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Europe's rightward turn

April 6, 2012

Right-wing political movements seem to be gaining steam in Europe - that's not just due to the financial crisis, experts say. And it's up to Europe as a whole to address this.

Members of of nationalist party "Ataka" wear T-shirts with the words "I don't want to live in a Gypsy country" during a protest in front Bulgarian Presidency building, Sofia, October 2011
Bulgarian right-wing extremists of the Ataka party target gypsiesImage: AP

The ongoing financial crisis is often cited as one reason for a swing toward the right among certain European nations. But experts indicate that there are other political, economic and historical reasons for the trend - which is occurring in prosperous and tolerant European nations as well.

It's also a troublesome trend, some think, that needs to be address on a larger scale.

Rightward swing in prosperous nations

In Scandinavia, effects of the euro crisis can hardly be felt, and illegal immigration is not a big problem. But despite this, right-wing parties are becoming more popular: in Finland the "True Finns" reaped victories in the latest elections.

Dr. Florian Hartleb, research fellow at the Centre for European Studies (CES) in Brussels
Hartleb says nationalism can be rooted in a fear of losing what one hasImage: CES

With the slogan "why should we pay for Portugal," the nationalist party garnered 20 percent of the vote. And in Sweden, the right-wing populist "Sweden Democrats" made it into parliament for the first time in 2010.

Florian Hartleb of the Brussels-based Centre for European Studies (CES) said that middle-class citizens in prosperous countries are afraid of losing their status. Hartleb attributed the trend to what he called "prosperity jingoism," and said that's the reason mostly middle-class people tend to vote right.

But Hartleb also indicated that despite the shooting rampage of right-wing extremist Anders Breivik last summer, the scene has not necessarily grown more violent there.

In Germany, too, right-wing extremists have brought violence to the fore. Last year, officials uncovered a far-right trio, which under the "National Socialist Underground" moniker is believed to have murdered 9 foreigners and a policewoman over the course of a decade.

Geert Wilders being acquitted of hate speech and discrimination charges relating in Amsterdam, June 2011
Right-wing populist Geert Wilders has a distinctly anti-Muslim stanceImage: AP

Hartleb told DW that this group, too, had ties that could be traced back to the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD). The NPD, despite being an officially and legally registered political party in Germany, harbors clearly anti-constitutional intent and can best be described as a right-wing extremist party, Hartleb said.

Regarding recent debate as to whether or not the NPD should be made illegal, Hartleb remains skeptical. He ascribed the persistence of far-right violence in Germany more to structural strength than to powerful right-wing populist parties.

Rightward swing in tolerant societies

In Germany's neighboring countries, a pronounced shift to the right can also be seen. In Belgium, the nationalist and racist Flemish Vlaams Belang or "Flemish Interest" party has for 20 years been among the country's three most successful political parties.

Carsten S. (2nd left) being escorted by police at the Bundesgerichtshof in Karlsruhe February 2012
Questions remain as to whether NPD-functionary Carsten S. was involved with the neo-Nazi cell cellImage: Reuters

And in neighboring Holland, Geert Wilders' right-leaning Freedom Party is the third-strongest, after the Christian Democrat party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and the Labor Party.

"Geert Wilders has invited Dutch people to post on a website what crimes are being committed by Eastern Europeans," Hartleb said. "A sure way to stoke fading fears," he added.

Stefan Seidendorf, who is a historian and director of a German-French institute in Ludwigsburg, thinks it may be the very same liberal tradition in these countries that has led to a strengthened far-right.

Based on his work with a Europe-wide study on right-wing populism, Seidendorf sees as the greatest weakness of the liberal vision within recent years the vision of "a universally defined populace" that "hasn't corresponded to reality."

This becomes apparent in France, Seidendorf pointed out, with the presence of ghettos in the suburbs despite discussion of a universal middle class.

Transition countries also turning right

In Eastern Europe as well, rightist parties are becoming stronger. Many observers see this as a result of modernization and transformation after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Dr. Stefan Seidendorf of the Deutsch-Französisches Institut
Seidendorf said the financial crisis is not unrelated to the rightward swingImage: Deutsch-Französisches Institut

Also in Western Europe after World War II, extremist parties rose on both the left and the right fringes of the party systems, Seidendorf said. "It took a generation to modernize and solidify these party systems," he said.

And despite the differences with Eastern Europe, one could make the same claim there.

Hartleb thinks that 20 years after the fall of Iron Curtain, it no longer makes sense to point to transition as a reason for the strengthening of far-right parties in Eastern Europe.

To back this view, Hartleb pointed to stable democracies in central Europe, such as the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic and Hungary.

Taking a closer look at Hungary, one must consider that current Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a conservative and Euroskeptic, and also that the country's largest political party is the nationalist Jobbik party.

Far-right political parties have also seen success in the Slovak and Czech republics over the past 20 years. And in Poland, right-wing populists have mixed with ultra-Catholic, sometimes anti-Semitic tendencies.

Hartleb emphasized that each country has its own tradition. "It would be wrong to treat all 'former Eastern Bloc countries' the same," Hartleb concluded.

Europe's challenge

Seidendorf thinks the economic crisis isn't completely unrelated to the rightward swing in Europe. So-called "losers" in the modernization process are the ones turning right, he said.

Jobbik demonstrators commemorate the 164th anniversary of the outbreak of the 1848 revolution and war of independence against the Habsburg rule in Budapest, March 2012
Jobbik party demonstrating "for a better Hungary"Image: dapd

And there's another draw, Seidendorf thinks: increased immigration has put pressures on Europe, which lacks a cohesive immigration policy.

When political parties can't provide answers, in Seidendorf's opinion, people will look to extremist movements. He thinks that's the common denominator in countries with increasingly powerful right-wing populist parties.

Hartleb sets the responsibility for dealing with this issue firmly on the European Union. Politics consists of not just management, but also vision, according to Hartleb - the EU needs to be looking to the future.

A view into 2020, for example, "could bring optimism and break down fears," Hartleb concluded.

Author: Daphne Grathwohl / sad
Editor: Simon Bone