Politics across Europe are in flux. Traditional political allegiances are breaking down as disaffection with mainstream political parties increases and electorates become progressively more polarised. As part of this process, political ideals and the nature of political debate are changing. The language and ideas associated with more extreme nationalist ideologies – previously contained to the fringes of political debates – are gaining traction, not just on the margins but increasingly also in the political mainstream. With the norms of acceptable language and political conduct shifting, a politics of division and exclusion is becoming increasingly identifiable. This realignment poses a number of challenges to the existing political order, with potential repercussions ranging from the level of local community relations up to Europe’s overarching political order.
Before proceeding further, it is important to highlight a number of factors. Firstly, European politics is deeply varied, and to speak in generalised terms, albeit helpful in tracking overarching trends, belies what is a far more complex political picture. For example, whereas, on the whole, western European countries are typically associated with a more liberal, tolerant political agenda, eastern European countries tend to be more socially conservative, and, in certain cases, contain higher proportions of authoritarian, populist views. Geographic and demographic differences within European counties are also stark.
Secondly, the populist, nationalist political forces that are gaining traction across Europe are deeply varied in nature. While sometimes overlapping, more benign nationalist views should not be equated with their more extremist counterparts. The former tend to be vocalised through apprehensions about unsustainable demand on limited public services and downward pressure on wages as a consequence of large-scale migration, or in a political desire to regain national sovereignty and control over borders. The latter, however, tend to be overtly xenophobic, intolerant forces that are more aggressively oppositional to ‘foreign’ cultures. They also promote more extreme, and sometimes even violent, means of attaining their goals. The tendency to lump them together should be resisted.
Thirdly, while increasingly prevalent, the rise of more extreme nationalist discourses is not a new phenomenon. Political forces are, of course, constantly shifting, and those covered here have roots stretching back far beyond the political events that have dominated the last couple of years. The same logic applies to the future; the rise of such forces is by no means a permanent feature of European politics.
Increasing electoral successes
‘Populist nationalism’, in its varying forms, has been steadily growing as rapid cultural and economic changes brought about by globalisation combine with economic malaise to lead many to feel increasingly disenfranchised and dislocated. Political parties tapping into this discontent have enjoyed increasing electoral successes. In the UK, the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) gained 12.6% of the popular vote in the 2015 General Election; in France, Marine Le Penn – leader of the National Front – is a frontrunner for the Presidential elections later this year; Norbert Hoffman and the Freedom Party narrowly missed out on the Austrian presidency; in Hungary, Victor Orban – now in his second term – leads one of the most right-wing governments seen in Europe for some time; and in Germany, a country where memories of extreme nationalism are at the forefront of the collective national consciousness, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has MPs in nine of Germany’s 16 regional parliaments, while gaining its first national seats is a very real possibility in this year’s federal elections.
Political agendas under transformation
As these previously fringe political elements make increasing electoral inroads, they bring with them an agenda that is transforming European politics and the nature of political debate. Immigration has become the political issue of the day in much of Europe. While, as discussed above, this takes varying forms, the rise of these parties has been accompanied by an agenda, and accompanying rhetoric, more traditionally associated with the radical right and with more extreme forms of nationalism. Proponents often speak of the incompatibility of certain cultures or ethnicities with European/national identities; they single out particular groups as being intrinsically violent, criminal or anti-western; and they use language that seeks to incite fear and hatred, or that dehumanises the ‘other’.
Despite seeking to distance himself and his party from what he would consider more hardline European nationalist groups, Ukip’s former leader Nigel Farage has openly called for the removal of laws preventing discrimination on the basis of nationality or race, defended the use of racist language by party members, and used a poster depicting flows of Syrian refugees as part of his anti-immigration scare tactics. Marine Le Penn – while seeking to soften the party’s toxic image – proposes specifically targeting migratory flows from North Africa as part of an effort to cut immigration by 95%, describes “civil war between communities” as the consequence of a failure to do so, and proposes “one language, one culture” while denouncing “these people whose beliefs, values and practices are not ours, who don’t have a vocation to be in France”. The AfD, which began as a eurosceptic party, has now transformed itself into an explicitly anti-Islam party. It has adopted a policy that bans minarets and the call to prayer, would require all imams to be put through a state vetting procedure, and has a section on its website explaining why it believes “Islam does not belong to Germany”.
Support for ‘popular authoritarianism’
Beyond the electoral successes of these parties, there appears to be an increasing general support for ‘authoritarian populism’ across Europe, denoting attitudes including cynicism over human rights and strong anti-immigration views. Polling by YouGov has shown that significant sections of national populations from right across Europe hold such views. To highlight the extent of this, according to their research, 82% of Romanians, 78% of Poles, 63% of French, 55% of Dutch and 48% of Britons fall into that category. There are, of course, wide national divergences, with the figure in Germany standing at 18% while it is negligible in Lithuania. Despite this, the pervasiveness of such views is an indicator of the current balance of political forces in Europe.
The political mainstream – how to react?
As one would expect, the growth of these forces is generating a reaction from mainstream politicians and parties as they seek to protect their own positions. While the reaction is far from uniform, in some cases this seen leaders utilising similar language or styles. Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, employed the term “swarm” – associated with a grouping of insects – when speaking about migrants. In other cases, policies more typical of the radical right have been proposed or even adopted. Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference, Amber Rudd, UK Home Secretary, suggested companies could be forced to publish the number of “international” staff they hire, and that businesses could be “named and shamed” for not employing ‘enough’ British workers.
While there is clearly a significant difference between such language/policies and the more extreme stances outlined above, it does show the shifting nature of norms of acceptable political language and conduct. Populist, nationalist and, in some cases, intolerant stances are becoming more present in mainstream politics, not just due to the presence of previously fringe political parties, but in the language and policies of mainstream politicians. Whereas previously more extreme viewpoints were vehemently resisted, the same cannot be said in the current political climate.
These political shifts are already having important consequences across a variety of different levels. Beyond the UK’s vote to leave the EU and the comprehensive changes this involves, the very survival of the European political project is increasingly unclear, especially given a series of national elections in 2017 that could spur further disintegration. Schengen – the EU’s passportless travel arrangement – looks increasingly under threat, while there are also growing calls to curb the freedom of European persons to reside and work in any member country, a core tenet of the EU’s Single Market. The openness of European countries to refugee flows is also likely to be further tested, especially in the light of recent terror attacks. Meanwhile, community relations are undergoing a difficult period, with the recorded incidences of hate crime rising and minority groups across Europe increasingly voicing concerns over the protection of their rights.
To conclude, political agendas, norms and values across Europe are undergoing a period of transformation. As part of this, ideas and language typically associated with more extreme forms of nationalism are gaining increasing traction, either with the support of increasingly powerful ‘fringe’ political groupings or as traditional parties seek to react to changing political cleavages. The consequences could be profound.