Europe swings right
With far-right parties making big gains and set for further advance in EU elections in 2024, Kevin Bean asks how the left should respond
Saturday’s general election in Slovakia has produced the now expected headlines across Europe about the continued rise of the ‘populist right’. Robert Fico’s SMER-SSD party secured 23.3% of the poll to become the largest bloc in the Národná Rada (national council). Although we can now expect to see a period of negotiation and coalition-building involving SMER-SSD and a number of smaller rightwing parties, it is likely that a new government headed by Fico will take office in the next few weeks.
Slovakia’s elections attracted more attention than usual because of the war in Ukraine and current tensions within the European Union: it has been argued that Fico’s alleged ‘pro-Russian’ position and statements that he would not send military aid to Ukraine could weaken EU solidarity with Ukraine. Taken together with his rhetoric on migration and sympathies for the ‘illiberal democracy’ of his Hungarian neighbour, Viktor Orbán, Fico’s victory appears to further undermine the EU’s fragile ‘unity’ and add another member to the awkward squad that includes Orbán and the Law and Justice regime in Poland.
It remains to be seen how far any government led by Fico will follow up on the rhetoric and what the impact of his promised withdrawal of military aid for Ukraine will actually be in practice. Slovakia is hardly a major source of such aid, but politically the outcome might be more significant - although not in the ways that taking at face value Fico’s campaign promises and populist national conservative rhetoric might suggest. If he follows the pattern laid down by his fellow ‘awkward’ squad members in Hungary and Poland, his government can expect to have a few run-ins at EU summits on migration policy, ‘human rights’ and the bloc’s approach to Ukraine, but will these clashes amount to the promised ‘existential’ crises that could threaten the very existence of the EU?
The more alarmist headlines about the rise of ‘Europe’s hard right’ certainly suggest that many commentators in the bourgeois media and amongst the political class believe that they do. The picture that is painted is of the inexorable rise of the populist right across Europe and the impact of its politics far beyond the margins of society.
Although the war in Ukraine gives the position of Slovakia, Hungary and Poland a certain geo-political importance, the emergence of populist and national conservative parties and movements is now an established pattern across the continent. Whether it is the appointment of Giorgia Meloni of the Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) as Italian prime minister in 2022, the strong polling for the Alternative für Deutschland and its potential breakthrough in regional elections later this year or the challenge posed by far-right candidates, such as Marine Le Pen, in the next French presidential elections in 2027, the evidence shows that Europe is clearly shifting to the right. As Meloni put it in a recent speech to the Budapest Demography conference, next year’s European parliament elections will show up the fundamental fault lines and reveal the real strength of the parties who “defend tradition and the family”.1
Although these various movements have their specific characteristics and are a product of the particular political dynamics within individual states - the Sweden Democrats have explicitly Nazi origins, and the FdI is rooted in the post-war Italian fascist tradition, while SMER-SSD originated from the post-Soviet Democratic Left - we can see common themes and elements in their populist, national-conservative positions. Usually framed as defence of traditional values rooted in Christianity and the established moral order, combined with essentialist ideas of the nation, this national conservatism explicitly identifies itself in opposition to those elites and globalists, who would undermine these traditions. Thus, Orbán makes George Soros a particular target and a symbol of the powerful, who seek to undermine the Hungarian nation, while Meloni sees NGOs and feminists as destroying the fabric of society by their assaults on marriage and the nuclear family.
The centrality of the family to the health and future survival of the nation was very much on display at the Budapest Demography conference, where these themes were linked to migration policy and the stoking of fears about the ‘great replacement’. However, lest we think that these rather distasteful hints of ‘blood and soil’ and conspiracy theories are confined to dubious continentals, take a closer look at ‘new conservatives’ on the Tory Party conference fringe, with their calls for British families to have more children to obviate the need for migrant workers. Similarly, the fears expressed in Suella Braverman’s warnings of a “hurricane” of migrants coming to Britain would sit very easily in a speech by Meloni or Orban.2 Moreover, the essence of Braverman’s remarks would not be out of place in, say, the policy pronouncements of Josep Borell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, who described the world outside Europe as “a jungle that could invade the garden”; or in EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s recent ‘convergence’ with Meloni on the need for a European response to the ‘problem of migration’.3
These examples show the wider impact that these new populist parties have had in pulling mainstream bourgeois conservative parties to the right. Rhetorical strands and policy initiatives that were once confined to the political fringes now surface in the legislative programme of major European states and in the conference speeches and electoral campaigning of governing parties. That British Conservatives should draw upon this type of politics should come as no surprise: the Tories in their various incarnations since the late 17th century have never been loath to stir up chauvinism and prejudice for political or electoral advantage - whether it be ‘Church and King’ mobs of the 18th century or opposition to ‘alien migration’ at the beginning of the 20th.
Typical of a process going on throughout Europe - the blurring of the lines between ‘respectable’ bourgeois politics and the previously unacceptable far right - is Germany. This ‘crumbling of the firewall against the extreme right’ has meant that the Christian Democrats (CDU) and their sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have flirted with AfD positions and some CDU/CSU leaders have strongly hinted that they might be open to forms of cooperation with the AfD in regional parliaments and local councils. The arguments put forward by bourgeois parties in Germany and elsewhere are that ‘mainstream politicians’ have to address the concerns of the electorate and that if the right and their voters are put beyond the pale, they will only become more alienated and more extreme. Engagement and incorporation rather than ostracism and dismissal seems to be the core of this electoral strategy.
The growth of support for rightwing politics, whether in Germany, France or Italy, is not simply a product of alienation from the capitalist status quo and the inability of the mainstream parties to offer anything to the working class and wide sections of the petty bourgeoisie.
For the capitalist parties it is indeed a serious crisis of their system, and the politics and ideologies that uphold it. But is also a crisis for the left and working class movement as well - perhaps even more so, since we should offer the real alternative to capitalism and bourgeois politics. The rise of the right is our failure too, remember. However, in countering this swing to the right we should also remember that opportunism in Germany - and elsewhere for that matter - is not confined to capitalist parties fishing for votes or attempting to head off any challenges to the political status quo.
While the mainstream parties are being drawn to the right, the working class movement and the genuine left need to stand against similar ‘strategies’ currently being advocated that would draw us in that direction too. The former leading member of Die Linke in Germany, Sahra Wagenknecht, and her Aufstehen initiative (which could be launched as a party this autumn) have clearly made concessions to the politics of the right. In trying to create what she describes as a ‘left’ alternative that can appeal to AfD supporters, she is merely producing a red-brown lash-up.4
Such a political abortion has disastrous historical precedents and represents nothing but the deadest of dead ends. Making political concessions to the right is an utterly hopeless way of countering the swing to the right - something the German and international left should reject out of hand.