to an agreement with far-right party Vox, whom the PP had previously refused to govern with. However, PP’s new leader has already negotiated a power-sharing agreement with the ultranationalists in one of Spain’s major regions.

The far right does come with baggage, though, as memories of the horrors that fascism visited on Europe before and during World War II still haunt the continent. The various parties have worked hard to distance themselves from links to neo-Nazism. Italy’s Brothers of Italy can trace their roots back to Mussolini but have systematically airbrushed their image. Meloni has recently moderated her anti-EU stance and dismissed some of the party’s more radical members. However, she showed her true colours in a speech to Vox party faithful in Spain in early 2022:

"Yes to the natural family, no to the LGBT lobby, yes to sexual identity, no to gender ideology... no to Islamist violence, yes to secure borders, no to mass migration... no to big international finance... no to the bureaucrats of Brussels!"

The Sweden Democrats have adopted a similar strategy, as has long-term extreme right winger Marine Le Pen in France, toning down her familiar firebrand rhetoric to try to appeal to a wider cross section of disaffected voters. And she met with a fair degree of success in the recent presidential election, gaining 41% of the votes, a significant step forward from her previous results.

In Belgium, the Flemish Interest party firmly rejects the label “extreme right”, denouncing the more extremist positions from the group’s early days and promoting a slightly more moderate political message to make voting for the far right socially acceptable.

Although the far right continues to tap into inherent xenophobia, they now court disillusioned centrists with messages that challenge open-door migration policies, rather than promote outright racism and violence. The “blame-game” approach, implicitly scapegoating foreign communities for societies’ ills, resonates particularly strongly at the moment, as Europe battles record inflation and exorbitant energy bills, and governments gloomily predict a “winter of discontent.” 

According to one observer, “in the current situation, it’s hard to believe in progress, it’s very hard to make progress. So there’s a very pessimistic feeling.”  With public ire firmly directed at the seemingly helpless political establishment, it’s not hard to see why the far right’s simplistic, emotive messaging is finding favour.

Following on from the successes of the Sweden Democrats and the Brothers of Italy, as well as Le Pen’s strong showing in France this year, further gains are projected for the far right, with populists polling well in Bulgaria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Finland and strong bases in The Netherlands, Spain, Austria, Serbia and Slovenia.

What of the UK? Far right parties have been on the scene for decades, but only on the fringes. However, Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) threatened to become as significant a force as many of their counterparts in other countries in the period from 2010-2016. Their popularity peaked in the general election of 2015 when a share of 12.6% of the vote made them the third most popular political party.

Since then, UKIP’s fortunes have been in decline, but no matter. The Conservatives under Boris Johnson have been doing a more than adequate job of promoting a rightist agenda. His messaging during the Brexit referendum campaign was classic far-right dogma, for example promising to cut migration right back, abandoning the EU’s freedom of movement policy and retaking full control over all forms of legislation without “interference” from Brussels, and ultimately restoring “UK sovereignty”. Highly emotive messages, but ones which struck a chord with enough UK voters to make Brexit a reality.

The electorates of Europe, though, should be careful what they wish for. A glance at Hungary, one of only two countries so far to have a majority far-right government (the other being Poland), gives some indication of what a far-right future might look like. Prime minister Viktor Orbán, and his Fidesz party have undercut judicial, academic, minority and media freedoms to the extent that the European Parliament has declared Hungary no longer a democracy. This type of stronger authoritarian rule is straight out of the far right playbook. Poland, too, is facing criticism from the EU over rollbacks of democratic freedoms.

With trust in institutions remaining low in major European countries and the economic and social outlook pretty bleak in times of extreme turbulence, populism’s appeal will likely continue for the foreseeable future. Whether or not its advocates gain more ground or are able to achieve their goals once in power remains to be seen, but their presence is ever more visible and increasingly accepted within the mainstream. And, if Orbán’s Hungary proves to be the template others adopt, then this moment may indeed be the crisis of democracy in Europe.   


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